Have I lost my fire?
Feeling haggard and out of breath near the very beginning of this modest approach, I pause for a step and drink deep from the forest air.
Maybe I packed too much crap in my crash pad. Do I really need both pairs of shoes, a full liter and a half of water, and a jobsite fan with an extra big battery? A first aid kit, a bit more foam than the bare minimum, a multitool, and a ton of extra calories just in case? The weight of my second-guessing adds up. A couple pounds of bulk fruit snacks that I was too lazy to portion out are melting into a rainbow corn syrupy mess back there, while I huff and puff down this trail.
Were my legs stronger back in the day, or was I just carrying less shit?
I watch my dog Tiberius army-crawl his way under a low log that he would have casually vaulted a few years ago. He’s aging too. I see it every day in the way he moves, the way he looks after a long day out. Someday soon, I’ll have to think twice about bringing him on days like this.
Maybe we’ll stuff him in a backpack and bring him anyway. He’d fucking hate that.
Ty’s white and grey now, like a Photoshop filter run on the bright-eyed puppy I met a decade ago. A funhouse mirror for my own grapple with mortality.
We get to the rocks and do what we came here to do. Jumping around the talus field, my Nietzschean self-pity evaporates in the joy of movement. At some point in the middle of the day, while I’m trying the moves on a burly roof problem, it strikes out of nowhere like summer lightning: I’m still strong. I’m still good at this.
Tired, fine. Older. Not old by a longshot – but older, anyway. That’s fine too. It’s all relative.
A bit slower, a bit rougher.
But strong as hell.
Why do we diminish our own successes, exaggerate our own losses, and generally make ourselves miserable about the past?
Why do we act like it’s all over as soon as we get injured once – when there are so many accounts of successful athletes climbing into their 50s, 60s and 70s?
Why are we so quick to assume our glory days are behind us?
Climbing – especially bouldering – makes me feel like a child in a playground. When I urge others to put the guidebooks away, and the apps away, and forsake the descriptions of start holds down to what finger goes on what crystal – I think I’m trying to bring them around to this sensation. This freedom of the moves being whatever you want them to be. Because this feeling, however difficult to access, is totally ageless.
Yes, someday we’ll all feel the ground shift underneath us – the gentle twilight of our waning performance. But if we know that night is inevitable, then we can choose how to meet it.
Let’s not plug our ears like fitness influencers would have us do. Let’s not act like we’ll all be lifting and climbing at our max right up to the moment our corpses are put in the ground. That’s no solace. That’s ignorance.
On the other hand, let’s not give up right now and spend the rest of our days on the couch. Wishing we’d climbed a few more pitches. Wishing we’d gone after that big objective. There’s no haven there for us either.
Somewhere in the middle is the path. Not naively ignorant of entropy and death, but neither cynically self-confined to early decrepitude.
We just have to keep doing our best.
I have a friend in his early 50s who climbs on the Moonboard all the time. Watching him, you can see that he has more hip control and finger power than just about any 20-something. He told me the Pipe Dream cave in Maple is where old climbers go to die, and he intends to keep training power and strength and staying snappy for as long as he can.
It’s this inspiring middle path we should take. We should do everything we can to stay strong and hale, but also prepare ourselves psychologically to change our relationship with climbing if we need to.
We should keep our eyes off the rear view, and on the road.
Maybe what seems like anxiety – the first aid kit, the “all the pads, all the time” mentality, the Boy Scout ten essentials in my pack – isn’t a sign that I’m getting too old for this shit. Maybe it’s a sign that I know what the hell I’m doing, finally.
Back in reality, I notice that on an undercling move, I can arm-bar my elbow against a feature instead of actually pulling out on the hold. I suss out a way to keep my foot on for the move where all the kids cut loose on YouTube. I find a way to top out that’s not too heinous. I sit and hope our friends show up with the rest of the pads so I can shake off the existential dread of a bad fall way up here, alone, in a talus field, on a weekday.
Ty tries to find a place to settle in this cave and doesn’t have much luck. Turns out, piled up rocks aren’t great for midday naps. He knows to stay off the pads, but they’re the only soft thing around and he’s desperate. He looks about a thousand years old while he refuses to abdicate his newfound comfort.
This thing is pretty steep. I haven’t been doing much climbing this steep lately. Is my old rib injury going to flare up? Plus the approach with the heavy pads – my legs are tired. Is that heel hook at the top going to make my knee hurt the whole way back to the car?
Self-doubt creeps upwards from my guts. I cram it back down with fruit snacks.
I get the fuck-up-the-beta-halfway-through burn out of the way. There’s always one of those goes on complex problems like this. I feel a tiny spark of confidence and tell my friend that now it’s just a question of skin. This lie, given air, covers up the quiet truth of my exhaustion.
This spark just shows up when it wants to. I don’t know where it comes from. It lives deep inside me, I guess.
Our friends meet us with the rest of the pads, including a spare for Ty to hang out on. I send the roof in a burning flash of try-hard.
While I’m fist bumping them, in my head I’m wondering if I’ll ever stop doubting myself. But I know I won’t. Like muscle aches and broken bones, self-doubt is a part of this vessel.
Someday I’ll be 50, doing this dance, laughing at how easy I thought I had it at 35.
If we could climb next to our past selves, more than likely we’d laugh at our own ignorance. Sure, I don’t have the youthful safety net of painless effort and infinite recovery points. But I don’t need it as much, either – I make fewer mistakes, I find more clever workarounds, I calculate my time and energy more wisely. These are the affordances that a long athletic career brings; not going harder, but going better.
Halfway down the trail home, Ty passes me at a full sprint. He jumps the log that he wormed under before with Olympian grace – fully caught up in the moment.
And I remember for a brief second my favorite thing about having a dog in the first place: they are always in the moment. We should be so lucky.
The spark will show up when it wants to. If it does, let it ignite you. If it doesn’t, keep going anyway.
The road ahead is long, if we let ourselves focus on it.
Teach me something with which to face these troubles. Bring it to pass that I shall cease trying to escape from death, and that life may cease to escape from me. Give me courage to meet hardships; make me calm in the face of the unavoidable. Relax the straitened limits of the time which is allotted me. Show me that the good in life does not depend upon life’s length, but upon the use we make of it; also, that it is possible, or rather usual, for a man who has lived long to have lived too little. Say to me when I lie down to sleep: “You may not wake again!” And when I have waked: “You may not go to sleep again!” Say to me when I go forth from my house: “You may not return!” And when I return: “You may never go forth again!”
Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 49