I hear the hum of my tires gracing the road once more, becoming more of a song with each trip I take. Bishop had been calling out to me in the beginning of the week. I couldn't ignore the desire. I had already RSVP'd for a friend's birthday celebration on Saturday but I believed I could make a meaningful climbing trip even with just a few days. I make a stop in central California to see dear fiends that I haven't seen in a while. I'm greeted with a solid handshake, hugged in solidarity with the other hand from my friend Jamie. I'm in a better headspace and can feel myself connecting with him. I watch as he takes a hit of a cigarette, the tip burning bright, creating a stark contrast to the cool November night sky. He exhales, and with the smoke comes scars and stories. More and more I see that pain is universal. It is a bridge to broken hearts, and if we are careful with our footing, we can traverse such frail bridges and connect with one another, realizing that we are not lonely islands, but living souls that are but a moment from bridging ourselves in tandem with others, the connection made possible by the strands of pain we share with one another that sustain these passageways. As we continue in conversation, I hear a car pull up and see Jamie adjust his stance. Our friend Dina has arrived, and with her comes her trusted companion, Baxter - an aging terrier with the heart of a pup. It's been a few years which makes me anticipate a warm embrace and I'm not misled. As much as distance can cause us ache, it compensates with the strength of the embrace and in some way, you know you haven't lost your place in their hearts. It's as though they were waiting to pick up where you last left off. We head to the local brewery and fellowship over the juiciest of burgers and brew. The laughter in the air is just as potent as the hops in our beers and I cannot help but marvel silently to myself, at how wonderful it is to be communing with dear friends, and how much their words, gestures, and very presence nurtures my soul.
We part ways but know that it won't be too long before we see one another. I head over to my friend Jason's and catch up on the time that has passed between us, again feeling the solidarity in his embrace. Again, feeling as though we had not lost each other's place in each other's hearts. There's a heaviness in our eyes that both of us notice, and without saying it, we acknowledge it, and segue to bed. I wake up early in the morning and feel stillness throughout the house. Once again, I'm departing the comfort of modernity for the wilderness. Each time I do so, I feel more peace being in the wild, and the more the modern world feels noisy and diluted with needless pageantry and flattery. I hop in my car, pulling around the corner of Jason's house, whispering blessings to him, to Jamie, and Dina and set my eyes forward feeling a growing warmth because I am returning to a place that makes me feel more and more at home within myself. With every mile bringing me closer to nature, I come closer to understanding how the natural world, in and of itself, teaches me to accept myself, to not merely exist in the present, but be deliberate in the now, letting the world to feel the weight of who I am, unfiltered and without apology.
I arrive in Bishop and navigate my way up the windy dirt path of Buttermilk Road. I smile at the sight of climbers stretched across the landscape. Already I know that this solo trip won't be so solo because I sense in me the joy and willingness to connect with others and know that just as much as I make these connections happen, they will also happen to me, and I will welcome them with an open heart. I drop my crash pad beside others and connect with fellow climbers as we come together to solve the beta for climbing problems. To my surprise I cross paths with familiar faces from my local climbing gym. Surprise coupled with warm embraces are shared between us. We set aside climbing ambitions to share stories, share our lives. It's unspoken, but we share the belief that the climb itself isn't the focal point. While each peak we ascend teaches us something, the people that we share these experiences with nourish our souls and in turn, we nourish theirs, helping one another make the most important send of all...life. Boulders and mountains are not what we desire to send. Truthfully, we ache and aspire to summit the trials and challenges in our lives. Those are mountains we long to conquer, the rocks before us serve as metaphors to our grand granite within.
Our conversation fades, segueing into climbing. I canvas the Buttermilks ticking off climbs and taking in the vast beauty of the desert and snowcapped mountains. As night descends I make my way to the "Birthday Boulder" to put some work in on a climbing problem known as "Birthday Direct". I session in solitude for some time, eventually being greeted by a pair of climbers wanting to join. Before I know it, we are sharing a bottle of wine and poking fun at climbing quirks and pop culture as we work to piece together sequences for various climbs. We part ways as the temps drop, and I make my way back to my tent where I find a handful of tents pitched in community with mine, and a fire with the silhouettes of souls encircled around the bright flame. I'm welcomed into the cadre and we share stories about life, work, places we've climbed and long to climb. Our voices carry over the flames and I sense a warmth emanating from our words and sentiments. As the fire dies we bid each other goodnight. The cold sweeps over the landscape as we slide ourselves into our sleeping bags and let our consciousness unravel, as a ribbon does in the wind, unknowingly sinking into dreams.
Morning comes and I am slow and zen getting up. I flop my crashpad on the ground and set my pocket stove on top to boil water for breakfast and watch as climbers slide themselves out of the back of trucks and vans, turning what was previously their bedroom, into a kitchen. Crag dogs trod up and brush their fury essence upon me and catch the scent of breakfast in the making. They look at me with puppy eyes and wag their tale in hopes of food but suddenly dart off at the call of their owners.
I am as a sponge, soaking in the beauty of nature and the simplicity as I have breakfast, gazing over at the Buttermilk boulders, drafting a plan of problems to climb. I savor the last drops of coffee along with the peace and joy I feel, aware of the distinction that being out in nature, I feel no rush to get going, no desire to want anything but here and now.
