Editor’s note to issue 24 of Vertical Life. Download the issue here.
Nineteen years ago I road-tripped north to Nowra with a couple of mates. A few days after arriving we found ourselves at that grotty-but-good, South Central, where I tried Red Baron, a short, brutal 26. The crux took a bit of figuring out, and revolved around using a nasty two-finger pocket that you took with the right hand. This was unfortunate, because a couple of weeks earlier I’d strained those two fingers on the crux sloper of Snake Flake (26) at Taipan Wall. But it didn’t matter, I worked out a method where I didn’t have to pull too hard, the pocket was more a quick intermediate used for balance, then lowered back to the ground.
Of course, working things off the rope and redpointing are two different things. The climbing up to the crux sapped me just enough so that when I arrived I didn’t execute my sequence perfectly. As I came into the two-finger pocket, I had to pull hard and, as I did, I heard a horrible pop and felt a sharp pain shoot up the inside of my forearm.
I knew immediately what had happened, but held on, working my way through the final slopers and clipped the chains – all the time swearing my head off, much to the confusion of my belayer Chris, who couldn’t work out why I was so angry when I’d ticked the route.
Back on the ground I knew my trip was over. The only thing I can remember about the remaining time is going for a long barefoot run along the beach at Shoalhaven Heads, trying to pound away my misery.
On my return to Melbourne I found out that I’d ripped the tendon insertion to my ring finger. It turned out to be the worst, most chronic injury I’ve ever had. For the next two years I battled to get the finger right. Extended time off, enough self-massage to make the most obsessive masturbator blanch, a small fortune in ibuprofen tablets and Voltaren cream, multiple visits to a hand surgeon (who pumped my hand full of cortisone) – nothing worked.
It was a difficult two years. I called myself a climber, but I was a climber who couldn’t climb. There were many times when I thought the finger would never come good. The hand surgeon who’d injected my finger with cortisone had shook his head when I’d told him how I’d injured it, and said that I should stop loading my fingers in ways they weren’t designed for. Compounding my misery, almost my entire identity was tied up in being a climber – my work, my friends, my leisure. The only major part of my life that wasn’t climbing related was my long-suffering girlfriend.
But it wasn’t the first time I’d contemplated climbing mortality. There’d been times where it felt like I was just going through the motions of being a climber. I was climbing and training all the time, but I wasn’t motivated, and in the recesses of my brain dark whispers wondered if I really loved climbing the way I said I did. But when you’ve been doing something for a long time it can be hard to know if you are still doing it because you love it or because it’s a habit or because you don’t know what else to do. It’s even harder to step away and find out.
Motivation is important if you’re a climber – there’s a reason climbers use the word ‘psyched’ all the time. If you’re pushing yourself psych is essential, whether you’re trying hard routes, scary routes, gnarly routes – if you’re not psyched climbing becomes very hard. It’s so confronting, physically, technically, mentally, and it takes such a massive time commitment that if you’re not deeply motivated you can easily fall into failure and frustration. Through my years of climbing I’ve seen both sides of the spectrum, super strong climbers who fail because they’re not psyched enough and super weak climbers who pull success out of the bag because they are super psyched.
Looking back I can see there were long periods where I wasn’t that psyched. I had projects that were physically possible for me, but I took ages to tick them because I just wasn’t trying hard enough, was too scared to overcome my fear, didn’t get back to them enough – pick your reason. But instead of stopping and doing something else, I just kept banging my head against the wall of failure because I was a ‘climber’ and I didn’t know what else to do.
Then I fucked my finger and I could no longer ignore the possibility of not being a climber.
What I found during that period of not being a climber was that it wasn’t that bad, that there were plenty of other things I enjoyed doing – writing, photography, running, spending more time with my girlfriend. And paradoxically this knowledge seemed to release me in some way. I realised that there was life beyond climbing. This realisation may seem self evident, even silly, but it was a revelation to my youthful, monomaniacal mind.
While I couldn’t climb I still went away, but instead of climbing I took photos, documenting my friends with my old, dented Pentax MX film camera, and started writing bits and pieces for Rock magazine. Going away reminded me that it wasn’t just the climbing itself that I loved, but everything – the bullshit at the crag, the walk back down Flat Rock as the sun sets in a flaming ball across the flat paddocks of the Wimmera, the endless diet of tuna pasta, even the long settled silences in the car on the drive back to Melbourne with fried muscles and a peaceful mind.
My finger eventually got better and I became a climber again. But something had changed, climbing felt more like a choice than something I had to do.
Twenty or so years later I still prod the scar tissue in the palm of my hand daily. It still feels weak, an ever-present reminder of the frailty of this body, that being able to climb, like life itself, is a gift. And it makes me want to climb.