It’s time to wax philosophic. I love the smell of sweat-stiffened nylon, stained white from climbing chalk. The slight stench of climbing shoes makes me nostalgic. When I first began climbing these smells epitomized rock climbing. I scrambled and bouldered on the slippery graffiti-covered traprock cliffs in Watchung Reservation. I still remember my first outings in the Gunks. Ascents like V-3, Modern Times and Elder Cleavage remain etched in my mind. The exposure was terrifying, yet supremely satisfying. Spraining both ankles during a lead fall on Classic stands out too.
Many rock seasons have come and gone since then. I don’t notice the smell of sweaty stiff nylon or the distinct smell of climbing gear in my pack anymore – I miss this. I’ve retired dozens of fuzzy, chalk-coated climbing ropes. Lots of my stinky climbing shoes have been thrown away. I haven’t paid a visit to the small basalt crags at Watchung in over a decade and frankly, that’s alright. I’ve climbed V-3 more times than I can count on two hands and Elder Cleavage is still hard. My ankles still crackle and roll easily as a result of spraining them on Classic in 1998.
After hundreds of days of climbing and miles of vertical up-and-down in the Gunks it’s easy to become desensitized. Day in and day out, It’s just climbing. Buying new gear can be a drag. Many evenings I’m tired and gathering the motivation to run or climb after the work of guiding seems like an insurmountable challenge. I have most of the routes at the McCarthy Wall ruthlessly wired – I’m a toprope master. It’s hard not to spew gear beta at newcomers trying to onsight Star Action.
The truth is, it’s not just climbing. Ask someone who’s no longer able to climb due to injury, or because they don’t have the spare time or money. They’ll tell you the truth – it’s a wonderful way to live and a beautiful way to move. Seeing familiar faces at the crag each weekend is a relief, and it stands in stark contrast to our busy internet-laden digital lives. Whether it’s an onsight or a thousandth ascent, the way we move over stone is beautiful. It’s meditative and the tunnel vision, the narrowing of our focus to a single spot, which starts with our handholds and ends with our footholds isn’t confinement, it’s liberation.
This rock season in the Gunks has been eye-opening for me. Outwardly, very little has changed – things still look the same. As a guide though, seeing people enjoy every single pitch of the climbs we do together has helped remind me that climbing is special.
It’s good not to forget that.