Snow blew in through the window of my red station wagon. Inside was a nuclear meltdown: sweat soaked my cotton shirt, and my palms wet the steering wheel. I drove 13 hours before deciding that Boulder was in the wrong direction. I had planned to devote myself to three months of writing and climbing, to buckle down and make my dreams a reality. I was also headed to a future with no money, no place to live, and an intense feeling that I had been living this lifestyle for too long.
Moving to Berkeley, back to California, meant that while I searched for a career I would have to stay in the city and away from the walls. Adjusting from the dirtbag lifestyle to a normal one involved trading real rock for the unknown of plastic. Still, I approached the climbing gym with confidence. I was a seasoned veteran with ascents of El Cap in a day, onsight free solos of 5.11, sends of scary trad climbs and pumpy sport routes. How hard could gym climbing really be?
John Schmid nudged me toward the front desk of a Bay Area climbing gym. Apparently, my longtime climbing partner knew how to smuggle me past the entrance fees, a hurdle that had always kept me out of the gym. John waved his membership card, mumbled something about a guest pass, and then loudly announced my name: “He’s kind of a big deal.” And they let me in for free. This was going even better than I’d have thought.
At the lead cave, I groped the plastic on a tower and stared down at the rainbow of tape dotting the footholds. I grabbed an orange hold with blue tape and pink spots, then realized that I needed to crimp the blue hold with the pink tape and orange spots.
As I searched the kaleidoscope of holds, my forearms bulged and I froze. In a last-ditch effort, I threw for a jug above my head. I hit it, stuck it, but then the wall spit me off. The hold spun. It kept circling as I slumped onto the rope. I had tried hard on Midnight Lightning but had never managed to spin anything on it. I lowered to the ground, dejected.
John said cheerfully, “Why don’t we boulder? Maybe then you can become a real gym rat.”
John was a Jedi knight. A former dirtbag climber, he had transitioned to the city well, and now had a successful nursing career, a beautiful girlfriend and an unbelievable ability to crush indoors. He was my role model—a real rock climber and a plastic prince. I followed his lead to the bouldering cave, and launched upward. A tiny series of polished holds spit me off nine times before I finished it.
“Yes!” I screamed. I hung from the top with intense satisfaction. This almost compared to an ascent of Astroman. I was well on my way to being a badass gym climber. I smugly dropped to the ground, and searched the start holds for the grade. “Vfun,” it read. My jaw dropped. This boulder problem was easier than V0? My ego plummeted, and I crumpled into a ball. A desk jockey saw me huddled below the problem, and walked over. “Yeah, dude, like half the tape fell off. Didn’t you hear the beta from the Thursday Night Bouldering session?”
Lying on the ground, groaning and letting my pumped forearms recover, I noticed the circus around me. Little kids jumped around, couples fought over topropes, and a dating scene flourished. A dude sauntered toward a group of women, struck a pose, then pedaled his feet up the wall. Outside, the gym climbers had brought tales to the crags of the slinky yoga goddesses and other beauties who tore across the lead caves. They insisted that gyms were total meat markets.
“Haven’t you read the articles in the magazines? That’s exactly what it is like,” they said, punching me in the arm.
Looking around, I noticed that, unlike at the Northwest Face of Half Dome, the Moonlight Buttress, and the offwidths of Indian Creek, there were girls at the bases of most of these routes. Maybe the plastic princes had a point.
I wondered if I could ever make it in the city. I was overwhelmed with the difficulty of the gym climbing, and by its busy culture.
John tried to reassure me. “Maybe you aren’t the best gym climber. At least it’s a place to meet girls.”
I started thinking about who to approach. Surely the women would like me. I am, overall, a decent guy. I just needed to be genuine. Then I remembered the plastic princes, how they strut around with bare-chested bravado. At the crags they had boasted, assuring me that their tactics worked. Maybe that was how you got the girls? I puffed my chest, and sashayed forward.
“Are you running toward me or away from me?” I asked a girl on the treadmill.
Mascara smudged with sweat below her eyes as she hit a button on the dashboard and increased the speed of the treadmill.
“Well,” she responded, “now I am running away from you.” So much for the cheesy pick-up lines. The plastic princes had been only partially right. The gym, I decided, was one-quarter meat market and three-quarters butcher shop.
This was too hard. The spinning holds, my damaged ego, the girls, the gym rats … The reality of climbing at an artificial wall was overwhelming. This was the hardest crag I had ever been to. Why bother with any of this? There was no way I could attach myself to the city lifestyle if I could not even deal with the climbing.
I left Berkeley and headed for Bishop. Three hours into the seven-hour trip, I ran into a snowstorm, and headed back to a gas station to buy some chains. At the store, I stared at the price—$60. Instead, I bought a pack of M&Ms, sat in my car, and tried to decide what to do with my life. I ate a green M&M and thought I should go. I could keep climbing, ignore the loneliness and lack of fulfillment. I could be a man on the rock and let my passion for climbing be enough. I ate a red M&M and thought about stopping. I should become responsible, find a job, start a career, and commit to being something more.
Then I ate a handful of yellow M&Ms and made one clear decision: to end my indecisiveness. The marginal existence of a dirtbag was romantic bullshit and completely overrated. Experience taught me that much. The city was something different. It would give me a chance to climb, work and provide my life with some balance. I smacked the steering wheel, gave up on the frivolous lifestyle of a dirtbag climber, and decided to try the city life again. After a three-hour drive back to Berkeley, I made the 15-minute walk to the gym. I really wanted to send the pink route anyway.
James Lucas is searching for a job in the San Francisco Bay Area.