6:45pm. I was alone in my apartment in Boston, sitting on my couch, focused on the glass of whiskey in front of me. It disappeared with one gulp. So smooth, warming, comfortable. It felt good, like an embrace. It felt like romance. It felt like everything I didn’t have, everything I wanted. I couldn’t get that kind of feeling without poisoning myself. I poured another glass.
This isn’t healthy, I thought. But I couldn’t stop. Somehow I ended up in a ditch, and the culmination of the previous six months had me digging deeper into it.
I graduated from a university in Boston a year prior. I had some okay friends there, but my passion didn’t exist in that city. I was just stuck there, waiting for comfort to find me in a dark time. But I was being passive. I had to go out and find something more powerful than comfort; I needed a passion. Moreover, I needed the ability to create value for myself.
The past six months had been hard. At some point, I had convinced myself that I needed to prepare to settle down. I went through a few jobs, all of which I quit out of frustration. I felt stripped of my creative drive. They piled on monotonous busy work, and they cloaked my tasks in a mask of responsibility. But I never felt like I was being responsible. I was forcing myself to be a type of person I was not. I knew I needed to try something new, but a life reset is always overwhelming.
I think there’s a tendency for recent university graduates to feel like they have just stepped into the real world, and whatever they are is what they will be forever, and if they don’t love it, then tough luck. But aren’t we always evolving as people? More importantly, don’t we all have the power to create and change our own values as things change in life?
I recognize that asking these questions screams privilege. But the pressure I was feeling to live up to a higher standard was set by those with privilege to cast their standards onto others. Isn’t it kind of bullshit to listen to that standard if it drives me to clutch a bottle of whiskey alone on a weekday?
This story is not about depression. The important thing, to me, is what happened afterward. I wish I could share this experience without starting from the pain I was feeling, but the unhappiness was what influenced the most important stage of my life.
My frustrations and failures were linked to many things going on. An ex girlfriend and I had just broken up, and we were both hurt in the process. I felt hopeless trying to find a job that I could see myself sticking with for the long-term. I lost all ability to control my anxiety. I began to think that my friends didn’t believe in me. In my head, their words and interventions often sounded discouraging, but they were really just trying to catch me while I was falling. I didn’t listen. I jumped right out of their arms. It didn’t take long before I stopped believing in myself. That’s when I started drinking way too much. Every little thing that didn’t go right was adding up, and I felt like I had no avenues toward happiness. The worst of it all was the drinking. I was trying to numb my pain, but all the alcohol did was make it worse. A number of friends walked away from me at that time, and I have to admit that I understand their decisions to do so. I never want to be in that headspace again.
One particular source of happiness was obviously missing from my life. I was avoiding my true love: the mountains. Climbing mountains is my passion, but, for some reason, rock climber didn’t make it between businessman and engineer on the list of available jobs at my university’s career fair. I suppose I took a break from the mountains with the hopes that I could pass off my love for climbing as just a hobby.
I’m a little envious of my friends who are so content in their regular jobs. It would make so many things—especially relationships with my family and friends—easier. But how could I keep myself from the mountains when they had always allowed me to feel my healthiest? After a few summers of road tripping and climbing some of North America’s most beautiful peaks, the professional world held very little that could provide me with adequate stimulation. I began to wonder why. I knew I loved rock climbing, but why did it matter in the first place? What made the sport so important to me?
I reflected on that feeling of sore fingertips clinging to cold granite, balancing on rock features that narrowly allow for a hard-earned passage to a summit. At times, climbing can feel contrived. Often there is a hiking trail that goes around and to the top of some of the most incredible rock climbing routes, so why not just hike?
There’s something special about looking for the most aesthetic way to the top, about searching for a route that requires skill, perseverance, balance, and mental fortitude. My favorite climbs follow fluent crack systems that draw lines up steep, long faces, high in alpine environments on spires above icy, cracked glaciers. These places don’t bear life well. Overcoming these unwelcoming places, or even attempting them only to turn around out of fear for danger, is an example of humankind’s most powerful ability—to create value. I wanted to live a life guided by my own motivation.
So what did I really want? I loved writing and climbing. These two things were obsessions. They both require a creative process that I am deeply invested in. I wanted to combine those passions to create art, to tell stories. But first I had to figure out how I was going to make it work, and I was nervous about the risk involved in putting myself out there to share my art with others with no guarantee of praise or reward.
