Editor’s note to issue 29 of Vertical Life. Subscribe to the issue here.
Climbing can be such a liberating, simple thing.
I had my eyes lasered in the hope I would be able to throw away my glasses. I was as blind as a mole, contacts didn’t work for my prescription. I had wanted to do it for a long time and then when I finally had the operation it was not a success – a ‘sub-optimal result’ was the doctor’s assessment. The recovery took much longer than advertised and was quite tortuous. For several months I couldn’t see and felt vulnerable and adrift. I moved at an unsure shuffle, stared out dead-eyed from behind sunglasses; everything slows when the world is warped around you. Even today, eight months later, my eyes are still a bit bung. I feel like Icarus.
About four months into my recovery, still with eyes shifting daily, blurred and light-sensitive, I went to Araps. The smell was so familiar, the sounds too. I picked my way down the boulder-choked chute that leads to Mysteries Gully, unsure and unsteady on my feet, trepidatious on the uneven ground. My world had become unnervingly foreign. But, to my delight, when I got on the wall I felt lightened. I still struggled to spot the small, scuffed footers on Anus Horribilus – a more suitably-named route for the time I can not imagine – but being on the wall felt safer and more sure than being on the ground. Simple and knowable, pull down here, reach up there. Senses beyond my failing sight took over, moving through familiar bodily rhythms, and it was wonderful.
Shortly after that the Gramps access issues blew up, my sleep got worse, the constant knot in my stomach got bigger. One day I shot a film of a mate climbing in the northern Gramps. Despite my still wonky eyes and woozy head, I pointed my camera and yelled ‘Do it again’ and ‘Once more’ over and over, straining and blinking at the camera’s small screen to determine if the shot was in focus, I tripped over walking on the ground, struggled to frame and expose shooting off the rope, but the route looks glorious, the line pure and the climbing wonderful.
I wasn’t climbing much myself, nor able to train, my eyes were shit and the stain of access was wiped over everything. Grey clouds swirled all about.
A few months later that film won the Judges’ Award at Goatfest. It’s not the biggest show in the world but the Nati hall was packed and the competition was pretty stiff. The climbing film was simple, no narrative arc – man climbs rock. The crowd cheered at all the right spots, ooe’d when my mate Mark Gould jammed his fingers into the terrifyingly-tight finger crack and struggled to make the final move. Cheered when we won.
Then things soured and cheers turned to boos. There was a town hall meeting about access. I was on the panel, it was supposed to be an informal Q&A, but the mob was uneasy. I knew it would be a shitfight. Being in Nati that night was painful. Crowds have their own psychology, their own momentum. It was a hostile crowd feeding on its hostility and thus made more hostile, like how cows get CJD from eating other cows. Yelling, cursing, jeering. People who I had counted as friends for years turned their backs on me, others shouted, baying for a pound of flesh, anyone’s flesh. I don’t blame them, the people were angry, confused, attacked, their identity undermined, their way of existing challenged and every one of them riding the mob wave. People can be complicated.
Walking out into the darkness that night, head low, homemade trophy a weight in my hand, I brought up the fickleness of the crowd.
‘Hey,’ one beautiful wise friend, Steve Monks, said, ‘That’s showbiz!’ I looked at him confused. ‘One minute the crowd loves you,’ he answered, ‘the next minute they hate you.” He walked into the darkness with a laugh and a cheeky grin.
Since then access issues have gotten worse not better. The public discourse more toxic, not less. Climbers remain divided to our detriment, Parks Victoria remain obtuse to our detriment, Traditional Owners remain unknown to our detriment.
My eyes are not going to get better but maybe I have accepted that more. I still feel unsteady on the ground, and insecure in my mind. I am unsure about access, I fret about it all the time, burning energy and belching out noxious fumes like Loy Yang. I can’t reconcile the public perception of climbers as evil doers with my perception of myself and the love I feel for the climbers I know.
I can’t escape the feeling that we are blindly staggering around unsure and unsteady, tripping over things and at the mercy of malevolent gods, fighting amongst ourselves.
Despite the emphasis on the subtleties and complexities of climbing, we climbers love a simple, knowable, familiar thing. Pull down here and reach up there. To the next hold. Just the other day I went to the back of the Pharos at Araps. I squeezed into my shoes, tied into the rope, looked my belayer in the eye and was lightened, met their warm smile as they tested their GriGri with a tug and pulled off the ground and it was wonderful.
This editorial was published in Issue 29 of Vertical Life, get your hands on all the climbing goodness of VL by subscribing to the mag go here.