Across the creek the three climbers huddle around the base of a route. One, with scraggly brown hair, mid-twenties, starts to climb. The other two, somewhere in their mid to late teens, belay: one taking charge of belaying while the other back up belays, learning the process and motions from his peer.
“Mind if we climb by you?” Tory asks as we hike up.
“Not at all.”
As we throw down our packs and begin scouting out the routes we want to climb, we start the ‘climber small talk.’ If you’re going to be around another group for a while, might as well get to know them a little.
“Where are you all from?”
The main belayer, sixteen maybe seventeen, with the build of a high school wrestler, responds, “San Francisco.”
“Chicago,” answers the wiry, blond fifteen or sixteen year old.
The climber is from St. Louis.
Definitely not the variety of answers I was expecting from a group of young climbers outside of ranching, farm town Utah.
“What brought you out here?” I ask curiously, expecting the basic ‘vacation’ answer.
These three look nothing alike, making it a stretch that they’re related. Maybe they are old friends whose families moved across the country and they’re doing a small climbing trip to reconnect.
The one who could be a wrestler: “We’re in a group home.”
Wiry Blond: “I was in a half-way home, then came here.”
Wrestler: “That’s one of our therapists. The one climbing.”
It’s safe to say I’m socially awkward. I don’t suffer from ‘foot in mouth’ syndrome. More the ‘brain freeze’ variety of awkward.
Don’t get me wrong. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being in a group home.
I was more taken aback that these two kids were completely open with two strangers they just met. They didn’t know our names, we didn’t know theirs. No shame. No pride. Just stating a fact about themselves.
I admire that.
But I don’t know how to respond. To ask more might seem like prying. To not respond seems like judging.
Luckily we all have one thing in common: we like to climb shit.
“How long have you guys been climbing?”
The conversation continues. We learn Wrestler has been climbing since August while its Wiry’s first day, but he loves rappelling, we’re from Denver, Tory, Scraggly Hair (the therapist/guide), and I snowboard, Wrestler skies, and Wiry has us ‘all beat’ because he skateboards.
It doesn’t take long to pick up on personalities: Scraggly Hair is optimistic and soft spoken, Wrestler is confident in his abilities, Wiry expresses his uncertainty through a string of comments and incessant chatter.
We all shift back to our own routes: Tory and I getting our gear together while their group discusses who will climb next.
Wiry grabs a helmet and clips in. He is full of self-doubt and deprecation. Each move takes three or four reminders about how he is new to this, how he doesn’t like heights, how he only climbs so that he can rappel back down.
Scraggly Hair, the guide, fills the air with ‘you got this’, ‘just one more step’, and ‘look how far you’ve come, what’s a little higher?’
After reaching the second bolt, a little less than a quarter up the route, Wiry declares he’s done.
“Alright, lean back in your harness,” calms the guide. “I’ve got you.”
The guide slowly lowers the climber to the ground as Wiry continues to express his inability to climb the route, emphasizing his fear, and he unties his rope.
The wrestler from San Francisco gives words of encouragement to his companion as he ties into the rope and begins his turn on the climb.
Walls of Maple Canyon, Utah
As the next climber heads up, Wiry and his guide discuss his progress and growth from just that day.
It sounds like a rock came loose during Wiry’s first climb, spooking him. Making it hard to not get paranoid of all the rocks popping loose while he attempted to put his weight on them as he climbed.
“It sounds like the rock kind of broke your trust, making it hard to count on the others.”
“Does that ever happen in life? Losing trust in something or someone?”
Wiry had the largest pause that I heard the whole time there. His chatter ceased as he put serious thought into Scraggly Hair’s question.
“Yeah,” he whispered. “Sometimes.”
“But you didn’t let that stop you. You finished that route and tried this one.”
“But I was scared.”
“You didn’t stay on the ground though.”
“Ready to lower!” came the call from the top of the route.
The therapist brought down the other climber and the three of them began the process of packing up, conversations sliding to the plan for the rest of their day and other members of the group home.
We all gave farewells as they hiked out and we scouted out our next routes.
Before they fully disappeared through the trees, I saw Wiry Blond look back at the route he didn’t complete. Eyes set with determination. A hopeful smile on his face. Then he turned and continued to hike out.
We didn’t see the group again before he headed out a few days later. We overheard other conversations, talked to other climbers. Yet that conversation between Wiry and Scraggly has stuck out to me more than any other.
Climbing can have a way of teaching people about life, about themselves, about what you are capable of. It doesn’t have to, but it’s lessons are there when you need them.
Wiry probably didn’t necessarily learn to trust completely after that outing.
But a seed was planted. He found a way to not give up on himself or on climbing even though he was distrustful of the wall. He put complete faith in his guide to see him through, even when he was scared.
Will he be a climber the rest of his life? Who can say.
Will the lessons of trust and pushing through his fear stay with him? I hope so. Because they’ve made an impact on me.