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Tuesday Night Bouldering

Between the Lines: Don’t Ask Too Much of Climbing

The second installment of "Between the Lines," Andrew Bisharat's new weekly column for Rock and Ice. Check back for a new article every Thursday!

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When it comes to curves, one we don’t want to flatten is the learning curve. Having experienced many valleys, peaks, and interminable plateaus in my own 20-year climbing career, I can attest to the fact that there’s no better place in climbing to be than on the incline, making progress each day out.

Even the hardest redpoints of my life can feel pale in comparison to those early days when I was just beginning to feel proficient on lead. There is so much satisfaction in pulling the right nut or cam off the rack on the first try, when only the week before you spent 10 minutes fiddling around. Or sticking that next move when last time you pull off the ground.

Beginners, rejoice. All the joy in this sport belongs to you.

The learning curve in climbing, however, isn’t for everyone. It’s not quite as fast and steep of a ride as, say, skiing, in which any Texan in a pair of Wranglers can be longhorning down a groomer by the end of their first day. It takes time to feel like a hero in climbing. Climbing demands a bit more. A bit more sacrifice. A bit more fastidiousness. A bit more everything. A little flapper in the wrong place can ruin your day—or trip.

The difference between sending and failure could be 10 percent humidity, 5 pounds that refuse to drop, a half-inch of wingspan. This keeps us humble, and if humility isn’t your thing, there’s no shortage of groomers to GoPro yourself on.

Perhaps it’s because climbing demands so much from us that we in turn demand so much from it. Scrolling through Instagram lately has left me with the impression that climbers have extremely high expectations for what this sport is meant to deliver. Nothing short of philosophical enlightenment, societal justice, environmental activism and spiritual fulfillment are on the menu for today’s climber…if you’re to believe some of the overwrought captions on Instagram that suggest this.

Some rock climbers describe themselves in their Insta bios as “poets,” “artists,” “writers,” “philosophers,” “humanitarians,” “citizens of the world,” “activists,” “pursuing truth,” “fighting for justice,” and so on. All of these descriptors sometimes appear in a single bio.

Um, don’t you just climb rocks and then, like, read books and shit on your rest days like the rest of us? Anyone can post Rumi quotes next to pretty climbing pictures.

Recapitulating each send as if it were the Noble Eightfold Path might be believable once or twice, but this kind of orgasmic enlightenment—which is actually just clipping the chains atop another sport climb—seems to happen every week for some of these folks.

Last week I responsibly went rock climbing—choosing Chris, who is on my quaranteam, and practicing safe covid cragging etiquette. Few others were there, which was especially nice since no one could see us suck on a route we’re both projecting.

Having not done much climbing over the past year, anytime I do get out is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I love climbing. On the other, I’m forced to confront my own delusions about where I stand in relation to my memory of my former fitter self. Routes that I’ve onsighted could be projects now. Even familiar warm-ups are dicey propositions.

We’ve all been here, to varying degrees. The best way to get back on the horse is to get a new project. A new route is an opportunity to be a beginner all over. No matter how many years of experience you have under your belt, a new route makes you a beginner, which is where the real joy lies. Each time you tie in, you learn new things, and make progress. That runout that felt scary last week is no big deal. You float that tough compression sequence because you learned the right tempo, body position, or how to scum your knee in just the right way.

Climbing certainly can be the profound, life-changing, society-improving experience. But it doesn’t need to be. Not every send needs to enlighten, not every failure needs to lead to some new insight, and it’s ok to just go climbing without thinking the sport needs to change the world. That kind of passion is admirable, and it’s something I once felt in spades, but after a couple decades chipping away at it, I also know that asking too much of climbing is a good way to burn out. Keeping it simple, and always approaching climbing like a beginner, is the best way to keep the stoke high.

That evening, right as dusk was descending, Chris made a big link, climbing the whole upper half all the way to the chains.

“That’s all I need from climbing,” he said later. “Just being able to get out and make that link … yeah, I didn’t send, I’m not changing the world, I didn’t learn anything new about myself. I just climbed and had fun. And that’s all climbing needs to be.”