What could ever take the place of skateboarding? A well-landed 180 heelflip down a staircase, a noseblunt slide, a melancholy off a kicker or eating concrete: these esoteric terms could only hatch from a sport that is lived, not played. Years after living the shoptalk of skating, I found a new lexicon, winsome words that included slopers, pinches, flashes, crimps, flappers, highballs, problems, mantels and beta.
I started to skate when I was 8 years old. My first board was a plastic banana, soon replaced with a Max Headroom department-store special, at least made out of wood. I spent summers skating at the newest spots, panhandling for soda money, and lying around dehydrated after getting demolished by a session in the midday sun. Fall always came too soon, and we survived the winter by ollieing in the basement, scanning skateboarding magazines and highlighting the decks, wheels and trucks that would help us skate better next summer.
After getting married in 1998, I spent less time on the board, and, now that I was out of my teens, took more time to heal after slamming onto the asphalt or landing precisely on my groin going down a rail. I began to look for a new outlet. I tried running, biking and freestyle walking—now there was a trend waiting to be retired. None of these sports had the tricks or the technique that I sought to replace.
My sister’s boyfriend—a guy I had skated with once or twice—had just gotten into climbing, more specifically bouldering. He started explaining it to me one day, showed me his shoes, chalk and tape, and I was hooked before I even touched a hold.
The Rampage video had just been released, and we watched it more than once that weekend. I wanted in, even more.
I drove home, two hours away, and immediately began my quest for the sort of boulders I had gawked at in Rampage. I wanted to send like Sharma. It was winter in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, too cold and snowy to climb, so instead I simply searched for rock. The leafless trees and fluorescent snow made it easy to spot. Right on my road I found bluffs and patches of rock. I waded through the thigh-deep snow and checked it out. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, just that I wanted overhung boulders.
Within the month I ordered holds from Nicros, and started constructing a bouldering wall. Lacking the patience to wait for delivery, I found stones and mortared them to the foundation walls of my basement. I now had a traverse that would randomly release holds and leave me lying on my concrete floor.
In the meantime the Nicros holds arrived, along with climbing shoes and chalk. I got busy using a hammer-drill for holes, and then stabbed concrete anchors into the foundation of our rented house to add to my bricolage wall. I now had holds that would not pop off, and could be moved. I bought colored tape, and named and graded routes. After intense training sessions I emerged upstairs to bore my wife with tales of epic basement traverses.
Spring finally came. I had found some decent climbing spots, but they required a lot of hiking, cleaning and sneaking.
I spread the word to all my buds. A friend from Minnesota came to visit one day, and I couldn’t wait to show him around and have a spotter. I knew he would love bouldering because of his obsession with pull-ups. I took him down the road to my local crag—I use the word loosely—where I had cleaned off an overhanging boulder and had established a few decently hard routes, at least in my mind.
It was private land, so I had been biking to a certain spot and sneaking in. Since I had company I figured we would take the car and park it down the road. This turned out to be our first mistake. I sent a couple problems, we both cracked a beer, and the landowner’s son showed up.
Here we were with two old sleeping mats as makeshift crash pads, staring at a rock.
“What are you guys doing?” the mustached man asked, eyeing the pads.
“We’re just climbing this rock,” I said as if it should have been obvious.
He gave the 10-foot boulder an up and down and said, “This is private land. You can’t be out here drinking beer and playing on these rocks.”
In skateboarding, getting kicked out is part of the game, so I felt right at home with this session. “Do you own it?” I asked.
“No, but my dad does.”
“Well, I’ll ask him if we can use his rocks,” I said.
“He doesn’t want you out here,” he answered.
We decided to give him a break. We packed up our mats, beer and chalk and called it a day.
Later I did go ask the landowner if I could use his rocks, and he seemed confused and said no. After I pestered him a couple more times he said I could, as long as I parked my car at his house so he knew when I was out there. We actually became pretty good friends, and he would send me off each time with, “Make sure you don’t break any of my rocks.”
I would sweat in the basement training for when I could get on something harder than a V3 or V4.I passed many Saturday mornings driving my old VW Golf, listening to NPR and searching for stone. I would head down old logging roads chasing after a bluff I had spotted between trees. Usually, after trudging through brush and mosquitoes I would find chossy stone or slabs. I wasn’t searching for V0. When I did find problems worth climbing, I would be on the phone to my now brother-in-law describing the landing, difficulty and hold types.
“You’re going to have to visit because I definitely need a spotter for this one,” I’d say.
And he would. He was just as obsessed with climbing as I was, even a notch more. When he visited we would add on to my wall, hit the campus board and have push-up fests at night, and then go searching for boulders by day. We would head out early, with a thermos of coffee, wire brushes and lunch, because we were in it for the day.
I would sweat in the basement training for when I could get on something harder than a V3 or V4. We planned and took climbing trips to different Midwest hotspots such as Devil’s Lake, Rib Mountain, High Cliff State Park and Governor Dodge State Park, finding problems and projects to do or daydream about.
Living where I did, climbing mostly in isolation, I wondered aloud at one point if I could consider myself an avid climber.
My wife promptly said, “Yeah, you drive me crazy with it.”
Still, she supported the climbing, often going on these climbing trips, including the big one to Boone, North Carolina, to climb at Blowing Rock, Grandmother Mountain and Lost Cove. She spent a lot of time following us through the woods playing her Nintendo DS and listening to rock talk.
As a skateboarder, you talk shop to anyone and everyone, whether they want to hear it or not. The same goes for climbing. When no other climbers were around to share stories with, my wife, friends and workmates ended up bearing the brunt.
Finally, after four years of being the only climber in town, I got one of my local friends into climbing, and we started training weekly through the winter. It helped to have someone pushing me for one more round on the campus board. Just like with skateboarding, winter was always on its way, which meant hours of videos, training and planning for the next warm-weather boulder search. My brother-in-law, the one who got me started, also helped keep me motivated through the winter. We would drive the two hours to each others’ houses for a weekend focused on climbing and training. We climbed at the same level, pushed each other, and when we thought there was nothing left, reminded each other that we needed to earn our beer.
My sister, who had also gotten into climbing, asked me one day, “So, what do you like better? Skating or climbing?”
I really didn’t want to answer. If I said climbing, that would mean that the outlet that had never let me down—skating—had taken a back seat. But if I answered skating, was I really focused on climbing?
After letting the thought roil around in my head, I ended up saying, “Right now, climbing.”
But now—13 years after those basement climbs—I’m in Nicaragua doing volunteer work, and honestly I’ve become a stranger to the rock. The stone is here, it just needs to be found. So again I search, noticing every boulder.
I wait and rely on that Midwest mindset. Every week includes pull-ups, push-ups and core work. My relationship to climbing now is like that in those long winters, waiting and training to be ready.
Thinking back to my sister’s question, I realize it has been answered. I brought my climbing shoes and chalk, but no skateboard.
Clint Cherepa is living in Esteli, Nicaragua, with his wife through next spring.