"I can’t believe I’m having this conversation!” I said, surprising myself by saying it out loud.
I was bickering with Dave Graham about who is the bigger punter. “Punting,” the act of absolutely blowing it on a route for no apparent reason whatsoever, happens to everyone … except Dave Graham. Or so I thought.
“You don’t understand,” Dave snapped, his hand moving around and sloshing wine up the side of his glass like a tiny red tide. “I punt all the time. Everybody punts, but you never hear about it because you don’t write articles about it.”
I sort of felt like that’s the only thing I write about, but whatever. When Dave is verbalizing an idea, it’s like a shark smelling blood. Nothing in the world can stop him from tearing at the meat till the raw flesh satiates him—at which point the world experiences momentary peace. We weren’t there yet.
Then, mutant shithead Daniel Woods chimed in.
“Yeah, Dave, there’s no way you punt more than Andrew.”
Thanks a lot, Daniel.
“Listen, that’s beside the point,” Dave said. “Punting is an important part of climbing, but it’s hardly ever discussed. People don’t know how badly I punt. Look at what happened on Living in Fear. I should’ve flashed it, but I DIDN’T! Daniel gave me terrible, terrible beta! There’s this gaston out to the right that Daniel told me to use, and I did. I didn’t use the undercling—the obvious goddamn undercling! Never use Daniel’s beta—he’s too strong to have good beta! And I threw out left to a tick mark. It was a bad tick mark that went too far. So I went too far left, and hit the worst sloper ever, and as I was scraping away from the wall, I felt the jug that the tickmark was supposed to point to! I’m always getting fucked by bad tick marks! Do you hear me? And, do you know what happened? I PUNTED!”
The more I hang out with Dave, the more convinced I am that he just might be a genius. His brain is a multifarious system of tunnels, where thoughts travel faster than words can be spoken, and frequently take half-relevant divergences that, most impressively, lead back to the original subject matter. If only there was a way to harness or at least tame these unbridled thoughts.
Our debate on punting led Dave into sharing his idea for a great climbing movie. It would take place in a post-apocalyptic world, where he, Joe Kinder and Daniel Woods would find themselves bouldering in South America. They would all be sad because their girlfriends had been fried in the nuclear flash, but they would also be psyched because the bouldering would be so amazing. The main thing Dave was concerned about was figuring out how to tear everyone’s Verve clothing properly to appear realistic for an apocalypse survivor.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I said, this time to myself. Well, at least Dave’s original point was on track. Punting may be the most common, least acknowledged part of the entire climbing experience.
Ah, punting. This isn’t merely a matter of a carabiner being hard to clip, or a shoe not working well on a smear. This is a natural instinct, an exasperating trait hardwired into each and every one of our brains that causes us to destruct. I’d even go as far as saying that we seek it out.
I find this impulse to self-destruct at the worst possible moment massively fascinating. It’s as if God built us with planned obsolescence, no different than that fucking blender I bought from Target that burned out after just one dozen pineapple margaritas. Unlike blenders, we don’t come with a good return policy. Self-destruction, and its parallel climbing epithet, punting, have been some of the most powerful forces in my life. I used to think of them as my own special demon-gods that preside over only my twisted world, but if even Dave Graham punts, maybe there is something larger here worth considering.
Over some hand-stirred margaritas, I reflected on past experiences and came up with three reflections—core observations—about what it means to be a Punter.
PUNTING HAPPENS ON ROUTES THAT ARE MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU
I spent all of 2008 sport climbing, because unlike most people, I am not a liar. I would rather perpetually suck on harder routes than tell myself that onsighting easier climbs below my abilities is helping me grow as a climber when it’s obvious the only thing growing is a sorely misplaced and annoyingly righteous ego.
If you do it right, getting better at sport climbing means that most of the time you fail. When you spend most of your time failing, the desire to feel successful takes on exaggerated proportions. This may explain the phenomenon of super-sized Freedom Fries and the queue of runners-up in line to stuff their faces with hot tasty victory.
The corollary to self-destructing on routes is that it makes me a punter. Like a suicide bomber with a frivolous cause, I feel like a little man who blows apart for seemingly no reason other than I’ve surpassed all of the hard climbing. These painful memories of holds suddenly disappearing from under my hands and shooting up into the sky as I peel back into the void remain as vivid today as they were frustrating yesterday.
It’s worse when your friends see it happen. This twofer compounds your personal pity with a feeling of letting others down. Last year I made it past the upper crux on my project, and was shaking out on a perfectly good jug, when I felt the onset of the Terminal Pump, the point of fatigue from which not even Jesus can resurrect.
For some eternity of moments, I just held on, unable to take either hand off to shake, unable to move anything at all, as if imprisoned by a dull paralysis. Mental resignation led to melting off the wall.
At the end of the fall, I turned to see all my friends with jaws agape. It was Joe Kinder, however, who had the most memorable expression.
“You punted!” he yelled. “Unbelievable!” He shook his head and paced around, walking his anger off. I had to turn away lest anyone see the tears of woe.