I clear up and throw my crash pad onto my back and head to the boulders. I warm up on "Hero roof" and canvas the area, climbing in a flow-like state, with each summit displaying its perspective of the desert landscape and snowcapped mountains. I give a handful of burns on "Birthday Direct" and am content with the progress made. I glance behind me and feel a strong curiosity to a giant loaf-shaped boulder. My eyes become drawn to a prominent black streak pronouncing itself strongly on the rock and I sense within me that there is a defining moment to be made there. I look over the guidebook and peruse established routes on this boulder and find myself intrigued at "Sheep Herder." Although it's a V2, its the features on this problem that stand out. The best holds are within the first few moves serving as a prelude to a series of subtle slopers that lead to a featureless topout of a climb that is over 15 feet.
I scan for a probable fall point and set my pad down. I make the first set of moves and set my feet upon the slopers and immediately feel the sense of trust and commitment that will be required for the remaining moves. I make a committing move and set my feet on two small slopers with just enough curvature to get my toes on. I feel so vulnerable and exposed as I stand at a crux point, arguing with myself as to whether I should attempt the next move or bail off and analyze the route from the ground. Even deciding to bail feels nerve wrecking. I've done it time and time again at this height and higher indoors, but out here on this climb it feels so sketch. Finally working up the courage, I jump off and make a safe landing and reassess. Burn by burn I make more progress yet cannot shake off the vulnerability I feel on the problem. A climber comes up and asks if she could session in with me. She hops on and makes it past the first few moves and finds her way onto the first set of slopers. She makes this puzzled expression and asks, "where do I go from here?" I point to the slopers that lie to the right of her. Her eyes follow the sloper holds up to a high featureless topout. "You're kidding right?" She asks in strong disbelief. "Afraid not. This is what you've got to work with," I reply. She attempts to traverse onto the next foothold and places her right foot onto it. She puts some weight onto it but doesn't trust the holds and comes off the rock. I feel that I'll progress further and the crash pad will be out place so I ask her to help spot and move the pad along and she agrees. I flow through the intro, moving past my initial crux point and can see the top. I'm two moves away but these last two moves don't look good at all. Again, small slopers with barely enough positive surface requiring full commitment at a height that is creeping me out. After wavering in my thinking, I make the move, placing my right foot onto the sloper and press my weight to right and attempt to stand up. It feels solid but I am suddenly corrected when my foot blows off, crash landing just at the edge of my pad then tumbling off into dry brush.
I can't help but laugh, realizing that I overestimated the intensity of the fall. My fears subside substantially and I assure my fellow climber that I'm alright and thank her for help. She's shaken up by the route and wants to move on to another so we say our goodbyes and I take a break, staring at the problem and listening to an epiphany that is materializing within. Suddenly, it's clear as day to me the connection I have with this climb. It is a metaphor for the past year of my life. The bad holds symbolizing what I was left with when a longterm relationship with supposed promise had come to an abrupt end. I felt lost. I felt as though I had lost everything. I was broken and at rock bottom, with little to nothing to work with to send my life to a recovering summit. These holds were bad, they were shitty, but they were what I had to work with. It brings me to remembrance that life is not about waiting for the perfect hand, but playing your given hand as best as you can. Because when you send life on a shitty hand, you realize that you always had the power to change your life for the better- and when you come to the next hand life deals you, you have a strengthened confidence that you can play it for the win.
As I look around I spot a group of climbers I met weeks ago at a climbing crag known as "Goat Rock" in Occidental California. "Dude! what are the chances of this happening?" they ask. "Slim to none," I reply. They ask me what I'm working on and I point to Sheep Herder. "Damnnnnnnnn, looks sketchy. You want a spot?" And just like that, they throw their pads down, creating a larger landing zone. I've got a crowd cheering me on, and I feel the strength of their support as I hop back on.
It feels like a dream. Neither too intense nor too quiet. I flow past the intro as I did before and chalk up both hands at a rest point. I take a deep breath and pause. "Trust yourself. Trust your footing. Nothing else matters," I whisper to myself. I progress through the series of slopers coming to that same spot again, just two moves away from the top. I place my right foot onto a high sloper, shifting my weight onto it. My left foot comes off and I put all my trust into my right foot as I reach for a right hand sloper. I secure the hold and set my left foot onto a sloper hold and sigh with relief and subtle excitement. The silence is broken by loud cheering my climber friends give to me. I am one move away from a send. One move away from completing this metaphor. They offer helpful beta but it I can't hear it. I am absorbed in focus, feeling the peace and pressure resonate within, reading the granite for the final holds to play. I shift my hands up to higher holds and step with a high right foot, praying it stays true as I stand up on it. Before I know it, I've completed the final move and am standing on the summit with my supportive climber friends roaring with applause.
There is an immense joy that fills me within as I stand on the summit. The author of the Bishop Bouldering guidebook was right. "Sheep Herder" is a rite of passage. For me, it symbolized a rite of passage in my self-recovery. Life had given me a bad hand with a climb to recovery that had crappy holds. Still, I played them, with all I had. Played it with grit, with perseverance, to make a life send, and I had done it on a pair of worn out climbing shoes with holes in both toes because my dumb ass forgot to pack my good pair. With the send completed, it's time to begin begin the drive up north where I will celebrate a friend making a life send of his own. I pause one last time to gaze at the numerous boulders stretched across this great desert and see a vast array of grainy granite-like metaphors with summits bearing a sense of redemption and revelation. I pray, that when I approach them, I have the strength to send.