With some rare exceptions, to be an older climber means to be an injured climber. It can mean having some seriously frustrating limitations and—to climb at all—it can mean accepting and working within those limitations.
For me, the limits are mostly around messed up elbows and forearms (no cartilage left on my left radial head, only half on the right, so they dislocate easily). I didn’t climb for years as I and a series of orthopedic surgeons tried to figure out what was going on.
But now I know what I have to do to keep things ‘healthy’, and like a sea otter (stay with me) who must spend many hours a day taking care of its fur to stay waterproof and buoyant, I am in almost constant body care mode to get what I can out of my beat up joints. I have to use a muscle roller on my forearms after every pitch if I’m at a crag or gym, and settle for stretching my forearms at the belays on longer routes. I even stretch my forearms on the steering wheel while driving to work. Then there’s shoulder PT, yoga, back PT, knee PT, etcetera.
The only time I have enough hours in the day to do my full body care routine is when I’m on an adventure trip—like the two-weeker I just took from Minnesota out to South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado.
The trip was with an old friend (I’ll refer to him as ‘Heinz,” since this is my actual nickname for him). We’ve had a lot of trips together—and a lot of injuries. Heinz tore his meniscus on Strategic Defense in City of Rocks. I broke my thumb on El Matador, on Devil’s Tower. He blew out his forearms training on a campus board, I ruptured my disk at C6/C7 mountain biking, etcetera, ad nauseaum. The list goes on in the form of medical bills.
We knew we’d have to rein ourselves in. But the same old excitement was there when we started planning the trip, and it was there loading the van with climbing gear and bikes, and it was there swatting flies at the gas station in Murdo, S.D.
We slept in my pop-top Dodge Sportsmobile (superluckycatvan!) in a free climber’s camping area in Mt. Rushmore, and (as with most trips) talked to an assortment of hungry climbers and kooky travelers in the parking lot as we ate and stretched and organized our packs. We finally got out of there in late morning, and had a short walk to a climbing area called ‘The South Seas’.
Because of my crunchy elbows I can’t do any routes where I really have to be on my arms—that means no cranky pull-ups and no overhanging shenanigans. But if I can be on my feet, I’m golden. I like to think that on a 5.7 I’m splitting the difference between my arms climbing 5.3 and my feet climbing 5.11. And so the first route we jumped on, the bolted Second Hand Rose, in the Mt. Rushmore Needles, was an easy one.
The morning was perfect—the air maybe 70 degrees, the bright sky holding friendly, puffy, clouds. I hadn’t been on rock for many months, but pulling on my harness and shoes and tying into the rope felt like coming home. My mood grew calm but buoyant. And just touching the rock, easing into my climbing body, swapping feet on a small crystal, I felt that buoyancy swell. Man, do I love being on rock (I can’t write enough exclamation points after that). Having Heinz belay me was a natural as the climbing, and I felt his presence there as an anchor.
On top of the gorgeous route, which follows a chunky arête, I found myself looking out over the Needles and the highway below, and I realized that it felt a lot like it did after a ‘hard’ route 30 years ago.
I mean, the satisfaction of pushing limits and being wickedly strong weren’t there, but the feeling of delight, as Heinz started up the route after me, was as strong, if not stronger. And then I realized it wasn’t just delight, but joy—a joy infused with love. Love for the puffy clouds and for Heinz and for the privilege of even getting to be there. Even more amazing—and a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over—was that I could help the joy be there by simply opening myself up to it.
By the time Heinz reached me at the rappel chains, the feeling of joy had normalized a bit, to become a warm glow. But I was thinking about how, on this trip—as with any day on the planet, really—if I could accept the many limits, it was easy to let the joy in.
And if I did, then the joy—well, the joy could be unlimited.
My posts concern psychotherapy and mental health, mindfulness, the writing process, and adventure sports. I may also mention how much time I spend doing physical therapy for my many, many sports injuries. And biking. And maybe a little bit about camper vans.