Some people in this world are incredibly intelligent artists and athletes, but those forms of intelligence seem to sit on the back burner behind more academic intelligences. If someone knows how to scale massive peaks, create music, dance, or make captivating photographs, why shouldn’t those talents be viewed as a pathway toward success in the same way that being a natural mathematician is? More often than not, society undervalues these modes of creation as mere hobbies.
I lost track of time as I fell into my dream, but almost no time passed...It was still 6:45pm when I picked my phone off the coffee table, whiskey glass in the other hand, to answer a phone call. It was my closest friend, Zephyr, who was working as an engineer for a climbing gear company in Utah.
Zephyr and I had gone on the crown of all road trips a few years earlier. We drove from Boston to the north coast of Alaska, finding some of our favorite climbs of all time along the way. We went to university together, but we both spent more time climbing in New Hampshire than going to class. My excuse in the winter months usually had something to do with bad road conditions driving back to Boston from New Hampshire. Even though my apartment was right next to campus, one professor came to think I was commuting down to Boston every day and started wishing me a safe drive back to New Hampshire after class when I did manage to show up.
Zephyr is definitely more extroverted than me, but, together, we are always filled with energy. We’re always planning big adventures, usually based around a potential first ascent. In climbing, a first ascent—a route that has never been done before—is a special achievement. It’s something that goes down in history and can’t be undone. While a speed record can be broken, a first ascent will always be just that—first. Our adventurous spirits were fueled by a quest for finding new routes up mountains. We consider ourselves artists in a way, working with the form of the world. Our climbs are marked by lines that we draw on our rocky canvases.
Zephyr had been on a climbing trip in Patagonia for the past couple of weeks and this call was the first I’d heard from him since he’d flown down there. I knew he was attempting an unclimbed tower with our mutual friend, Marc, so I was anxious to hear how it went.
“Zephyr! What’s going on? How was Patagonia?” I was nervous he might notice that I was on the verge of slurring my words, but he was too quick to jump in to hear.
He replied in an excited and anxious tone, almost as if he was running for his life (which he actually had been not too long before). “Scary climb this trip. Shit rock. Worst I’ve ever hit. Legit scared.” He wasn’t even in Patagonia anymore, but there was still a sense of panic in his voice. He was unable to generate full sentences.
“Yikes. And we’ve climbed some brownie brittle,” I replied, referring to the abundance of crumbly rock that we had overcome in the Rockies and Alaska on previous climbing trips.
“Yeah. It was wild. Base camp was 15 miles in over two glaciers. Way real.”
“Damn.” I took a sip of whiskey as I braced against my own wave of nervousness for my friend’s safety.
“I’m glad you’re still good. You’re due for some Bugaboo granite right now.”
The Bugaboos are an alpine climbing destination in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia, a sea of glaciers with large granite spires protruding from the ice. Zephyr and I first visited the Bugaboos together a few years prior, and, since that trip, the Bugs had become my favorite climbing destination. Despite its alpine nature, the granite in the Bugs is of a high quality for climbing. Though there are some loose rocks, typical in the alpine, most of the climbing routes ascend really solid crack systems with secure holds. I consider it to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, hardly touched by human development, but still quite accessible for climbers willing to hike a few steep miles and cross snowy glaciers to approach long, gorgeous routes. It’s certainly a commitment to go climbing in the Bugaboos, but it is nowhere near as demanding as Zephyr’s undertaking in Patagonia.
“Oh, I need granite bad,” Zephyr said with a pleading tone. “Something with an anchor besides two shit knifeblades. I plastered them as hard as I could.”
Zephyr was referring to knifeblade pitons—thin pieces of metal, a few inches long, with a hole in the end to clip a carabiner to. Pitons were one of the earliest forms of climbing protection. They come in many shapes and sizes, but the knifeblades look just as their name implies. Pitons (also called pins) require a hammer to pound them into thin cracks in the rock. They can then be removed by hammering them back and forth and pulling sharply with a funkness (a metal cable that is clipped to a piton then yanked hard enough to shock load the pin out of a crack).
Modern climbing protection—most commonly, cams and nuts—is designed to be easily inserted and removed from cracks without a hammer, and, most importantly, they cause much less damage to the rock than pounding pitons. Nuts are simply chunks of metal attached to a cable that can be threaded into crack constrictions. However, cams have an active function. They have a set of lobes than can be contracted by a trigger that controls springs. When contracted, the cam is placed into a crack. It can hold a fall from its expanding force against the sides of the crack. When there are no cracks available to take removable protection, construction bolts are drilled into the rock.
