Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Professional and the Lifestyle Climbers

Imagine casually climbing splitter cracks, overhanging sport routes, and perfect boulder problems.  Picture hiking enormous granite formations without a rope.  This is who I want to be.
Alex Honnold fell on the hike up to the crag.  He stumbled on the walk to the base.  Alex Honnold climbs splitter cracks, steep sport routes, hard boulder problems, and free solos with ease.  He’s the type of climber I wanted to be.  
Alex on the Southwest Arete- this picture and a number of the other good ones are courtesy of Michael Pang
 “My skin,” he moaned as he taped every finger tip. Alex had climbed the past 22 consecutive days, wanting to send everything in Squamish in one summer.  He’d cut himself off from his love of sweets to eek more performance from his body. No candy. No cookies. No way. “My skin is weeping.”
Alex clipped the first bolt on Eurasian Eyes, a 5.13b arête above the Squamish Chief Campground.  Alex has climbed over 500 different 5.13 routes.  He’s mathematical about his climbing, keeping fastidious notes of his ascents, and constantly improving.  This arête climb, though a difficult warm-up, should have been easy for him.  It wasn’t. 
He was wobbling.  I tried to console him. Alex tries harder than anyone else I know.  “Stop bitching. You can do it.” 
Andrew Burr, a Salt Lake city climbing photographer, dangled nearby taking pictures on the aesthetic line for one of Alex’s many sponsors.  Alex climbed up to the arete’s crux and promptly punted. 
“Lower me,” he yelled.  I’d never heard Honnold so angry before.  He never gives up on a route.  His tenacity is one of his more admirable traits.  I dropped him to the ground where he untied and immediately began moping.
This time, I tried to be nice.
“It’s ok man.  You’re just tired from climbing so much.  Everyone sucks sometimes.” I grinned, and thought about showing solidarity. ‘Even I suck sometimes.”
“But I never suck,” he said. “You suck all the time.  You’re used to it.”
This guy is awesome at everything
I should have drop kicked him in the head but instead I focused on not looking hurt.  Point Alex Honnold.  Obviously the pain crossed my face because a moment later he added, “What? I’m just being honest.”   
We dropped Burr off, and drove to the grocery store.  Alex bought 2 pounds of smarties, 8 enormous cookies, and a fistful of chocolate.  He caved into his desire and abandoned his no sugar diet.  We’re all human and we all wobble.  
Alex on 5.13R at Owens
“Here, you can have the rest of my Canadian cash.” Honnold filled my pockets with a wad of beaver bucks and toonies. “And here’s a cookie.  I’m going to California.”  By the time he arrived in Yosemite, 36 hours later, his skin would be healed. 
Me belaying Alex on his 5.13R at Owens
 Alex climbed 22 consecutive days with every finger taped and bleeding. He wanted to succeed so much that he tried a no sugar diet.  I bit into a chocolate chip cookie and I suddenly thought of spitting it out. If I wanted to stop sucking all the time, I needed to try harder.  I swallowed the cookie anyway.
Most Bishop two bedroom rentals are either a meth lab or part of the barrio. While the former would provide a solid income with the clientele living next door, I have always lived by the adage- “Life Is Good. Don’t Meth it up.”  Two weeks before Christmas, Stacey Pearson, Alex Honnold, and I moved into the upstairs apartment of a four plex.  A couple of crash pads, four of Peter Croft’s half broken deck chairs, and an odd collection of Yosemite cafeteria silverware barely filled our sparse cell of a home in the Bishop barrio.
The life of a Lifestyle Climber
Across the street a chihuahua yapped relentlessly. On Wednesday nights, the downstairs neighbors held their weekly Mexican Pentecostal Bible study. Their chants of hallelujah and bloogitybloogityblah, their speaking in tongues or maybe their bad Spanish, vibrated through the floor.  At night they would exorcize the demons out of the town.  Most days after climbing, we would exercise our demons.  

Arm wrestling is not my forte. Seven years ago, I fell rock climbing. Two surgeries fixed the compound fracture in my elbow but it didn’t repair all the muscle. The lower part of my left tricep doesn’t exist.  It’s hard to mantle with my left arm.  It’s also hard to arm wrestle with that arm. Alex had already done his daily regimen of pushups, situps, and mirror flexing so we arm wrestled for exercise. We went left handed first. I promptly lost.  
 “That was pitiful dude,” Alex said. “Let’s try right handed.  My wrist is a little tweaked but I think I can beat you right handed.”
As we grabbed arms, I thought of Lincoln Hawk, played by Sylvester Stallonne in the amazing 1987 action drama Over The Top.  Hawk took on the bald headed, Bull Hurley in the finals of the World Arm Wrestling Championships in Las Vegas. Before the match, Hawk swiveled his hat backwards to prepare for battle.  I channeled Hawk, imagined myself putting my entire life’s worth, my big rig truck and the love of my son, on the line.  Things were about to be Over The Top.

