Life in the Gunks: A New PerspectiveWednesday, September 7, 2016
All photos: Ryan Garber
Hanging from a jug with my foot jammed in a crack above my head, I focused on my breathing and reducing the throbbing in my fatigued forearms. Swapping hands on a decent rail, I gave my last piece a swift tug. The 200 feet of exposure pulling at me from below felt like a bowling ball hanging from my harness, making me more frightened and pumped than I care to admit. I had already pushed through 30 meters of steep, inverted staircase climbing on bullet ivory rock, placing decent finger-sized cams with horrifying spaces between them. Now, I was two-thirds out the final 25-foot horizontal roof of Ozone, resting before the final hard section.
As I rested, I could hear songbirds chirping below. The last rays of low-angled autumn light danced across the golden foliage of the surrounding hillsides, and over my right shoulder, in the distance, was the Skytop Tower—an iconic structure in the Gunks.
The height and exposure at my back was real and penetrating, so different from the life I thought I’d be living when I grew up in Western Kentucky. As a kid, I was just 45 minutes from the 1960s problems of bouldering guru John Gill. But I didn’t discover climbing until college. I had quit competitive gymnastics a few years earlier after spending 14 years of my life dedicated to a sport whose rigid structure burnt me out. And then my brother Reid invited me to the climbing gym.
Climbing had all the things I had liked about gymnastics: It required movement, body awareness and knowing the mechanics of weight distribution. It was highly familiar, but there was also a creative element that gymnastics didn’t have—the medium was always changing, the patterns were always in flux. Three weeks after my first day climbing, I led my first outdoor climb, feeling for the first time that primal fear of heights and experiencing the sense of communicating with real rock—my finger tips burned like they’d been held to a hot fire. There was a kind of pleasure in the pain, one that made me feel totally alive.
The trajectory of my life took a stark turn after that first climbing trip. Since then, everything I did was somehow centered around how much and where I could climb. Over the span of 10 years, I had 32 different addresses, each lasting only a few months. I worked crappy, expendable jobs, rented from friends and for a very long time I could fit all my belongings into the back of my car.
But back then it was always about sport climbing. I was focused on climbing as hard as I could, projecting and sending, a frustrating process for me but one that had bled over from years of gymnastics, where perfection was needed. In those early years, I based a lot of my self-worth on my climbing performance, and I overlooked many other aspects of my life. Then my health T-boned me.
In 2007, I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, an autoimmune arthritis similar to Rheumatoid Arthritis that settles in your back, and I was put on an injectable immunosuppressant. I panicked; the first thing I thought of was whether or not I would be able to climb hard. I was angry. How had the doctors missed this for seven years? I worried over how heinous it would get. Would my spine contract into a deformed curve and fuse into a giant question mark?
It is strange to think about, but often something bad becomes something good. With chronic arthritis, my view shifted from wanting to climb hard sport routes to being psyched I was still climbing, because I wanted climbing to be a lifetime commitment.
When I stripped away the idea I once had of climbing and what it meant to me—ticking hard routes and accomplishing a goal—there was this whole element of intangible things in the undercurrent, fueling my passion. When I broke it down, it wasn’t always about sending hard, it was really about surprising myself. That comes in many forms, which, yes, sometimes includes pulling out improbable redpoints. But it is also about what climbing brings to my life. The places it takes me. The most amazing landscapes I’d ever seen. The different countries with different cultures. The different climbing areas with new rock. It’s travel. It’s friends. It’s this whole community. It’s the sunset I can’t shake from my head and that view from the fifth pitch. It’s that feeling of Holy shit, I just did that, or, By god, I am here.
I now live in a little blue cottage with a wood-burning stove that is nestled on a sliver of land between Minnewaska State Park and the Mohonk Preserve, home of the Gunks. I’m within biking distance of the most of the crags, which allows me to climb 200 days a year. I chose this place because of the feeling it has, something deep and rich, old and rooted. It has gravity, a tribal draw. Here, generations of climbers have come and gone under the watchful shadow of this cliff. From atop these routes, I have found my new perspective.
Hanging out on the rail of Ozone, I was starting to feel OK again as I shook out the pump in my forearms. I thought about what it might have been like aiding the buttress of this route in 1963. Or what it felt like to be Russ Clune and Jordan Mills, who first freed Twilight Zone, which makes up the middle section of the route, in 1993. Or Jeff Gruenburg and Jack Mileski who freed this last horizontal roof section, The French Connection. Three histories converged in my mind as I grabbed the undercling in the roof next to the cam and punched it to a sloper on the lip of the roof. Fully tipped out between the rail and roof lip, I bumped to a better crimp and then set up for the mother of all moves: a huge huck to the jug. I got a swing going and jumped. As I grabbed the lip, my body swung out, belly facing down to the ground. I thought I had it, but as I hit the apex of the swing my finger slipped off and I came screaming off the hold.
When I hit the bottom of the rope. I laughed. I pulled back onto the rock, climbed through the last hard section and then the last 30 feet of jugs, and topped out. Many climbers have passed along the holds of this route. As I stood atop the ridge, I looked toward the valley, vast and rolling. Perhaps the first ascentionists, discovering the cliffs for the first time, had the same thrill that I have now. And this history connects my climbing to a larger landscape, a larger thing.
I’ve never been able to pinpoint why I climb in some eloquent single statement, and I’ve gone through the ups and downs of wondering why I do this selfish passion. But climbing fuels me like nothing else can. It’s just what I do, and no matter how much I try to detach it from my view of myself, for 14 years it’s been a part of me, and it always will be. It is my simple way of interacting with the world and making, as much as I can, that world as big and storied and connected as possible.