“What’s your plan?”

I had just made it back to Colorado after four weeks in a jungle on an island that few had heard of, and I was suffering post-expedition depression in a very real way. I remember being asked that question many times in 2015 when I first struck out on the road with my chubby four-legged sidekick. At that time my response was usually just a shrug because I honestly had no plan and I didn’t think I needed one. Maybe I would hang my hat in Colorado for a moment. Or, perhaps I would continue south to Tennessee, where I had so often dreamt of fleeing. Maybe I would just go home to Brooklyn, make a cup of tea and stretch my legs on a couch (my couch). Some days, tea sounded good.

But the truth is: I am not very good at planning. In fact, if the past few weeks have proven anything at all, it’s that I am a terrible planner. Freewheeling spirit types don’t really plan ahead; we just move along like the tide, ebbing and flowing our way through life. A “five-year plan” doesn’t really exist, let alone a “one-year plan”. Last year, I had bumped into a vagabonding friend from SLC and he told me that this was likely his “last hurrah”. Afraid that it was mine, too, I vowed to make it last as long as I could—and then I found myself, a year and a half later, being asked the same question.

“You don’t have a plan and that doesn’t really work for me.”

For the most part, I have managed to circumvent potential relationships—although I will admit, rarely with grace. Because, while relationships are beautiful and there is nothing quite like spending your time and sharing your projects with someone you care about, the point of no return (meaning: falling head over heels for someone and then having the rug pulled from underneath me) was unappealing, to say the least.

And then I met someone. He was a climber, and in knowing him, I finally began to see where I was broken and what needed mending. It became obvious fairly quickly that despite both being climbers, it wasn’t going to work out.

Who could blame him? I was starting to understand what it must feel like to be friends with me. In a year, my latitude and longitude have probably changed more than my underwear, although for seven months I had given a stoic effort to put down real roots. Denver was starting to feel a little bit like home, and then I left for a month, seven thousand miles away, which was ultimately too far for a relationship to endure.

In all of the years that I have been climbing, I have been advised not to date a climber. I have both foolishly and pridefully ignored this advice, believing that there was a Disney-ending in sight and that my Charming was going to love the heck out of multi-pitch trad, cook dinner, and let me lead the hard pitches. Sometimes they did, and it was never that they didn’t stick around; I didn’t.

Admittedly, I have never truly dated a climber; a proper date consists of going out to dinner or to the aquarium, or just spending time in a non-climbing capacity, right? Rock climbing is a just a chance to show him/her that you’re real hot shit when you’re leading 5.9+, Elvis-legging all over the place (like I do).

To be honest, I don’t go out on many dates. I go back and forth on whether this is an essential element to my happiness. The lack of activity on my Tinder profile and in my love-life, in general, never really bothered me simply because I had grown accustomed to a lifestyle that gave me the freedom to wander recklessly, and be accountable only to myself (and my dog). At some point, I had actually become convinced that going climbing with a single member of the opposite sex was a date—one time, I was seeing a guy and he gave me his single portaledge. I mean, that’s practically a marriage proposal.

A friend recently admitted that while he loved climbing with the ladies, he was no longer sure how he felt about dating climbing girls anymore. Both surprised and intrigued, I pressed him for more. He said that he liked the idea of having a partner who had her own shit going on. She could have her passions and he would have his and somewhere in the middle, they could meet again. Ultimately, for him, it came down to skill level: “If you’re not on my skill level, I don’t mind climbing with you sometimes—but I don’t want to climb 5.8 all of the time.”

And then he said the thing that hit me like a sack of bricks: “And basically, if you’re a female and on my skill level, then you’re probably just as selfish as me.”

Is that what I looked like to the opposite sex of the climbing world? I didn’t think it was unusual for my family or friends of a non-climbing capacity to think of me in that way. Was it was foolish of me to assume that fellow climbers wouldn’t feel the same way?

For all of the reasons I had been “warned” not to date a climber, I was guilty of a majority of them, myself. There are always the small concerns, such as the ever-constant smell of homelessness; we’re likely to be sleeping on a Therm-a-Rest in the dirt or, if you’re lucky, the mattress tossed in the back of my CRV; there is not a lot of money to go around, but that’s okay because we can both KILL it at all-you-can-eat sushi night.

These are just some of the amusing little quirks that can come with the climbing lifestyle. But beyond those, what about all of the family holidays I had skipped out on so that I could go climbing? Unanswered replies to baby shower and wedding invitations? Okay, I had left for Africa for four weeks but I wasn’t dead; I was just living in a jungle and it was a one-time thing. But what about all of the times I had left or would leave for days, sometimes weeks, at a time?

