Originally published in New Zealand Mountain Biker

Originally appeared in New Zealand Mountain Biker Magazine


Come Back

I don’t remember the day that I stopped climbing.  It wasn’t a planned event, foretold before the day.  I didn’t untie from the rope shake hands with my comrades and call time.  No, it was something that grew inside me, until one day the desire to stop overtook the desire to keep going.

To know my story, you must first know the story of my friend.  It was years ago and a blink in my minds eye that I packed up and made the move from Canada to Aoteroa.  Wanaka was the first port of call, a place that I had visited years before that I had always wanted to return.  Wanaka turned out to be everything and nothing all at once.  Beautiful, warm and cold.  We found the climbing we were looking for, but along the way we found a town that was a tough nut to crack.  Insular and cliquey like a television high-school, we were left out in the cold, on the outside looking in.  I gave up on trying to make climbing partners and became a soloist.

By soloist, no misleading here, I was a boulderer.  I climbed alone and climbing became a spiritual experience.  I was free of the too cool for school locals who wouldn’t let me into their funky sideburn club.  I’d almost given up when I met my friend.  We moved after that first winter to a little cabin on the corner of his lot; we shared a lawn, dogs and cups of tea in the summer sun.  Our landlords were two people who would become good friends, and good friends who became mentors in relationships, mountains and life. My friend had an air of calm that impressed me to no end and a laugh that reminded me of some sort of caged African animal.  After I got to know him I made peace with climbing and lost all concern for the scene that climbing had become.  I fell in love with it again, the movement, the freedom and the comradeship.

As the wind changed to the South and the orchard leaves fell it was time for me to go.  I was going back to Canada to visit my family and go on a climbing trip. The night before I left I went over to their house to say farewell.  We clasped hands and wished each other well.  While I was off to rock climb in Canada, he was leaving for Nepal soon.  We promised to share pictures and a nip of single malt when I got back.

Of course life didn’t quite work out that way.  I was climbing the day that my friend died, off in the Bugaboos, miles from reality.  I was having the trip of a lifetime, everything a climbing trip is supposed to be.  Like a child I was free, not a care in the world.  After three weeks in the hills, I made my way back to civilization.  The two week old email hit me like a bucket of water.  In that instant everything changed.

It’s easy to talk with cavalier callousness and proclaim that as a climber we can expect to lose friends.  I didn’t, I didn’t sign up for this life to have my friends snatched away in their prime.  Climbing was suddenly different.  That knowledge, that loss, had tainted everything.

A month later I was back in New Zealand and I tried to move on.  I climbed, and I worked, I had great days in the mountains with good friends.  But there was no going back, life would never be the same as it once was, I’d lost my innocence, at every turn the consequences of the world knocked at the door.  Sometimes it would make me happy to climb, sometimes sad, but most of all I just missed my friend.

As time went by I began to change.  Climbing began to change for me.  I had a close call one day, slipping on frosty ground above a crag and scaring myself enough to make me sick to my stomach.  I came home that night and wept.  Climbing once the sport that had inspired me so much, had given me so much hope, filled so many of my dreams had become the devil inside.

I went from climbing almost daily to once a week, then a fortnight and then one day I stopped.  I don’t remember the day, not even the month; it ended like a pen pal or a fading love affair.  Climbing slipped quietly into the night and I didn’t even see it go.  I moved on.  Climbing friends became acquaintances and I faded away reinventing my existence.

Where I was once a climber I became the owner of climbing gear. A year passed, then a second one, two summers where I didn’t think of climbing and climbing didn’t think of me.  Then one day as the sun rose high in the spring sky and the wind was warm I broke my fast.  I can’t say why I did it; just like I didn’t choose to stop, I can’t remember choosing to start again.

I dug out my climbing shoes and pulled them on in the living room, like a child making sure their school shoes fit after summers neglect.  I found a chalk bag and rescued my bouldering pad from the mildew monster, I threw the unfamiliar gear that was once my closest friends into the car and drove to a little bouldering area near the house.

As I walked to the first stone I was full of trepidation.  Would I remember how to climb, would I want to?  Wouldn’t it be easier to just forget the whole thing and leave it behind for good?  It would be easy to do; the only thing holding me back was me.  I put my shoes on and dipped my hands in chalk.  Grinding the white into the creases of my palms I got lost in thought.  I thought about my friend, I thought about slipping on the frost, I thought about love and life and climbing and everything else.  It was a lifetime of thought all at once.  And then I reached up to the first hold and everything went silent.

My mind was focused on the first move and the quartz crystal cut into my soft fingers.  As I left the safety of the ground everything started to come back.  I’d climbed this dirty little rock more times then I could count, like remembering that song mother made you learn on the piano, I knew without knowing.  I climbed it again for the first time and when I got to the top everything came clear, like waking from a dream.

Climbing had given me everything.  It was where I met my friends, my wife; it’s where I made my living and was the star I sailed my ship by.  Then in an instant it took nearly everything away.  But that day as I sat on top of the boulder and remembered the joy and the gifts climbing had given me over a lifetime, I thought of my friend and I made my peace.  I was finally ready to say goodbye.  Not goodbye to climbing, but farewell to the chains laid around my neck.

I breathed deep, whispered a few quiet words to myself and looked around, there were so many boulders to climb and for the first time in a lifetime, I was happy to see them.

Originally published in the New Zealand Alpine Journal

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