"I can't believe you onsighted that climb!" The words are a warm echo through my head as I drain my pint and signal affirmatively for the next as the waitress comes by.
Though adequately esoteric, like most climbing terminology, the onsight is the most coveted of free climbing ascents: to complete a climb on the first attempt with no prior inspection, visual or otherwise, and no falls from the ground to the top of the climb.
"Well," I gush, as my ego, sufficiently fluffed by beer and the authentic complement just paid it, overwhelms any other social sensibility, "[insert statement of deftly played, somewhat falsified modesty here]."
My more discerning part wants to vomit: this conversation doesn't exist, at least in singular form; rather it has occurred ad nauseum in a variety of permutations over the period of my life taken up mainly in the pursuit of climbing. Most talk of past exploits for me ends with the proverbial fishing rod and tackle out of the box, angling for external validation for experiences that should require nothing more than their mere existence in my memory. Inevitably, I end up taking both the bait and the hook at the bottom of one too many glasses of beer amid precious few moments of clarity. Yet I persist.
This episode really begins with a rather unspectacular and seemingly benign injury: fed up with climbing and my wavering loyalty to the pursuit, I fumbled my way up an uninspired toprope wank session on City Park at the Lower Town Wall of Index, WA. The weather was beautiful and in the preceding week, during some unseasonably foggy and cool weather, I had finally completed a longstanding project of mine at the same cliff, the immaculate Amandla. Rather than taking new inspiration from the experience, I rather found more of the same: fleeting fulfillment and subsequent derision. I didn't fail to consider the irony when, while twisting a sore finger in a perfect 5.11 finger lock high on City Park, I felt the obvious failure of connective tissue.
I've had collateral ligament injuries before; rarely were they more than just minor setbacks for my ever-increasing desire to climb. Today, more than a year after the fact, my finger remains swollen and temperamental. The vapid boredom of that day in Index has been replaced by a fervent desire to be able to do just what I was failing to do then: enjoy the activity to which I've dedicated a significant portion of my life. As it slowly dawns on me that I may never regain my previous level of confidence in minute pieces of connective tissue, the 'weakest links', as it were, I also realize that the old symbols I've scrawled repeatedly on the wall just aren't parsing well anymore. The frustration, the obsessive self-comparison to old ideals held high above and beyond the reach of reality; at the end of the night, as the ego withers from yet another bout of self-flattery and another $30 bar tab, they seem like so much dirty bath water in which I continue to wallow.
Then I remember the desert, the woods, the mountains and all the other places where there was nothing in climbing for me but pure joy. The scar tissue in my ligament all but dissolves when I think of some of the freedom I've glimpsed in those rare moments when I actually found myself content with what I was doing instead of reverting to histrionics in order to legitimize it.
So the trolling of past memories has run dry. I struggle to finish my thoughts because the subject seems so piece meal, so ridiculous; the act of seeking self-gratification from climbing exploits--from others, no less--ludicrous. The only important thing, it turns out, was being out there at those moments of opportunity. The opportunity, as it turned out, was simply to enjoy the experience. Winter in Seattle is often brutal; the next time I touch dry rock can't possibly be too soon: I can't wait to try out a refurbished attitude on an old favorite game. Maybe I'll be able to take a compliment or two without the melodramatic introspection; who knows?