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The Choss Pile: In Defense of Cutting Loose

And we're not talking about cutting your feet.

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As climbers, we hail from rogues and delinquents. Just go watch “Valley Uprising” or read anything about California climbing in the 20th century to see for yourself. Being a “climber” went hand in hand with a counterculture style of living, a lifestyle that stuck a big, fat middle finger in the face of the system.

In 2020, we’re no longer a demographic of vagabonds and outcasts. Dirtbags still exist, but if you look at climbing as a whole, most climbers are financially stable. Just look at the cost of an average gym membership! We eat healthy, exercise regularly, recycle, and bring reusable shopping bags when we go to Whole Foods.

If you follow most professional climbers on social media, you’ll see feeds full of strict training regimes and dieting practices, burpees and planks and keto-friendly recipes. (Side Note: Can you imagine what we’d be seeing if Jim Bridwell had an Instagram back in the day?)

Training and diet are important, and so is routine for that matter, (I document my days via Excel spreadsheet, literally), but there are lessons in our roots.

Structure is a means to an end, not the end in and of itself.

Mentality is the most important factor in living a happy and fulfilling life, and it’s arguably the most important factor in success on the wall. Some folks get so caught up in grades, performance and regimen that they lose sight of what we’re all doing in the first place. Let’s keep in its place. The fact that that abomination exists is bad enough without people turning it into some poisonous lifestyle.

A guy commented on something I wrote a while back, calling it a “paean to hedonism” (OK, Mr. Professor, nicely done). So look: I’m not advocating for an existence based around mindless pleasure or juvenility. The last thing we need during COVID-19 is more morons partying and spreading the virus. More importantly, during this long overdue moment of cultural and societal change in our sport and country, there’s no room for entitled assholes who only care about having a good time.

What I’m saying is, if you’re depressed about not ticking your project, stressed out while eating dinner with your friends because you’re worried about breaking your diet, or waking up in the morning and just really, really not feeling like busting out your usual 100 pull ups, remember why you’re climbing in the first place. If you’re a professional athlete, sure, that’s one thing. But most of us aren’t, and never will be. Climbing isn’t a job.

Our own pleasure shouldn’t be our principal and sole concern in life, obviously. That is hedonism. But we can’t have a positive impact on the world around us if we aren’t satisfied with ourselves and the way we live first. When all is said and done, all climbers should be enjoying themselves, on some level, when they climb. Why else are we tying in?

To address something the “paean to hedonism” guy said, yes, that applies to sufferfest addicts freezing their asses off on 8,000-meter peaks too. They’re out there, because, on some level, they enjoy the challenge of the mountains. They enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that comes with triumphing over the trials and tribulations offered by the high places of our planet. I’ve interviewed enough mountaineers to know this, but I think it’s fairly obvious anyway. Climbing isn’t always easy, comfortable, or fun (duh) but at the end of the day, we climb because we enjoy it.

I used to have a tough time navigating this. I developed small fiber peripheral neuropathy in my late teens, and my climbing abilities took a pretty dramatic nosedive as a result. I saw myself unable to train as hard, unable to climb as hard. I would be in pain for days after brief sessions at the gym.

With no cure or treatment to reverse my condition, I didn’t know how to respond. Eventually I stopped climbing entirely. It didn’t seem possible to go halfway. How could I go back to climbing 5.10 when I was climbing 5.13 before? Why show up to the crag if I could only do one or two routes before my hands were burning or numb? It seemed to add insult to injury.

I realized, eventually, that it was a stupid mentality. Climbing brings me joy, whether I’m climbing hard sport or 5.5 top rope, scrambling up a Class III fourteener or belaying my buddies at the gym. I’m happier climbing one route a year than none.

So think about cutting loose every once in a while. Climb naked. Eat a quart of ice cream for breakfast. Don’t look at your hangboard for a month if you don’t want to. Spend a whole day lying on the couch playing board games if you feel like it. Get a giant eye tattooed on your neck like some kind of Mad Max character.

Enjoy yourself.

Call this a “paean to hedonism” if you want. I’m too busy climbing and cutting loose to care.

The Choss Pile is published every Thursday.

Owen Clarke, 23, is a climber and writer currently based in a hotel in Colorado. He also writes for The Outdoor Journal. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights. 

Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.