Why I Can’t Quit Climbing

Each of the three times that I’ve come back to climbing after a break this summer, I’ve thought about how I want to quit. I especially want to quit trad climbing, with its fiddly gear and unknown safety margin, but also, I want to quit climbing above bolts and pads. I want to quit climbing because it’s so damn uncomfortable. Climbing forces me to stare out beyond my comfort zone, and with plenty of time for contemplation, forces me to step beyond it with trembling legs. That, too, is why I can’t quit climbing.

The last time that I thought about quitting, I sat astride my other summer love, a mountain bike. Having waited out a thunderstorm and suffered through hail and lightning beneath a shrub of a tree in the high desert outside of Bend, I was pedaling hard and fast down the bermed corners and rock drops of the Funner trail, sprinting for warmth and drifting the corners through piles of hail balls. Cornering left at a fork towards the more technical downhill section, I opted for the largest drop on the left and pinned it off into the air. Flying far and landing with absurd softness at speed, I laughed aloud at the ridiculous fun of freeride mountain biking. I wondered: why on earth would I choose to climb when I can fly on my bike? And why (for the love of the sweet baby Jesus) would I ever choose to climb ice rather than go skiing?

Mountain Biking Flagline in Bend, OR
Mountain Biking Flagline high above Bend, OR, on the slopes of Mt Bachelor.

Needless to say, I have a love-hate relationship with climbing. It has woven itself into my identity, for better or for worse, and it is a large part of how I direct my time, energy, and cash. I wish that I had chosen some more benign hobby, or that I had stuck to brewing beer or to welding instead. But no, I am a Climber. There is something about the sport that is different from mountain biking, or from skiing, and it’s something that I always return to in spite of my reluctant foot-dragging. It fills a space in my life for which I have no viable alternative.

Climbing is a warrior’s sport: climbers contemplate a route, contemplate ourselves, and then decide to either commit to action or to turn away. Climbing unfolds at its own pace, as you climb, and rewards or punishes your decisions moment-by-moment. In leaving room for thinking, it forces us to be fully responsible for our choices and our actions. By holding us high over gravity in a position of true consequence, it gives us the stakes necessary to resolve the finer points of our character.

Mountain biking and skiing are sports of pure joy which unfold in a fluid medium. As we charge downhill, there is little time or space between our thoughts and our actions. Sometimes, in flow, there is none. This is an amazing state to experience, and one which I also would fight to keep, but these are not sports prone to introspection and consideration. The tug of gravity holds a stopwatch next to all decisions, and we rely in large part on our reflexes and trained responses to help us navigate obstacles which arise too quickly and in too great a number for the thinking mind to process. Every mountain biker has had the experience of thinking too much; we try to plan a turn, or we stare and an obstacle, and we are soon punished for our slow-thinking by flying into the trees bikeless.  In climbing, by contrast, we move from one decision to another.

Flying through powder, no time for thoughts.
Flying through powder, no time for thoughts.

Just four days after flying down Funner in the hail, I pulled off my sweaty shirt in front of a sport climb at Smith Rocks that had long daunted me. Barbeque to the Pope, an uber-classic .10b, had all the fixings for a true test of character. First, it’s only 10b. I’d put off climbing it for several years, excusing myself each time that I thought of it by granting that of course I could climb it if I wanted to, after all, I can climb 5.10. BBQ also, while not dangerously bolted, certainly has wider bolts than many Smith Rock climbs, which would expose me more to my fear of falling. Additionally, its sequence is wandering and nonobvious, a puzzle further obscured by the chalk of many hands that decorates even its worst holds. The climb had stake on my ego, no certainty of success, and it intimidated me. But it was time to give it a go.

The right mindset in climbing is, for me, a rare thing. I am lazy and reluctant, but occasionally, it is clear to me what is my next appropriate challenge. When my internal voice pipes up and tells me that I can do something I’m scared of, I have to listen because that voice is also the harbinger of regret should my lazy side win. As I always say, you’re either being light-duty or heavy-duty, and it’s important to be honest with yourself about which you’re choosing. It was time to be heavy-duty.

Embarking up the Pope, I passed the first bolt (which I had stick-clipped) and into the realm of consequences. Here, the holds Zig- right of the bolt line before -Zagging back to the safety of the next clip. Each move is an act of intention, selecting among the holds, and carefully working feet up across small nubbins and edges. With each bolt clipped, the next looms high above, dangling the carrot of safety beyond the maw of an unknown sequence. Recognizing the uncertainty, and choosing action, is a decision to be made in each move. The possibility of anxiety or of negative self-talk hides in each pause.

Consider, commit, discover.
Consider, commit, discover.

Above the last bolt, I waffled. I climbed up and right, sinking into a leftward side-pull and leaning away from the finishing holds. My arms flared with a growing pump and I worried that I might lose the route. Recognizing and honoring all of the feelings bouncing around inside of me, I refocused and climbed back down to the last stance before launching again into a different sequence which drove up leftward towards a crack. Reaching around a corner half-blind, my fingers founds a positive knob and guided me to the anchors. Clipping the chains, the heightened reality of my world moments before subsided. I relaxed in a wave of satisfaction. I laughed at my fear of losing the route, a momentary lapse in focus. There is nothing to lose in climbing provided that we focus in each moment. If we give a good effort, then the learning can’t be lost. When we clip the chains, only then do we lose the heightened awareness of engaging with ourselves.

I will likely keep mountain biking, and I am more a skier than most any other identifier, but I will always begrudgingly hold climbing close to my heart for its honesty. There is no fooling yourself in climbing, and as such, it is an incomparable mirror to reflect our greed, egos, and lies, or our true character, poise, and boldness.

Few things give us such a stage to choose between these.


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Category: Climbing & Mountaineering



  1. The battle that is going on in my head currently, actually. Even after spending a month in the alpine. But it has that draw that no other sport quite does.

    Any more thoughts of future ultras?

    1. Glad to know that I’m not alone. It has to serve your goals or it simply serves your ego. For some, maybe you, maybe not, it may not be a life long pursuit. I envy those who always seem to find joy and ease in climbing. For me, it is an ongoing dialog with fear which can, at times, be pretty tiring.

      I may run more in the future, but I doubt that it’ll be in a race. I enjoy moving for a long time and over a lot of terrain, and training for an ultra was very useful in that respect. I think I enjoy moving more on bikes and skis, but running is a universal skill. The only downside is the sheer amount of time that I have to devote to it to stay fit for long runs.

      Only time and actions will tell. All the best!

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