The truth is, I will probably talk a lot about my sends or almost-sends. If I am not talking about that, then I am probably telling you about my current project and trying to think of the least obnoxious way to ask you to belay me on it. Chances are, I can’t hold a steady job for long and I am making ends meet using whatever creative means necessary. I am probably saving just enough money to pay the bills and finance the next trip—and then, assuming you will stick around for a week or two for my return, I will wave goodbye without a second glance. I will miss the heck out of you, but you probably can’t convince me to stay.

Choosing a life of uncertainty comes without a plan or permanent address, but also with a special freedom that is both joyful and heartbreaking at the same time. No matter where I am in my life, a part of me thinks that I will always default to the drifter lifestyle, despite problems that can come with the territory. I love the freedom it gives me but like everybody else, I crave stability. I confess that even though my love of the dirtbag climber’s lifestyle is equal to the climbing itself, there is that soft allure of a more stable lifestyle.

What would a more stable life look like for me? There might be less spontaneity in travel plans, and certainly more planning around another’s schedule and compromise. If there is anything that spending time in the mountains with partners has taught me, it’s that fair compromise and planning are everything. Maybe there was something to take away from that.

My climbing partners and I have always worked together to reach a solid goal by putting aside our individual needs to develop that “team mentality”. Too often, I have confused deep relationships for solid partnerships, and while both are important, one suddenly seemed more volatile than the other. My climbing partnerships take time and complete trust, and require me to put my partner’s needs, not ahead of my own but parallel with them.

Some relationships collapse because they require more emotional integrity than we are willing to give. A fly-by-night way of living wasn’t really a life if it was costing me something (or someone) that I loved, and it was time to start asking what he needed from me. Maybe a more stable life wasn’t such a bad thing, and the upside was that there would probably be more back rubs, evening cuddles, dinners-for-two, and (hopefully) a guaranteed belay.

In realizing that I finally got to experience what love could be like, powerful and unconditional, I felt lucky to have had it for a brief moment. Whether you are a drifting through life or have solid roots planted somewhere, moments such as that are often few and far between. When they arrive, pay great attention to the feelings that come along. With them comes the gentle, subtle reminder that, like everything in life, it could be fleeting. Here one moment and then gone, hopefully not before you’ve had a chance to notice, and appreciate it. Ultimately, there is no five-part action plan on how to love somebody the right way. You can only plan to live with love—love and live.

8 thoughts

  1. I dunno…

    I mean, no offense, but I think this has nothing to do with the activity of Rock Climbing and everything to do with personality. I mean, sure you can put some climbers in the dirtbag category just as easily as you can put some white-collar pencil pushers in the “real climber” category. It’s really kinda disingenuous to paint a sport, or a lifestyle with such a broad brush. Saying that all climbers are selfish, or that having a solid relationship and pursuing one’s own goals are mutually exclusive is kinda silly isn’t it?

    I’d like to call myself a climber. In my short 5 years of calling myself of member of the climbing community, my list of accomplishments has grown to include 5.13 redpoints, and onsighting 5.12 multipitch routes. I’ve also managed to bag big alpine routes, and become half decent at the retarded waste of time and pure discomfort that is ice & mixed scrappling.

    But on top of my climbing resume, I also hold down a 9-5 job making just shy of 100K per year, have a 10 year old daughter, and have held down a long term relationship with a (gasp!) 5.8 climber.

    Heck, did I mention that I spend most of my climbing time with my 5.8 climbing partner? Maybe i’m just lucky to have crags around that offer good climbs of different grades in the same area, and that she enjoys doing alpine climbing and moderate multi-pitches as well. I mean, we’ve even done trips together.

    I mean, to each his/her own, but don’t paint the rest of us with the same brush you’ve written your own life with.

    1. Well duh, it’s personality. The same way your personality just had you boasting you insight 5.12 trad and make 100k. The point you were trying to make could have been made without that. Why add it? Because personality plays into everything. At the end of the day, we all have to own our own.

  2. This post is spot on. I first noticed the selfish climbing nature of my husband when I wasn’t sending anything hard. When my climbing slowly started to improve I became more selfish. Like you, I started talking about my sends and asking for beta more often than not. But I’ve decided, and found, a balance. For us, it’s about our passion, and we both recognize that. For so long, selfish has been the worst thing you can be. I think if you’re holding on to something that brings you life and gives you joy and passion and meaning, then you shouldn’t let it go. Instead find someone else who cherishes and values the same thing.

    It’s not easy, this battling of climbing egos. But when you find it, you’re right, it’s worth it. Cheers!

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