It has been a few fortnights since Tuesday Night Bouldering has actually been about bouldering, and even longer since I myself have gone practice climbing. This is sad, like American states not being united, or the Black Canyon not being “of the Gunnison.”
I vowed to change that this summer, out of some queer fidelity to my column’s name, not to mention my newfound aversion to going anywhere near Rifle in the dead of summer, when it’s too hot to send elite sport routes with elite redpoint grades. In other words, too hot to make others feel inferior. In other words, too hot to have any fun.
So I headed for the high hills, to the venerable Mount Evans, lured by the promise of prime alpine conditions and steep granite blocks.
We reached the parking area, beside the cold waters of an old glacial lake that draws a doomed spectacle of miserable humans who waddle around the trampled pine-needle floor with fishing rods and Coleman coolers and other accessories that help our rather indisposed species “recreate.”
The hike from here to the boulder field is one hour—not a minute more or less. Jen and I strapped crash pads to our backs and began the awkward march into the thicket of ponderosa.
People who don’t climb don’t know what crash pads are. They see what appears to be a giant square backpack, and their mouths twist into ugly knots and their eyes bulge out of their skulls in the same way that their eyes would had they accidentally sat upon their own faces.
That’s fine. Every good American is entitled to be ignorant about something. For example, I don’t know why people think infants are cute. Many babies possess the shrunken heads of a fierce and brutal pygmy tribe. But while I think fussing over babies is Stranger than Camus, most people see my crash pad and assume I’m the one who has a “problem,” not realizing that problems are what I climb, not have.
To give you an idea of what I mean by “most people,” here are some stats: Two-thirds of the people you pass on the trail don’t care, or rather they don’t say anything. They just let the freaks with the foam backpacks go by without harassment. One-third of the human pie, however, must say something. And 100 percent of what they must say is dumb.
These are unscientific numbers, of course, based on loose observations and a handful of extreme prejudices that I hold dear. Nevertheless I feel confident that these numbers are accurate and that I am right.
As a working editor for the only climbing magazine owned by people who actually go climbing, I instinctively felt obligated to be a good ambassador for the sport. So I took the time to answer each layperson’s question about what, exactly, it was that I was carrying on my back.
“This is called a ‘crash pad,’” I would say through the forced, polite grin that I’ve perfected from five years of trade shows. “You lay this pad down on the ground beneath the boulder that you want to climb. That way, if you fall, there’s a nice soft landing to crash into.”
I really spelled it out for them: this pad here + the word crash = crash pad.
If I spotted a glimmer of interest, I’d tell them to donate money to the Access Fund and to seek proper instruction by patronizing their local AMGA-certified guide service. Then I’d slap them on the backs and remind them that Allah loves them.
Bless their curiosity, but the more people I interacted with, the more I realized their inquisitiveness revealed something about their own threadbare souls.
Gear-heads saw the bouldering pad and, while they had no clue what it was for, they knew that they wanted one. These gadget junkies, always “large-brained” men, couldn’t resist the urge to feign expertise before their “small-brained” counterparts, the women.
“See that?” said one deep-voice mustache face in khaki convertibles to his pudgy polypro broad. “That’s a ‘camping bed.’ There’s a sleeping bag built into it, and when you fold it open, it becomes a tent. They’re made in Japan, which is why they’re so small. Excuse me, how many ounces is your camping bed?”
Dumb, to be sure, but ignorance can breed creativity on occasion. Other people mistook the crash pad to be the following items: a raft, a massage table, a cooler, a slide, a parachute, something for gymnastics (close), and a whale’s vagina.
Then there were the people who knew that the crash pad was for rock climbing. Possessing that morsel of knowledge instilled these people with a powerful, unshakeable compulsion to let you know that they know that crash pads are used for “climbing.” Their questions ranged from the annoyingly banal—“Going for a climb?”—to the wildly uninhibited dumbshit, “So, did you make it to the top?” as they pointed to the 500-foot granite slab towering above the Mount Evans boulders.
I tried my best, I really did, to be a good representative, but my darker half and short Arab temper got the better of me after an impressive (for me) 15 minutes of smiling kindly and eating my shorts for everyone’s amusement. I was having to stop every two seconds to explain that I wasn’t carrying a camping bed for nappy time, or that crash pads aren’t really used when climbing 500-foot walls.
I dealt, of course … first by telling people that my crash pad was actually a sex mat. I would say, “This is a sex mat for woodland erotica.” I’d wink and point my thumb at Jen. Then I would say, “Just kidding.” The confused person would laugh uneasily. Then we would stare at each other in uncomfortable silence. And then they would stop asking me about my crash pad.
