Nick and I had completed the first three months of our climbing road trip, landing in British Columbia. Our first stop was a basement apartment in Burnaby which we only held onto for a month or so. The drive over the bridge to North Vancouver and the climbing gym, The Edge, was mind numbing to say the least. Settled in North Vancouver, writing my thesis, working three jobs and trying to continue to climb, we were also burdened with our rescue dog, Ashley. Ashley was a lovely golden retriever who had one very challenging flaw. She never wanted to be alone. If left alone, she would do some damage. In addition to this challenge, the universe saw fit to have our apartment broken into and my computer that I was doing my thesis on, stolen and our landlady was none to pleased that her home had been broken into.
The stress of multiple jobs, barely making enough to pay rent, groceries and very little outdoor climbing time, not to mention a dog who destroyed stuff when you left her alone combined with the calamity of break ins left both Nick and I pretty unhappy. We broke up.
We still had the logistics of finding separate places to live and had decided that neither of us was in a position to care for the dog on our own which meant we needed to find a new home for her. The carefree days of getting up and going climbing were long gone.
My heart broken and my mind dispersed, I embarked on a girls climbing trip to Canmore, would be the thing for me. Out on the rocks, we met a few other climbers, one of whom had just moved back to Canada after doing studies in university in Colorado. Curious, I pried more information out of him while I also tried to figure how the heck I might clip that second bolt without having to do the crux move first and cursing the first ascentionist who must not have considered that a shorter person might break an ankle or take a ground fall because they couldn't just stand on the ledge to clip.
I returned to North Vancouver with a plan. I was done with Vancouver and it's endless traffic, incredibly expensive rents and long-ass drives to the crags. I was going to do a PhD in Boulder, Co. I had a plan. I was excited and less broken hearted. This made it a little easier for Nick and I to actually have conversation.
Nick was thinking university, giving up climbing. Maybe. We had this conversation about how he felt unfulfilled with climbing. He only saw the difficulty of training and not having a lot of routes to challenge him. A little back story... the month before, Nick had gone on a climbing trip to Smith Rocks. His goal was to do his first 5.13a. He did 5.13a, 5.13b and 5.13c. In other words, he shattered what he set out to do and now - 1995 remember - returned to a predominately trad climbing mecca with few route options and even fewer potential climbing partners. This was the year however, when local Squamish climber Jim Sanford would climb Canada's first 5.14a, Pulse, in Cheakamus Canyon.
I suggested he try trad climbing. Up to this point, Nick had really only clipped bolts. I had started by placing gear on trad routes, mind you I did lack a great deal of experience. I did have a very small rack and enough experience on how to use the gear to share what I knew with Nick. So we went out and did a couple of pitches of 5.10. Nick was excited. On the drive back to North Vancouver, Nick decided that he wanted to do something bigger, more adventurous. We went to the gym and he chatted with folks we knew who did a lot of trad climbing. He figured out borrowing some gear and we made a plan to climb the next day. I asked which route he wanted to do and he answered, The Grand Wall.
I know I have written about this adventure before, but let's review the facts. At this time, I climbed 5.11c/d on a good day. This would happen in the gym after I tried the route a few times and figured out the moves. I mentioned Nick could redpoint 5.13, and his onsight was about 5.12a/b. Up until this particular day, the hardest trad route I had climbed was 5.10+ and the longest route I had done was maybe eight pitches of climbing. Nick had only placed gear on the two pitches of 5.10 we had done the day before.
It was an epic day. I was coached by an anonymous climber to not completely layback the split pillar. Advice I ignored due to my lack of off width climbing experience. Nick cruised the route and every other pitch as well. I again cursed my height while trying to climb the bolt ladder section and regretted my decision to layback the split pillar when I realized I not only had to layback Perry's layback, I also was carrying all the gear while doing it. Yes, that is correct, we were so inexperienced, we did not know enough to send the gear up to Nick before I climbed.
Nick cajoled me through the final pitches of the route, successfully getting us to Belly good ledge. After hours in the sun and heat and working harder than my body had worked before, this was the breaking point for me. Half way across that ledge, laughter bubbled out of me. I lay there terrified and confident I would never ever be at this place again in my life. Nick, initially unsure about my mental instability, but as patient as ever, chuckled and smiled and continue to coax me to just wriggle a little further and I eventually made it to the other side.
The car ride back to North Vancouver was filled with comfortable quiet. Fortunately, sneaking out of the window in the bedroom had not alerted Ashley that we were gone for the day and nothing had been destroyed. Nick went out that evening with friends and I stayed and worked on the thesis. Nick returned quite early though and I cautiously asked why he hadn't stayed out with friends. The door opened and we chatted about our day and eventually got around to his dreams. Specifically, I heard him say, he wanted to 5.14 but BC didn't have the selection of routes for him to capture that dream. He was right. He also acknowledged he didn't know where climbing could take him and that is why it may just be time to go to university.
As a coach, I have gotten good at hearing people's dreams. And their fears. We all have dreams, even if we think we don't, we do. We just haven't been able to access them because of all the noise of day to day living. When I got quiet, in nature, doing something physical, something I loved, I heard the whisper of my heart say, 'let's do it, let's live in Boulder, Co and get a PhD.' I also heard my resistance. 'Only Americans can live in the US and you are not American. And you would have to get accepted into the PhD program. Your grades and project are not good enough.'
Sitting there with Nick, I heard his dream... to continue to climb harder routes, to climb 5.14, to live a life focused on climbing hard routes. And I heard his resistance, that's not the smart thing to do. You should get a degree and be practical about getting a good job.
Sitting in the evening light, in the backyard of the little lower level apartment we had, I said to him, "you can choose university at any time in your life, but you will only have this twenty year old body now. If you want to climb 5.14, it is better to try to accomplish that now and go to university when you are older, than to wait until you are older to try to climb that level." The conversation shifted to how... how could he make it happen.
Seizing the opportunities and the dreams in front of you is essential to realizing those dreams. We ended up together and married for ten years. Nick sent many 5.14's and we did essentially live in Boulder. I never did start or complete a PhD, but I did get well schooled in all things climbing. If Nick had not confronted his doubt about the value of his dream, he would not have chosen to fill his life with adventures he pursued. If I had chosen to believe my research wasn't good enough, I wouldn't have continued to pursue the question what makes someone a good climber. That question has fuelled my career and filled it with so many amazing humans, I would not trade it for anything.
There is a story about a farmer and a lesson in not knowing...
There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.
“Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy for what they called his “misfortune.”
“Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
“Maybe,” said the farmer.
The bottomline... we don't know what is better, but we do know what we can choose today, in the moment. We do know we can choose what inspires light and joy or what inspires fear. Choose wisely and seize this moment.
Writing, journalling, podcasting... it's all about sharing the journey.