Bolts leave a permanent trace, so good ethics require placing only as many bolts as are required for safety. Bolting equipment is also very heavy, and the hardwear is expensive, so it tends to be best to avoid bolts if possible. Nuts and cams usually won’t fit in the extremely thin cracks that knifeblade pitons are made for. Thus, knifeblades are still useful on alpine routes with crumbly rock, where razor-thin cracks are often abundant.
I’ve been asked many times how climbers “get the ropes up there.” The process of climbing tall mountains or cliffs usually involves two partners, a leader and a follower. The leader climbs up trailing a rope, which is tied to their harness. The rope runs through a belay device that the follower operates from below. As the leader climbs, they place removable metal protection in cracks and holes in the rock then clip their rope to the protection with carabiners. The further the leader climbs above their last piece of protection, the greater distance they would fall before the rope caught them if they were to slip.
Ideally, a leader will want to place protection frequently enough to prevent them from landing on the ground or a ledge if they were to fall. However, certain climbs may not have frequent enough cracks to accept the ideal amount of gear to protect against dangerous falls. In this case, the term “runout” is used. It is often indicated in guidebooks by the letter “R” following the name and grade of a climbing route. Runout climbs might sound foolish, and maybe they are, but Zephyr and I have found that the spiciness can add quite a bit of excitement and appeal.
Climbing ropes are measured using the metric system, and are usually 60 or 70 meters long. When the leader climbs to a point where they will soon run out of rope, they must build an anchor—usually with two or three pieces of protection—then belay the follower up so they can reset and start climbing again with the full length of rope available. Each reset is called a pitch. When the follower climbs, the rope is belayed from above, so that they will not fall more than a few inches (the length for a dynamic rope to stretch) if they fall. It’s normal for experienced climbing partners to switch who is leading and who is following at each pitch, to split up the increased risk of taking a lead fall.
In North America, the difficulty of a rock climb is rated using the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). The YDS has five classes to indicate the technical nature of the terrain. First class is walking on flat ground, second class is difficult hiking, third class is steep hiking that may require the occasional use of hands to clamber over rocks, and fourth class involves scrambling using hands and feet to climb over rocky terrain that is not quite vertical. Most climbers can physically handle fourth class terrain without a rope, but it can still get very exposed and dangerous, so protection is appreciated by many at that class.
Technical rock climbs fall into the fifth class. Ropes are usually used for fifth class climbing. In the YDS, the 5 is followed by a decimal, which is followed by a number ranging from 1-15. This indicates how difficult the climbing moves are. To make it more complicated, any double digit rating is then broken down into four sub-ratings (a, b, c, d). As an example, 5.6 ends up being about as easy as the most basic climbs you would find at an indoor climbing gym. 5.8 is followed by 5.9, which is followed by 5.10a then 5.10b. The hardest climb completed to this day is 5.15d, which is so incredibly hard that I cannot fathom how it was possibly done. Ironically, the system matters little, because grades are given subjectively and are sometimes changed by consensus as more people climb the routes. Grades matter even less on big mountains where the technical rock climbing might not even be the hardest part of the whole expedition, given logistics, hazardous mountain terrain, and total distance traveled. Consequently, the climb Zephyr was attempting can’t really be understood by a YDS climbing grade.
Zephyr continued his saga. “We rappelled down a shooting gallery. Certain death if a rock came. Seven V-threads. Didn’t hit the bottom until 11:30pm. Didn’t get back to camp until 8am. We spent 30 hours out there.”
V-threads are a type of anchor point used for rappelling down ice. They are created by drilling two intersecting holes with an ice screw so they create a V in the ice that the rope can be passed through. Drilling V-threads can be time consuming, so rappelling seven times off V-threads down a gully with no other means for escape and an extreme hazard created by rocks potentially falling from above was definitely a dramatic undertaking.
“That’s gnarly. Did you make it to the top?” I asked.
“Nope. 50-knot winds. Our rope was a sail up there. We hit the ridge at 9:30pm, then it would have been about three more hours of navigating more shit rock to get to the summit.” He paused, and his tone turned from excitement to disappointment. “It’s an unclimbed tower. Would have been sick and we almost had it.”
Something about the phone call with Zephyr sparked a flame inside me again. As terrifying as that mountain sounded, I had to ask myself, Why wasn’t I there?
I had spent years training and learning climbing skills so I could be out there with Zephyr, so that I could potentially do something meaningful for myself. I suddenly realized I was throwing all that away and accomplishing nothing else that I cared about.
I screwed the cap back on the whiskey, pulled out my laptop, and started planning for something new and exciting—a little life reset.