Saturday, August 06, 2011

A Farewell to the 'Gunks

Waiting my turn on Shockley's
This was probably my last trip to the 'Gunks in what is likely to be a few years. Kind of sad about it, to be honest, but excited, too. This has been the summer of "vacation" climbing, as one of my friends coined over our recent trip to Acadia. Ever since my disaster of a Rumney trip in June, I've been hoping to simply get out and enjoy the day with nothing more getting in the way. As a result, climbing has never been more relaxing: No goals, no cares, just climbing and being with friends. This has been a sort of a good-bye summer even though I know I'll be back someday. However, when I do come back it'll undoubtedly be as a different man than not only the one who left but also the one who has chilled the last two seasons. Who that person is will be a surprise to me, I'm sure, and, oddly, the 'Gunks have played a large role in that transformation.

We took our 'Gunks weekends seriously
I've really enjoyed the climbing there. While it didn't suit my style in the beginning, I quickly learned and it ended up being the place where I cut my teeth, learned a lot, had quite a few of my biggest failuresand most of my successes, too. Like Red Rocks, this place has defined my climbing goals: moderate multi-pitch trad with lots of exposure.

I'm leaving behind a few open projects, and quite possibly a tradition, for me the past few years anyway, of climbing every single weekend. Who knows if I'll get out as much as I have in the past few years. The 'Gunks provided me and my several partners out of Boston a location where we climbed damn near every weekend for about four years straight (warm seasons only, obviously). Some weekends went better than others. There was romance and there was pure adrenaline. There were moments of mistaken identity and then days when wished I was a no one buried  beneath the boulders with the copperheads and millipedes. Most of the time I came to learn something about myself, and more often than not I drove home in the late Sunday-afternoon traffic on I-90 believing that I had done something to make me a better person.

"Blow" coming up Sixish
Since I left Children's Hospital Boston in 2010 to pursue writing, traveling, and general adventure, I haven't had as many climbing opportunities as I did before that (I left CHB right about the time many of my friends and climbing partners had also moved out of the area). Climbing has taken a back seat to life. Yes, it still represents an important part of my life, but while many people have called me a coward as a climber, climbing has never been the adventure in my life. Instead, the adventure has been the exploring of the world, often times going to a country alone where I didn't even speak the language, just to see what was out there. I wonder how many of those who call me a coward would do that, to be honest, even if I don't think doing that is particularly courageous thing to do (though I've met dozens of people who think it's crazy). For me, it's about finding what one does best in life, learning new ideas and new ways to apply oneself, and tackling the greatest fears one really has: what, if anything, am I really supposed to do here? Many folks believe they have it figured out. They'll say they live for what they're doing, and what they're doing is enough for them to be happy. That's great. I'm happy for them, too. Finding peace and a place in this world is one of the hardest skills to master. I'd like to think I'm on my way, but I know I have a lot to learn. In my mind, that's the scariest part of all of this, going where I have no clue what lays ahead.

The author on Ants Line
The 'Gunks provided me with a lot of crucial training for this. I was forced to think about things in a way that transferred into other parts of life. For instance, upon reading Ernest Hemingway's The Short and Happy Life of Francis Macomber, a new attitude came about that has stayed with me since it helped me to get up Ant's Line (5.9). That story, and that climb, made me think about going out and doing what I had set out to do. While I was still six months away from deciding my fate at that point, that single weekend proved to me that I could do whatever it was I wanted to do.

There were also so many moments in the 'Gunks when I was afraid. I backed off countless routes and forged ahead on others, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But each of those prepared me for the toughest decisions I was about to make. I left a cushy job at a world-class institution to live with no money in a country whose language I didn't speak. My family was split over it, which has now come to the point where several members don't even want me around because they think I should be punished for not being a productive member of society (their definition of productive being different than mine). Facing a scary move is nothing compared to sacrificing a relationship with a dear family member who I once looked up to (and still do) in the name of finding oneself. The hurt of backing off a climb can't compare to the hurt of losing the respect of a loved one. The notion of committing to a climb pales in comparison to committing to saying good-bye to a cherished home when half of what makes that home so special is the atmosphere of the loved ones who have made it so. We can always go back to a climb, but we can never go back to the experience. Once that innocence is lost, it is lost forever. My climbing in the 'Gunks gave me a now-or-never view in life that I had never had before, and for that I'm forever grateful because I understand now that I don't want to lose the experience of living life.
"Caboose" not on lead this time

I'd like to think that my time in 'Gunks have produced some results for others, too. For instance, "Caboose" has finally started feeling confident leading on gear (as evidenced by her several leads during this past weekend). I pushed "KITT" to lead harder and he did, often falling and getting right back up to do it again. A few days before this particular weekend he backed off a couple of climbs he would have aced a couple of years ago, but that's OK, too. I feel he's learned in that regard as well. There are other stories, but most of those are the same that every climber has who has had good partners, which I have. In fact, my 'Gunks partners have probably been the best partners I've ever had, and many of us cut our teeth together on those same horizontals and roofs that dominate the crag-line.

"Jello" on the classic P2 of Bonnie's Roof
Despite my glory and horrors there, and despite the mixed emotions of going there for what feels like the final time, I wasn't so motivated to climb hard or really push myself as I had in previous years. For me it was about beating the heat and enjoying the weekend. I looked forward more to swimming at Split Rock than I did climbing Bonnie's Roof (5.9), for instance, which is a first-pitch climb that is an open project for me. Why is this so? Well, maybe I've moved on, or grown up, so to speak. It's possible that I've learned what I've needed to learn from climbing in the 'Gunks and it's time for me to find a new challenge. I did manage my first ever first ascent in Chile, and that could be a turning point, too. Of course, I could just relent to the ease that sport climbing allows for frequent international travel. Or maybe I could simply move on and grow up even more, playing fewer silly games and instead focusing more on whatever it is that I need to do, which, at times, I admit is still several life-long chapters away. Either way I'm OK with it all. What happens next is what happens next and there's no need to be sentimental. Yes, I'll miss the 'Gunks, but I'll find a new place and I'm sure that new place will have just as many lessons to teach me. All I have to do is be a good student and learn. Climb hard? Pffffttt...I'd rather live hard at this point, and thanks to the 'Gunks for teaching me that.
The author at peace


Chris (KITT) said...

A great and insightful article. I hope to be able to be your climbing partner again at some point. Thanks for teaching me tread climbing and being patient as some of my leads have taken a long time and others I backed out of during the middle of a pitch. Bon voyage!
Chris (KITT)

Greg said...

Hey Chris,

We'll definitely climb again. Once a good partner always a good partner, and you're a good partner. Spain? France? Chile? US? It'll happen for sure.