Stacey put her hand over our clenched fists.  
“Go!” her yell echoed across the empty apartment.  The veins in Honnold’s ripped arm bulged.  My oversized bicep pushed against his.  I lost ground. I lost more. Then I pushed back. Trickles of blood filled my nostrils.  I could almost taste the iron on my lips as I pushed against him.  I wanted this.  I wanted to win.    His arm weakened. Then I slammed it against the table. I won.
“Dude, my right wrist hurts” Honnold said.   “Let’s go left arm again.”    Alex refused to lose.

New Years Eve excitement with Stacey, Kim, and Michael Pang
On New Year’s eve, Honnold stared at me from across the chess board.  The half dozen dirtbags cramming out apartment watched intently.  Honnold moved carefully.  I play a lot of chess, which doesn’t translate into skill it simply means that I play a lot.  Honnold barely plays chess, but he had a natural tack for the game. He he played the two knight’s defense, a style that isn’t a defense but more of an opening counter attack.  Cautious and aggressive.  We traded pieces. I sought to win by attrition.  The other climbers stared at the board.  I knew that didn’t want me to win.  They just wanted Alex to lose.  The end game was a slow battle of pushing pawns across the board. Alex stared intently at the locked pieces. I focused on the wall, apathetic.  We eventually declared it a draw.   
Everybody wants to be Bobby Fischer
I grabbed the strawberry Poptarts from above the fridge and than an IPA from inside of the fridge.  Nothing beats high fructose corn syrup, beer, after a near chess win.  I opened the package, offered one to Alex, and placed the other on the counter for a moment.  I sipped on my IPA and sprayed about countering the two knight’s defense to the nearest dirtbag climber. When I turned to grab my Poptart, I saw crumbs.  The crust, the top and the bottom, were broken off of my Poptart. The dejected ends sat on the counter. Nearby, Alex happily mashed on the red 40 food coloring and artificial strawberry flavoring of the middle of my poptart.  The middle of the poptart.  That's the best part.  He couldn’t take a draw.  Was this why he was such a good climber?  He refused to settle for less than success.
Every day, he asked me what I’d climbed.  He wanted me to say I had “sent everything.”  Alex wanted me to succeed like he did.  When we first arrived in Bishop, Alex provided a tick list of routes and boulder problems to prepare me for my spring Yosemite goals.  I climbed harder that winter because I didn’t want to come to a draw with the rock. 
working Excelsior in cold weather in Owens River Gorge
Living together means seeing your housemate stumble to the bathroom in the morning, hide under their sleeping bag watching True Blood all day, and sometimes brushing their teeth.   
“What time are you and Kim heading down to Owens tomorrow morning?” Alex asked in between sets of vigorous tooth brushing. Stacey, Kim, and I used electric sonic care toothbrushes.  Alex preferred a plastic Colgate. By striving for the same level of well scrubbed cleanliness as a sonic care, he could also get a serious forearm work out through vigorous scrubbing.  Translation- Dirtbag toothbrush = trying harder = bigger forearms = easier rock climbing.
Climbing on Flux Capicator in Owens River Gorge
“We’re gonna make breakfast, hang out, and then head down.” I responded through the whir of my mouth vibrator. I thought about sleeping in with my girlfriend, waiting for pleasant warm temperatures, and a relaxing day.
“We’ll be there around 10.”  Alex stared down at me with sudden disapproval. I thought of the tick list he had given me and my Yosemite goals.
“I mean 9,” I added quickly. "What are you gonna do?
“Well, I’m gonna get up at 7, run for an hour, make my egg scramble breakfast, and get down there early.” Alex spit into the sink
 “Wow, that’s motivated,” I walked towards my bedroom.
“That’s cause I’m a "professional climber,” he waved his fingers at me, “unlike you lifestyle climbers.”
I slammed my bedroom door in his face.  For five minutes I stared at the door knob trying to think of a witty retort.  Nothing came to mind, which made me almost madder. 
 I wanted to be a professional climber and get paid to be a climber.  My mind wandered away from snappy comebacks and towards Alex’s motivation behind the comment.  Alex never slept in. He never relaxed.  He couldn’t.  One day out of 30, he hid beneath his sleeping bag and watched 30 episodes of True Blood. It was his one respite from training, from climbing, from traveling, from answering hordes of emails from random fans, from interviews, from people wanting something for him.  Maybe he wanted to be a lifestyle climber and he said it out of jealousy.  Maybe he was just saying if I wanted to be a professional climber, I had to act like one.
Yosemite rematch this spring
To a large degree, I want to be the man who stumbles to the cliff, the man who climbs 22 days in a row with taped fingers, the one who mathematically improves on climbing.  I don’t want to be Alex Honnold though.  Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself…everyone else is already taken.”  It’s taken a few months for that thought to settle in.  I don't have to be Alex Honnold, I should just follow some of his training advice.  I’ve  started waking up earlier, wanting it more, and not eating Poptarts.  But more than anything, I've embraced being a lifestyle climber.   