PUNTING LEADS TO BAD BEHAVIOR
Then there was the shrill experience of first trying to climb the Black Dike, the famous NEI 4+ ice route on Cannon Cliff. In New Hampshire, climbing the Black Dike is a rite of passage into the world of ice climbing because a young John Bouchard hero-soloed the first ascent back in the early 1970s.
The approach to Cannon forges up a large and loose talus field, the remnant tears of a sad face that’s perpetually exfoliating. My partner was my good friend Dave Kaufman, a Jewish hippie from Wisconsin who loves Phish, cheese and feeling guilty about loving those first two things. On the talus field, we met two aberrant climbers also gunning for the Dike.
One was Dr. Geoffrey Tabin, the renowned ophthalmologist whose humanitarian work with the Himalayan Cataract Project annually restores sight to thousands of people across the high plains of Asia.
The other climber simply went by the name “Danger,” and he was an underwater demolition technician, which is one of the most treacherous (and therefore lucrative) jobs around. Risk and reward are two sides of the same coin in all pursuits except ice climbing.
As Dave and I were punters who had never climbed the Black Dike before, Danger and Dr. Geoff were given first honors. They blasted up like a salvo, and were on the second pitch before we had even flaked the rope.
There’s a good reason Freedom of the Hills tells you not to climb beneath other parties, a rule particularly germane in winter. We also know not to drive 100 miles per hour, or combine whiskey with prescription medication, but who heeds such tedious advice? Perhaps a more refined sense of intuition would have told me to abandon ship, but instead I slowly picked up the first pitch, a completely unprotected ice slab, reached the anchor and put Dave on belay.
Just as Dave neared me, a devastating rumble suggested that the fabric of our world was coming apart. The belay perch shrank to the size of a quarter. I crushed my eyes closed as walls of ice crashed down around me.
I opened my eyes expecting to see my partner pummeled to pulp, but there was Dave, a squirrelly little hippie on his least-paranoid days, looking up at me with the whites of his eyes. The chaos had subsided everywhere but in our guts.
“Ice!” someone now yelled. Dr. Geoff and Danger had brought down the entire third pitch.
“Can we go down?” Dave asked.
I conceded that he might be on to something rational here, so I lowered Dave to the base. I then did two raps to get myself down, one of them off a paper-thin knifeblade, which I wedged into a crack ferreted out of the snow.
Bounding down the talus, I thought about John Bouchard—how he had succeeded over 30 years ago despite all odds. He topped out without a headlamp, in total darkness and in a storm. He had even lost one of his mittens during the ascent. Like a cup of rice, failure expands and grows heavier in your belly as time passes, only the hunger persists.
I resented the clear disparity between Bouchard and myself.
“I’m sorry we didn’t get up the climb,” Dave said. “I know you really wanted to do it.”
“It’s cool,” I said, convinced that what I was saying was true. One of the earliest things I learned in life was self-preservation through entering a catatonic state when life falls from your control.
That night Dave and I hung out with some other climbers at a new flat I had just moved into. Somehow, while listening to Rob Frost and Mark Synnott tell funny stories about hanging out with Alex Lowe, I drank myself into a gin-fueled oblivion that caused me to break all of our wine glasses in the sink and take violent swings at Dave’s head with a snow shovel.
I found out later that Dave confided in a mutual friend that he was “worried about me.” He shouldn’t have been. Punting often leads to this type of delinquency. This brings me to my third observation.
IN THE END, PUNTING MAKES US BETTER
The most monumental punting experience I’ve had was in Mallorca, when I fell deep-water soloing near the top of a 50-foot wall. Perhaps it was because the consequence of punting was so severe that this memory stands out. Or maybe it was the extent of my weaknesses as a rock climber that deep-water soloing revealed. Nothing was muddied about the moment. I punted. I paid the consequences. Everything was simple and loose.
Though I still punt, I no longer drink gin with the aforementioned abandon. Well, it would be more honest to say that the impulse to raze down something within hasn’t risen as strongly as it did so many years ago. Perhaps this is reason to be hopeful.
Or perhaps it’s indicative of how my opinion on punting has changed. Surprisingly, it’s grown more reverent. Destruction and creation complement each other, depend on each other and initiate each other. There is no room to experience the present moment unless the past one is destroyed and replaced.
What in life isn’t subject to this cruel transformative cycle? A seed must be broken down—its energy changed and converted—to grow into a plant. Forests must burn for life to continue. The stronger we are, the more things we can climb. Ultimately this means more opportunity to express our creativity. To get stronger, we train by breaking down and destroying muscle tissue, resting and letting it grow.
Punting, this seemingly inexplicable impulse to fail, is a mental chrysalis we use to achieve the next level as climbers. Is this too trite and easy an explanation for such a grand and impenetrable phenomenon? I don’t think so.
It’s one of the reasons I think hard sport climbing has so much to offer. Alpinism—where failure and punting are all but guaranteed—is the same. Onsighting easier climbs, never pushing yourself on lead, trade routes, making up contrived link-ups—that’s all good fun, but those things are havens from punting … and vacuums of growth.
Of course, we brush these lessons aside the moment we achieve success. And the myth that we are not punters lives on until the next time we start climbing up a wall despite the fact that Danger is above us.
Andrew Bisharat self-destructs when he feels too fit.