3:45: Classes are finally finished. I get in my Malibu and lazily pull out on to the highway. The snowflakes drift slowly down around me as I drive and think. Like always I have the mountains on my mind. Their tall, graceful forms, the steep snowfields, rock walls clawing their way into the sky like cathedral spires. The bighorn sheep grazing in the alpine meadows far above treeline. That one waterfall where you have to scramble over the wet rocks to reach the alpine lakes above. I can see it all so clearly and miss it greatly.
The car in front of me brakes. Rush hour traffic is beginning. Drivers departing their day jobs for the suburbs, the cable truck headed to his next job, the one unfortunate semi who didn’t make here in time to get through traffic earlier. Why didn’t I leave a few minutes earlier? I could have avoided all of this. Oh well, things could be worse. I ease off the interstate, coast up a few backroads, and pull into the parking lot of what looks like a small warehouse. Every climbing gym I’ve ever visited is like this. Tucked in a back corner of the city, out of sight of the rushing traffic down below. I’m okay with that. It means a little more peace and quiet where I can focus my movements and my thoughts. A few other cars are here before me and we wait while the owner unlocks the door and lets us in. Slightly shivering from the cold I head for the back of the gym without looking up at the arched walls and their myriad of violently bright-colored holds. I wish I had my trad rack with me.
Slowly, I strip off my coat, pants, and boots. I look down at my climbing shoes. They’re getting worn, probably from the drop knees and backsteps I love so much. The uppers have stretched so I’ve taken to wearing a pair of socks to make them tighter. I know I look like a first-timer in a pair of rentals, but it’s better than feeling your feet slip around inside your shoes. Soon I’m lying on the floor in a t-shirt and my North Face hiking pants. I wonder if anyone has noticed that I quit wearing jeans a few months ago. And I’ve taken to wearing my battle-tested Lowas at every possible moment. If they have noticed, no one has mentioned it. No one else in the gym wears hiking pants, but I figure I have never climbed a real mountain in gym shorts, so why train in them? Slowly, I pull out of my stretch and glance at the wall. What do I want to try first? Probably something easy, lots of jugs. Preferably like climbing a ladder, only slightly more complicated. Hips in, arms straight. That’s it. Straighten. Match feet. Twist. Hips in.
The motion is starting to come naturally. The moves link themselves together and slowly become easier. Certainly not effortless though. What next? A crimpy problem? No, my fingers probably can’t take the strain yet. I should probably do a few like that because the Rockies sure can throw a whole lot of crimps your way. Hmm. Steep overhang? Good, for strength training, but I sure hope I never have to climb something like that on lead. I go for the vertical slopers. Nice and slow. Lots of balance. I send the first, fall the off the second. I sure wish they had some crack climbing around here. That’s what I will really need come summertime. I try a few of the juggy overhangs, but can’t seem to get the core motion to unlock the sequence. The problem will still be there tomorrow. I move on.
An hour and a half later, I am lying on the mat looking up at the fluorescent lights. Bob Marley belts out his tune over the noise of my fellow climbers, most of whom have never touched real mountain rock. How do I explain that to them? The smooth feel of granite, it’s chill after a cold night. The endless minutes on a belay ledge waiting for the leader to yell down. The long, slogging approach. The sudden approach of wind and lightening bearing down on you while you frantically set up to rappel. The terror of the unexpected whip well above the bolt. That one committing move that you’re not sure you’ll pull. The elation of reaching the summit. Why are they here? Why do they come to a gym to pull on plastic if they never intend to experience those things? The gym rat remains a mystery to me. Who cares if you sent the latest five put up by your buddy in the cutoff? Don’t they realize these are just pieces of plastic screwed to a wall? Give me the mountains, the freedom of the hills.
Or don’t. That’s the thing about the mountains; they’re never given, no matter how deserving the recipient. They don’t surrender themselves to the one who works the hardest or who trains the most. They must be wooed and courted. You have to understand them, appreciate them, revel in their glories, and weep in their sorrows. In time, they will come and mark your heart so deeply that you cannot leave them behind. They will ask everything of you and give you nothing in return. They will demand your time, money, and thoughts and then dump ice, snow, rain, wind, falling rock, and bad pro on you. Then somewhere in that midst, I hear the whisper of the loving wildness and it all becomes worth it.
The visions disappear in a flash. I’m still on the mat looking up at the lights. That’s why I’m here. I’m waiting. Preparing. Not long from now I will get to dance again with the moon and stars upon the lofty spires and minarets and I plan to be ready. The peaks are an indomitable force and they have bewitched my body and soul. Maybe I can do a little wooing in return. I sit up. One more try. For them I will always do one more.