Curtis Long said...

Insightful and kind of a wake up bitch slap. It can be painful to hear the truth. Funny read throughout.

Stacey said...

I like James Lucas for being James Lucas.

M. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
M. said...

It's the delicate balance of realizing where you are and what more you want. It's a great piece. See you boys around!

Vikki said...

Great post! I laughed and I cried. I also completely understand where you are coming from. Thank you for the motivation and reassurance that we can't all be Alex Honnold...I guess that gig is already taken ;)

Unknown said...

i like poptarts

Martin Kunz said...

Nice writing!

kate said...

I like being a lifestyle climber too James, and even us lifestylers send sometimes, and even Alex has a good lifestyle.

Unknown said...

Matthew J. Sloan
5171 Tollgate Road
New Hope, PA 18938

Dear James,
Maybe it was two years ago, or maybe just a bit longer than that, I was taking a lunch break from work. Guess it was the autumn? – I’m not certain and it doesn’t matter here anyway. I was working on a construction project up on a hill just outside of Princeton, NJ. During lunch I would generally listen to podcasts and walk around in a tiny forest preserve after I had eaten my canned, smoked herring and rice. I always ate this lunch and I always ate it cold with a habanero hot sauce – I was thinking it was a good step towards greater cardiovascular health… I’ll find out someday I suppose.
The Dirtbag Diaries – I’d been listening to a lot of the Dirtbag Diaries podcasts at the time and had thought that I’d made it through all of them in order. I’d missed an episode though - one of ‘The Shorts’, and, of course, it was ‘Yosemite’s Next Top Idol’.
Right away it was one of my favorite episodes. I remember thinking – how excellent this is that someone has created a dream and a vision for happiness, purpose, discipline, and simple living. I was envious of your quest to walk away from pavement and towards granite. And yea, I guess we all secretly want our own Facebook, fan-club page.
Last week, two days before New Year’s, I met a couple of old friends for drinks in New York. We spoke of some of our old adventures and also of some of more recent ones also. Fitz Cahall came up in the conversation and immediately I mentioned your episode for some reason – it was the first in line. I believe I mentioned something about an aspiring climber in the Valley and also how I thought that the macadamia nut limit mandated by Platinum Rob was pretty hilarious. My friend knew exactly who I was talking about. He said, ‘that’s James Lucas, Big-Fall James.’ He explained the Big-Fall thing and what had happened in Joshua Tree – I hadn’t remembered that part of your story, but… pretty crazy.
This friend, he told me to check out your blog and so I have. I enjoy the sentiment, sincerity, and, what seems like, great honesty in your writing.
It occurred to me that your reading on the DBDs had stood above all of the rest, in my mind, because of the way that you went about capturing something. You wanted to become a legend - and so you did.
Keep working, man - keep climbing and keep writing. Sometimes your actions can inspire people that you’ve never met and I’m pretty certain that you will continue to do so. Have a great 2014, James.
Matt Sloan

p.s. – I had forgotten the nickname, ‘the Dictionary’ – one of the best I’ve ever heard.

Unknown said...

salt lake city climbing
Chris & Kevin are brothers from Tucson, AZ who moved to SLC for the outdoor scene. After many years of enjoying the Wasatch as their backyard playground, the countless granite routes and powder days continue to challenge and inspire them. For them, the only thing better than adventuring in the mountains is doing so with friends, both old and new alike.

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Jaime said...

Pros or lyfestile climbers we are all humans and we're all gonna die someday. Maybe we just have to focus on climbing as much as we can before that happens. Good writing James keep up the climber lyfestile!!!

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