Eventually, things became more confrontational. One man said, “There are a thousand of you guys out here today!”
My first thought was, I freakin’ hope not!
Instead, I said, “Yeah, well, there are about two thousand of you guys out here today!”
“Huh?” he said. I had snatched his logic carpet out from under him. The idea that he—not me—was the odd one, reversed his blood flow and destroyed his mind.
“Yeah, that’s right,” I said, not letting up. “You guys. What are you doing out here anyway? I mean, seriously, what are you doing?”
“We-e-ll,” he stammered, “we’re hiking.”
“Like, you just walk around in the woods? And that’s it?” I said, feigning great disbelief.
“Yeah, you know. Hiking,” he said.
“Huh,” I said. “You hear that, Jen? These people come out here and they just walk. Isn’t that wild? Isn’t that just nuts?”
And I probably would’ve won that round, too, if this guy hadn’t been a total ninja. Instead, he pulled out his samurai sword—fa-ching!—and sliced me open with the most perfect comeback of all time.
“Knock knock,” he said.
“What?” I said.
“Knock knock,” he said again.
“Who’s there?” I said, awash in resigned waves of dread.
“Go fuck yourself,” he said.
I looked at him and laughed uneasily. Then he said, “Just kidding.” Then we stood in awkward silence. Then we left. The playing field had been leveled. He went hiking, and I went bouldering, each act completely neutralized by our own smug egos.
Since that day, I’ve passed the witching hours of many steamy summer nights, when it’s too hot to sleep, lying on the carpet of my claustrophobic studio and thinking, rum. I’ve also wondered what to make of my recent encounters at Mount Evans.
I’ve told this story to my friends, invariably all climbers. I hear from them that Rocky Mountain National Park is worse. They say that the Park is Mount Evans times 1,000. How big is that? Nobody knows. The number is too large for anyone to calculate its terrible sum.
My friends have had dead-ringer experiences to mine at Mount Evans (and elsewhere). Time passes beautifully as we spin our own exaggerated tales, and share our own perverted beta for what is the best thing to say to the hiking ignoramuses who so greatly affront us by turning our precious crash pads into half-rendered objects of their own demented fixations. Then, we laugh.
In the sweltering night, in a gentle swell of mental clarity brought on by my beloved Venezuelan rum, I’ve realized what it is that bothers me about this joke, and it’s just that. This is a lame gag that, as climbers, we instinctively find funny without necessarily realizing that we are far less righteous than we’d like to think.
Crash pads are bulky, weird objects. How stupid is it, really, that hikers are dumbfounded by the spectacle of dozens of people wandering the woods with huge pads on their backs? It is actually quite reasonable.
Making fun of people for their fascination with our elephantine accessory makes me feel a little bit like Paris Hilton complaining to her vapid clique about the big stir caused by dressing her accessory dog, a pitiable pet Chihuahua named Tinkerbell, in a proprietary line of designer dresses and jeans.
At the same time, it’s frustrating to feel obligated to kowtow to ignorance (no matter how justifiable) out of a fear of being dubbed an “elitist.” Just because I think it’s funny, dumb and annoying that people freak out when they see my crash pad doesn’t necessarily mean that I think I’m better than they are. But it demands incredible patience to educate a single person, not to mention a thousand of them. It would be unrealistic to take that sort of time, and saintly not to find their incessant questions at least a little grating.
I know this, yet condemning these people to be the butts of every climber’s joke still makes me a bit uncomfortable. Why?
Elitism is a dirty word in our culture—the climbing one and the American one. As Americans, we’ve been told our whole lives that we can do and become whatever we want. Elitists unintentionally (and sometimes intentionally) remind us that we can’t. This pisses us off; hence, elitism is un-American. People don’t want to be reminded that they are stupid or weak—especially those who really are.
In climbing, elitism often means espousing one style over the other, or chopping someone else’s bolts in order to inflate your own ego, or soloing. Rarely do boulderers get to be “elitists” in the climbing world—they have to drop down a notch to the hiking tier to get that dirty fix. This shows how hollow the word elitist really is, but also how incredibly layered our societies and cultures are by talent, intelligence, health, interest, perversion, skin color, sexuality and economic standing. In some cases, the layers are deserved and reasonable, while other times they are unjust and wrong.
Bouldering is admittedly inconsequential, frivolous and vain. So is hiking. Does the presence of a piece of climbing gear, even a bouldering pad, somehow place a person at a higher, more “elite” level? I think it does. And that’s what bothers me.
Stay tuned for next issue’s TNB, when The Bouldering Life saga continues with the author reaching the blocks and meeting, quite possibly, the most obnoxious climber in the world.
Photo of burning fist courtesy www.bigstockphoto.com