A collaborative piece from Christine Reed (author) and Dana Musgrave (artist).
I am not a climber.
I’ve had a climbing gym membership for the last 7 years.
I have pulled myself up rocks at Smith Rock in Oregon, Ten Sleep and Wild Iris in Wyoming, Spearfish Canyon in South Dakota, Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Arkansas, Clear Creek and Lime Creek and Shelf Road in Colorado, Devil’s Canyon in New Mexico, and the Goat Wall in Washington.
I know the touch of rough crystalline granite and how it feels after thousands of hands and feet have made their way up it, leaving a smooth polish on the stone. I know the patterns of tiny glossed pockets sunken into white and tan limestone like it was made to fit human fingers. I can close my eyes and feel the warmth of sunbaked sandstone, making my palms sweat as they cling to its course surface.
I mean—sure I’ve climbed some rocks. But I’m not a climber.
It doesn’t count if it’s on top rope. It doesn’t count if it’s in a gym. It doesn’t count if it’s not trad. It doesn’t count if it’s not an onsight. It doesn’t count if you hangdog it. You’re not a real climber if you don’t own your own rope. You’re not a real climber if you can’t do a pull-up. You’re not a real climber unless it’s pure, clean, on lead, on real rocks, in the alpine, to a summit.
I’ve heard all of these and more from people in the climbing community. Some of them talking about other people behind their backs, and some of them right to my face. Telling me directly that my experience didn’t count. That what I have done isn’t just not good enough, but nothing at all.
I feel the old guard tightening their grips on what was once criminalized in the places where it was born and has now become so mainstream that a film about it won an Oscar.
As mega gyms open across the country, inviting the masses to use climbing as a fitness activity, true diehards gnash their teeth at the thought of all those people crowding their playgrounds or enjoying a sport that was born out of an anarchic desire to leave society altogether.
I have heard a dozen or more stories from climbers of old. Telling how they learned from mentors who gave them a few cams and sent them up the wall with little instruction to test their grit. The sink or swim philosophy could easily be edited to “hold on for dear life, or die” in the early days of climbing.
Now we have courses in rope safety and proper technique. Coaches and athletes studying physics and anatomy, making it possible to understand just how climbing works. New gear and technology comes out every year, making climbing less risky and more accessible.
The old guard complains.
It’s not real climbing if you take away the risk.
It’s not real climbing if just anybody can do it.
But what they don’t know is that we are all born climbers. Children with the innate desire to scale any object they come across spread their limbs to span doorways and inch their way to the ceiling, tumble over the backs of couches in a waterfall of giggles, tight rope walk on berms and retaining walls defying gravity. Only when the fear of falling and a slow understanding of mortality creep into our developing minds, do we find ourselves stuck to the earth, grounded in the bottoms of our well-protected soles, losing the feeling of lightness in our souls that comes with height.
Rock climbing as we know it today, might have been invented by a few who never lost that compulsion to climb—who overrode fear and safety and were willing to risk it all to chase that high. But any of us can call it back, remember the freedom of moving away from the earth and toward the sky. Anybody who can pull themselves up rocks or trees or walls with plastic holds, with any amount of gear in any configuration is climbing.
Does the act of climbing in itself not make a climber?
Written work by Christine Reed
author of Alone in Wonderland
Find her at aloneinwonderland.com and on Instagram/TikTok at @ruggedoutdoorswoman
Art work by Dana Musgrave
Find her at etsy.com/shop/DanaPaintsCo and on Instagram/TikTok @danapaintsco
Thank you to @theartmartfoco for bringing us together and hosting such an amazing artist's event at Old Firehouse Books in Fort Collins, CO.