Thursday, December 20, 2007

Close to Home Again

I was going to be the great trial lawyer of my generation. I had read the lives of Clarence Darrow and Louis Nizer, studied books on cross examination and, as a law student, haunted Boston courtrooms to study how it was done. I didn't make it, of course. Instead I became a "civil litigator," someone who goes to court to try a case only on those rare occasions when the damn thing doesn't settle. I console myself that I spent 21 years of my litigating career enforcing the Federal laws that make and keep our air breathable, our water drinkable and our soil safe for children to play in. When my grandchildren visit me in the nursing home and ask what I did with my life, I'll say, "You know that air outside you can still breath? I helped keep it that way."

But a casualty of my efforts first to be a great trial lawyer and then to be a competent enforcer of our environmental protection laws was rock climbing and mountaineering. I started climbing in the Shawangunks as a kid in 1963 (I think), and continued through 1972. I was never very good; 5.8 rock was about my limit (but almost no one was climbing harder than 5.10 then). I made trips to climb in Yosemite, the Tetons, the Cascades and New Hampshire crags. I pounded chromolly pitons, wore knickers and Royal Robbins boots, tied the rope around my waist with a bowline, and caught many falls with a hip belay. I never meant for it to end, but it did, displaced first by law school and then by 16 hour days at the firm in the ultimately futile pursuit of "greatness." I just didn't climb anymore.

Thirty-five years later, as I was starting to surrender to inevitable physical decline, my older daughter got me back into rock climbing (see Return to Easy Overhang, below). What started as a one-time excursion turned into a passion. Translation: I've been climbing a lot for the last 18 months. I've also spent some time considering what it is like to pick up at age 60 a physical activity I gave up at 25.

There are, of course, the obvious differences in the sport itself. (I don't think we even called it a sport in 1970.) The shoe rubber is stickier now and the shoes are a lot less comfortable. Pitons are out and these camming gadgets are all the rage. (It took a couple of leader falls to persuade me they would hold anything.) Someone has invented things called climbing gyms and "sport" climbing, which latter I have learned is different from "trad." "Mountaineering, the Freedom of the Hills," my bible in my first climbing life is still published (I bought my daughter the newest edition), but it has been supplemented by eleven-thousand books by John Long, most of which appear to be about how to use chocks and cams to build an anchor. How solid can these things be if it is that hard to get them to hold onto the rock? I created a mild, carriage-road sensation on my first trip back to the Gunks by using a hip belay. So I broke down and for the next trip bought a "belay device" and harness, which my daughter showed me how to use.
But, the essential experience has not changed. My beloved Gunks still look and feel much the same. I approach a climb with the same mixture of excitement and fear that I remember from the '60s. I still look up at the first moves and wonder if I will be able to do them. I tie into and trust my life to a rope that looks and feels very like the red Edelrid rope I used in Yosemite in 1972. I still look for cracks to use for protection, and try to keep track of how far I am above my last piece (although years ago I would have said "piton" not piece). I have a very similar sense of accomplishment on finishing a pitch and getting to the belay, even though once there I now have to "build and anchor" not just slam in a piton. Trad climbers now face the same truth that I did in 40 years ago: to get better we have to do something risky (lead a route) at a harder level than we have ever done before. Our safety still depends on awareness, judgement and preparation: recognizing when the situation is beginning to deteriorate, knowing when to back off and how to downclimb, having the right gear to cope with the unexpected (e.g., headlamps for a retreat in the dark, warm clothing to keep an injured party from shock, etc.), rechecking the simple stuff (like the rappel set up).

Best of all, for the most part, the rock has not changed. When I put my hands on Ken's Crack in the Gunks, I am grabbing the very same holds I did when I was 16. Last year, Karen and I sat on the same belay ledge on Easy Overhang that my college friend Mick and I used in 1968 when I took him on his first rock climb. This past summer, Karen and I climbed Thin Air on Cathedral Ledge in New Hampshire. I have a picture of my wife on the same route in the early 70s. I suppose it is true that you can't go home again, or as James Taylor put it, "We'll never be here again." If home hasn't changed, you have, so the essential experience can never be recaptured. But for me, returning to rock climbing is awfully damn close. In a way time at the cliffs seems to have stood still. Have Ken's, Thin Air, Baby, and the rest just been waiting, frozen in time, for me to return? Of course not. But last winter it felt that way when I stopped by the Gunks on a cold, icy day just to look at and touch the rock once again.

There is, however, one thing that has changed: I am having more fun climbing now than I did when I was 20. Why? Its probably the sticky rubber on the shoes. Not! No, I think it is because, I have given up, along with my dream of being a great trial lawyer, the effort to be a great or even good climber. I am now less focused on how hard I can climb and more on the thrill of simply being able to do it at all and the feel of moving on the rock, using my body to make one interesting move after another. Oh, I still want to get better, and I have improved modestly. But, what sticks in my mind after a good climb is how the moves felt and the world looked from that vertical environment.
Its good to be [almost] home again.
Pictures: Top - me starting Baby at the Gunks. Bottom - Lois at the Gunks this year, photo by Annie Rubright.

1 comment:

JasonK said...

Bill, you give all us younger folk hope that it's never too late to pick up a new (or dormant) endeavor.

With two brand new baby girls to be there for, I've been kept away from my passion for climbing. I hope that when I return, it'll give me as much fufillment as my first encounter with the famous Gunks horizontals.

If you ever want to write for my website, it would be an honor to have you.