What Matters Most
A few weeks ago, for a forthcoming article on climbing mentorship, I got on the phone with Emily Stifler Wolfe and Anne Gilbert Chase. Emily is a friend from a summer spent tromping around Utah’s Uinta Mountains, managing trail cameras monitoring for wolverine and bobcat activity in far-off drainages. Emily and I spent one glittering summer weekend backpacking together, the aspen leaves tender and electric green. Now, years later, I call her and her friend Gilbert, both of them serious climbers in their own right, en route to parts unknown for a weekend climbing trip— they’re chatty, good-natured, and opinionated, exactly the mindset I’d be in if I was eating pizza in a moving car with a close friend, about to spend a couple days exploring the vertical world.
We talked about a lot of things (and more of that will pop up in the aforementioned article,) but for now I want to focus on just one— a single statement Gilbert made, while she and Emily were talking about priorities, and making space for climbing in their increasingly hectic lives. She said this:
“There are really hard outdoor athletes who carry on a normal job, have a family, do all this stuff, but still find the time to push their limits. The full spectrum exists in the outdoor community; there are people who make whatever lifestyle they’ve chosen work. For us, climbing is probably in the top three things we would never give up in our lives. Family, climbing, and happiness.”
And then her and Emily both laughed, their voices hazy over our weak phone connection.
It’s a good list, and an apt one for two women who’ve so skillfully fit all these component parts together. Everybody finds their own system to prioritize what matters most; Emily talks about the friends who have joined her and her daughter Eloise for days at the crag, trading belay duty and baby duty by turns. Family and climbing don’t always have to be two separate parts of the venn diagram.
I’ve found that confluence with my brother Jake, my favorite climbing partner. He's unflappably calm, with an intuitive grasp of rope systems that I can’t quite seem to match. He’s also a bold leader, and on the rare occasions he gets scared he'll let out a tiny laugh, almost like a sigh, as he throws for the next hold, and then it’s over— no drama, no show. When I climb, it’s another story— on lead I’m usually spooked, wired with adrenaline and stoke and not just a hint of terror. With Jake on belay, his feet planted firmly on the ground below me, he shouts up his own form of practical encouragement: “You can do it, dude. You’re fine.” No matter what, he always sounds bemused, vaguely incredulous that this emotional range is possible doing something that, for him, is so straightforward.
But this disparity is a part of the reason why we complement each other as climbing partners. Jake’s laser focus keeps us on route and dialed in. My sometimes crippling level of stoke keeps us grateful— every day, every pitch, I find myself taking a moment to wonder out loud at how lucky we are to be here. This summer, we climbed a 9 pitch sport route in Provo’s Rock Canyon called Cosmic Space Dust Lazers, alone on the wall all morning as we snacked and chatted and I realized how much harder 5.10 climbing is when you’re already 800 feet off the ground. Climbing partners are always the people who keep you alive, but watching Jake commit to a dynamic move ten feet off his last bolt, I realize how significant that commitment really is. The trust we put in our climbing partners is unique. Every time I tie in, check my belayer’s harness, high five and climb on, I’m signing an unspoken agreement— if things go wrong, it’s just me and you. If things go wrong, I believe that you’ll be here to have my back.
I feel lucky to share that commitment with my brother, and grateful for the opportunity to let him mentor me, the older sister, for once. I’m grateful, too, for people like Emily and Gilbert, who’ve been scrambling up mountains for a lot longer than I have, and who are willing to take the time and energy to share their ideas with someone new. In the end, I think Gilbert’s right— happiness, or at least a good chunk of it, lives at the confluence of the people you love and the cool, endless sweep of a wall of granite. When it all comes down to it, it's just you, the mountain, and a person you trust on the other end of the rope.