Together on the Wall
Last year, when my circumstances in Hawaii changed and it was time to pack up and move on, I had family in Boulder that I hadn’t seen in far too long and, with no plans or places to be and having just started climbing, Colorado seemed like the most logical choice. I really had no idea of what the environment would be like, or to what opportunities I was about to expose myself. All I knew was that this area was a cradle of the sport in all of its forms, and I figured that, if I were to pursue it in any capacity, there would be no shortage of options here.
And I never could have foreseen how, even then, I was so drastically underestimating the true extent of those options. To liken Boulder to Mecca as many do is a cosmetic statement, really, a connection that is all too easy to draw and does no service to the complex and varied webs that are woven here. That very same complexity is what’s made relocating to this place as a climbing novice so overwhelming and yet so interesting. It’s a strange sensation to be struggling on a beginner-level route in the gym, just feet away from some of the strongest and most renowned climbers in the world.
There is so much to be taken for granted – the average levels of strength, ability, and experience here, not just among climbers but in all physical disciplines, really, is so far beyond the realm of accepted standards in other places that it skews our very ideas of success. The grades and bucket lists and projects and accomplishments engaged by the local, everyday climber are astounding in their realistic ambition. Beyond that, Boulder is not just an epicenter of the sport but of the industry, too. The business, the aesthetic. There are social media and likes to be had and sponsorships to be won and company warehouses and photoshoots and magazines and interviews and aggressive outdoor development and the incredibly enticing, hunger-filled possibility of being seen, recognized, acknowledged for what you love.
Through the pervasiveness of this particular lens, it’s so very easy to begin to think that these are the things that determine worth, for them to affect how one may judge their own value as a participant. It’s even easier through all of the noise to begin to forget what the sport means to us on a quiet, personal level. It is one thing to try to determine why we climb, and then a wholly separate endeavor to try to determine why we keep climbing. Often the thrall of what grips us evolves over time into something completely different, aging and constantly refined, our motivations and desires always within arm’s length of the possibility of becoming completely unrecognizable when compared with our original intent.
The realm of climbing is always spoken of as a “community,” which implies a sense of solidarity, sameness, but the practicality of this is questionable. Does it also imply shared values? If so, how are they defined? What role does vanity play, for all of us? How does the public image of climbing affect the majority of people who touch rock, and to what extent does this actually represent them? Though we can try to describe philosophically and to pinpoint exactly what it is about climbing that satisfies us on a more interior plane, the truth is that our motivations vary as wildly as the day jobs and personalities of the seemingly endless number of people in whom this passion lives throughout Boulder and the world.
How do we keep moving forward in the face of all of this intense pressure of community that is inherent in Boulder climbing, whether we like to admit it or not? It’s very easy on the surface to say that one shouldn’t let the outside influences bother us, to ignore the glittery distraction and to climb for any singular reason we may deem important, but the truth of the matter is that the community shapes the sport. We grip and take part in the evolution of ethics, the sharing of lands and natural space, the traffic at the crags, companies and businesses and consumer influence that control the cash flow and the support of gyms, facilities, parks, competitions, the perception and impact of a sport that is growing rapidly and is at a major crossroads of its history and its future.
This affects us all equally and makes us one and the same, the freshly callused and the leathered veterans, the casual lovers who rise as a way to unwind and those who can be found at almost any hour of the day in the off season at the gym, preparing in all of their dedication to get out and realize the things that were once thought to be impossible. This aspect of climbing is beautiful in and of itself, the ways that we strive and the effect we have on our own environment through any degree of participation. It is a reminder to revere our own growth, not just in our abilities but in our unspoken intimacy. A return to the students within ourselves who first touched rope, aware of what we don’t know and conscious of our love in something bigger than ourselves. A reminder to stay humble as simple men at the feet of mountains.