Clinging to a rock hundreds of feet above the ground, palms sweating, and muscles screaming as my grip slowly weakened, I was blissful. I have always been attracted to challenges and when I discovered rock climbing, I quickly became addicted. Limestone is my personal favorite type of rock to climb. In the early morning, the rock is smooth and cold to touch and each hold feels sturdy as though God had designed limestone for this singular purpose. It’s not like granite. Granite is rough like sandpaper and after climbing on it, one tends to leave some skin and blood behind.
My rock climbing career has had several stages. A good friend of mine began rock climbing before I did. It wasn’t long before he dragged me to a rock gym where sculpted climbers strained and sweat as they pulled themselves up the multicolored plastic holds. Having what I thought to be considerable upper body strength, I easily scaled the first few routes I tried. It was not until I moved out of the kids section that I realized the true pain and joy of rock climbing. I went back the next day and the next and quickly improved, climbing higher and harder on the plastic holds. Soon I was ready for my next challenge, lead climbing. Up until this point I had been climbing with a rope tied into the wall above me, but with lead climbing the rope is clipped into the bolts along the wall as I climb. The result is a much longer fall before I am caught by the rope and swung into the wall like a pendulum; higher consequences, greater challenge. It was not long before I possessed the necessary skills to move out of the gym and begin climbing on real rock.
On my first outdoor rock climbing trip, I visited an area known as the Pit in Flagstaff, Arizona. Beautiful limestone cliffs extended above a pine forest. The sun illuminated the upper half of the crag while the lower half was kept in the shadow of the trees. The first route I tried was called Sunshine Daydream. Looking up I saw that the bolts were much further apart here than in the gym. I synched my harness extra tight and gathered my quick draws, carabiners and chalk bag. As I touched my hand to the smooth stone, I noticed an oppressive silence, like the whole forest was holding its breath. I breathed out. Stepping off the ground I heard the soft clinking of my metal carabiners and nothing else. It was not like the gym. The gym is full of loud music, loud people and soft pads. Halfway up the route I learned that my hands have a tendency to sweat the higher I climb. My muscles ached, my knees and hands burned from the many small cuts I had received from the rock, and a broad smile crept across my face as I clipped the final bolt. Never in my life had I seen a more beautiful view.
Later that summer, a friend and I were in a rural area in Idaho when we heard of some good climbing spots up in the mountains. Naturally we investigated further and were soon headed North on an old dirt service road. The trees grew denser on either side until eventually there was no road at all, only a small trail that extended deeper into the forest. With only a few cairns (small rock piles left by past climbers) to guide us, we eventually made it to the base of a massive spire erupting above the tree line. The grey color and rough texture told me the rock was granite.
As I readied my gear, I was once again aware of the intense silence, only more so this time. It had taken us roughly two hours driving on a dirt road to reach the place and I could be certain there was not a soul around for many miles. I began to climb and the sharp granite bit and dug at my calloused hands. The bolts were rusted and old and I could tell no one had climbed here for quite some time. I clipped the first bolt, then the second, then a rock broke off under me and I scraped my knee along the sandpaper gravel. Shaking it off, I gazed upward to the third bolt, nearly 30 feet higher on the wall. A fall before I clipped the third bolt would most certainly be dangerous and may even result in my hitting the ground. My palms once again grew damp with sweat as I took several deep breaths to slow my racing heart. After an eternity I managed to scramble up the sharp rock and clip the final bolt.
I looked down at my torn hands and knees, and then out over the emerald green tree tops. I thought about the pain and struggle it had taken me to reach this point and why this process of enduring pain to reach a goal is so addictive. It’s the same sensation one has when finally laying down in a soft bed after a hard day’s work or getting back a good grade on a test after studying so hard. The bed, the grade and the view are not special. What is special is the feeling of putting in the work and truly earning the reward. I climb for the struggle, the blood, the sweat and the fear. I climb because the mountain exists and because the view at the top is made sweet by the struggle.