I did it! I finally did it! I climbed 5.10! (wondering what 5.10 is? here’s a guide for the un-initiated) After six months of throwing myself against the wall desperate for forward progress against the merciless clutches of gravity, I was sweating, I was tired, I was completely and utterly spent, and I fought like I’d never fought before in my life.
I remember that feeling; “This means I’m a REAL climber!” It was pure elation, the culmination of work and training, and it was a sentiment that I would echo over and over again throughout my climbing career, and will continue to echo in my future. “This is it, I’m FINALLY a real climber!” To me, 5.10 was the entry point, It’s where things get real, where most folks can’t get away with luck anymore and they have to try for the first time. This is probably why it’s the standard requirement for lead-climbing tests at most gyms, they want to make sure your mettle has been properly tested before you take to the sharp end.
But I’d top roped the climb, I hadn’t led it, and that left me wanting more. A month or two later, everyone laughed with me when I won the rope bag at the climbing competition. I didn’t know how to lead, or build anchors, or even own a rope, at least not until the pulled my name out of the hat and I won that too! That moment set the course of my entire climbing career, I had the bag, the rope, the 5.10 skills and no knowledge. $40 and a 4 hour course later, I was lead certified, I was finally legit. It felt like I’d been given my “Certified Badass” card, and I felt eight feet tall as I set myself to leading all the 5.6’s, 5.7’s, 5.8’s, 5.9’s…. I had to scale the grades and test my mettle, and then I had to lead 5.10. That mythical grade would truly be mine now. That felt good. I thought to myself again, “THIS means i’m a REAL climber!” It was summer in Texas and it was HOT outside but that lead certification was good for one thing; once I’d won that rope, we immediately planned our first trip outside, but I didn’t have a clue what to do, none of us did. Between the gracious council of my instructor and many tips gathered from google, our first trip to Enchanted Rock was a success. We didn’t climb anything hard, mostly lots of sketchy scrambling to reach toprope anchors so we could drop into something, but I felt that feeling again. For the third time in a month this meant I’d finally made it. At last, I was a real climber!
Later in that same summer, I knew I was onto it. I had the scent and the game was afoot. Climbing was about going big, and if you want to go big you have to go multi-pitch. The only hitch was the fact that we couldn’t afford a guide, so we booted up the laptop and googled the practices of building anchors from natural features and bolts. After roughly 30 minutes of perusing articles we figured we understood the gist of it, and were underway on another grand adventure to become “real climbers.” We were engineering students, how hard could it be to figure out how to tie a few pieces of rope together and flop our way up a 5.7? Well, I nearly browned my pants. Turns out nobody has any semblance of a realistic slab within the walls and confines of a climbing gym, especially not anything like the friction slabs at Enchanted Rock where the difference between success and failure is often just finding a piece of rock that appears a bit rougher than that around it. I was completely unprepared for the type of climbing before me. It was the most terrifying 5.5 I’d ever climbed, only my second outdoor lead, I knew in my head that there was no possible way my feet could stick, and I nearly broke down on the final pitch. Staring at that anchor-to-anchor runout for nearly 100ft of 5.3 terrain left me feeling almost limp with mortal fear. There’s no way I’m a real climber, not if it means dealing with this! As it turns out, nobody really prepares you for the mental game in a climbing gym. Move after move I painstakingly inched my way forward, hoping for an anchor with none in sight, legs shaking, breathing hard, sweating like a dog, fearing the long drop that I knew was inevitable. Eventually I spied an anchor station 50ft to the right and traversed over to join it. My first multi-pitch climb was completed, and now I was a real climber.
I don’t know if we ever make it there, honestly. It seems that the more I know about climbing, the more I want to know and realize there is to learn. As to what is a “Real Climber,” who cares? Alex Lowe nailed it on the head: “The best climber in the world is the one who’s having the most fun.”
That’s all we’re here for. It’s not to be impressive, boost your ego at the expense of others, competition, or to achieve some arbitrary ever-changing definition of “real” or “authentic.” It’s not about climbing hard, trad, sport, boulder, multi-pitch, big wall, this grade, or that. It’s about having the absolute most fun you can have, that’s how you know you’re doing it right. Climbing should feel good. It makes me feel better about myself, it makes me happy with things that genuinely suck, it boosts my self-esteem and after a good trip out balances the world leaving me ready to return to work and the weekly grind. If it happens to be impressive, or competitive, or hard, sport, trad, boulder, pebble, or whatever, as long as it’s rad and it’s enjoyable I know I’m doing it right.
There is no definition of “real” climber, the important thing is to climb what feels real to you. Everyone has their own flavor on the vertical and nobody can dictate that to you. Don’t climb like you do just because you “should.” If we all ascribed to imitation of others’ games, the notion of sport climbing would never have evolved at all, for at one time bolting on rappel was considered to be the most utter blasphemy. Someone had to go against the grain. If some style of climbing inspires you and resonates with your idea of a good time, try it and create your own brand of climbing! In the end, you could argue that we are conquistadors of the useless. Sending a hard climb won’t get us ahead, it won’t improve the world, and it doesn’t pay the rent. But maybe, hopefully, if we do it right, we can transcend ourselves for just that one moment it takes to clip the chains and inspire someone.
This past weekend, over July 4th, I got to experience it in an all new way. I took my friend “Opie” out to Foster Falls for his first real outdoor climbing trip, and he onsighted his first lead. That’s good mojo, and now…. well, he’s a real climber too!