A Community’s Service

As a senior in high school, the author was searching for an adult identity and acceptance into a community when she discovered rock climbing. Little did she know then that the results of this discovery would alter the entire course of her life.

“The real epidemic in our culture is … what I call emotional and spiritual heart disease: the sense of loneliness, isolation, and alienation that is so prevalent in our culture because of the breakdown of the social networks that used to give us a sense of connection and community.” –Dr. Dean Ornish

I never really wanted to rock climb. Sure, I participated in sports my whole life, but always in the conventional ones like soccer, swimming, softball, and basketball. The most out-of-the-ordinary physical activity I did was horseback riding, which I loved but never quite fit into, not owning my own horse, not having parents willing to pay the big bucks it would have cost for me to excel. I really wanted that — to excel at some sport, or at least to love it enough to train hard and try my best. But I never wanted to rock climb.

My boyfriend coaxed me to go rock climbing at the end of my senior year of high school. I didn’t try it sooner because I hadn’t wanted to cut my nails, which were always painted bright red back then. When I finally gave in, I was surprised that instead of the scrambling up rocky slopes that I had pictured in my mind, we were actually toproping the vertical walls of a 35-foot granite aqueduct. My first day climbing, I made it about three feet off of the ground.

It only took two or three climbing sessions before I was hooked. Hooked on the intricacy of the movement, determined that I would make it to the top of the section of wall I was attempting (the “easiest” route at the Arches, as the bridge was called by the climbers). But I was hooked on something else, too: the climbers.

For the first time in my life, I felt like an equal among adults. I found a place where adults really listened to me, and did not expect to be called Mr. or Mrs., but merely first names. It went beyond the names, though. I experienced a deep sense of mutual respect, a lack of condescension that I’d never quite felt before. Here, at the Arches, among climbers, I discovered what it was like to be treated like an adult by adults, to have my opinion valued, to be taken seriously, to be accepted into a community of people of all ages driven by the same love: the love of climbing.

Their understanding of me helped me to grow and change, not only as a climber, but also as a person. I had no equipment of my own, but those guys — Norm, John, Barry, Leon — they lent me their too-big shoes, their harnesses, their chalk bags, and they belayed me and taught me.

“Ha ha ha,” my boyfriend laughed when we broke up. “You’ll quit climbing now. You just wait and see.”

But he was wrong. Actually, he ended up quitting climbing, and my passion remains just as strong now as it was back then, if not more so. Over the past seven years, I’ve come to realize that it’s not just the climbing itself that keeps me coming back for more.

No, it’s the people, the community, that I savor and love. Nothing beats a campfire out in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of other climbers, trading stories and laughter late into the evening. Hanging out at the end of the day is as much of a ritual as rock climbing itself has become. The indoor climbing gym only reinforces those community ties during the week. And whenever I travel, I carry my gear with me, or at least my shoes and my chalk bag, knowing that if I find a spare moment, I can almost assuredly hook up with a local group of climbers.

I never really had a hero when I was growing up. I never had posters on my wall of my latest heartthrobs, and never thought, “I want to be just like him or her.” But I do know that those first climbers I met, back at the Arches, became the closest people to heroes in my life. They made me one of them, and as a teenager, I didn’t really want much more.

April 13th, 2010 - Posted in Sport | | Comments Off

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