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Rock and Ramblings: Reflections on Rock Climbing from the Roaring Fork Valley

Jamie Lynn Miller's picture

Author’s Note: This is the first in a series on the rock climbing lifestyle, from the where to the with whom to the heck why.

Running, swimming, even the occasional road bike ride along the Rio Grande bike path through the Roaring Fork Valley; for me, they are the opposite of climbing. The totally repetitive nature of running around the track (a carry-over passion from my suburban upbringing, still preferable to running up mountain trails and across tree stumps and the need to pay attention) serves its own unique purpose of allowing me to remember the chorus to that random Julian Lennon song that somehow found its way into my head and won’t find its way out, move up some items on the to-do list and relegate others to the recycle bin as I finally accept that I’ll never get around to using that stud finder to properly hang that print and I’ll never really fix that zipper on those played-out jeans (alas), then wonder if my mom’s come around to the fact that I’m growing my hair out because she’s always liked it short and thinks women over 40 should have not have long hair so I have about a year left; these sorts of things run through my head as I run round and round Aspen High School’s football field, the world’s most scenic track. The controlled environment, the need to simply put one foot in front of the other, enables me to get a risk-free work-out and a surge of endorphins, while my stream of consciousness keeps pace with my stride and my thoughts work themselves out, too.

Swimming is even more repetitive, in that my vision is pretty much confined to the T at the bottom of the lap lane that helps me know when I’m about to hit the wall. Swimming feels really good on my back and it’s good for my asthma and I don’t look around when I swim, I simply put one arm in front of the other and lose myself in my thoughts, up and back over and over until I’m driven from the pool by insatiable hunger. Swimming makes me insanely hungry; I think it’s the thinking that actually burns all those calories.

Climbing is nothing like any of these pursuits. Climbing is the one thing I do that eclipses thoughts of anything else, while I’m doing it. It’s the one thing that takes my full concentration and all other concerns about my daily life and where it’s going and what I’m doing with it and who’s in it, simply vanish. Time stands still and then it passes really quickly as hours go by and no one ever brings a watch and dinner plans and social obligations are pushed back to sometime after dark, as opposed to any specific hour.

Why?

For me, it’s basic life stuff. Handling fear. Finding focus. Patience -not one of my virtues - and ultimately, paying attention. In The Witch of Portobello, author Paolo Coelho relates the two: “Why is patience so important?” asks the main character, Athena. “Because it makes us pay attention,” replies Nabil, accomplished calligrapher and wise man.

"Standing on a dime, looking for a quarterStanding on a dime, looking for a quarter

In a pretty over-stimulated world where faster is better and instant gratification is just an upgrade away, climbing demands that I concentrate on what’s directly in front of me. Climbing is existential. It’s the anti-thesis of high-speed internet; the Slowskys would like it. The need to be totally present never goes away, from finding the right foothold to reach the clipping hold, clipping the rope into the draw before I think about the next hold, or reminding myself to breathe so I don’t hyperventilate myself off the rock because I’m scared and it’s intense and even though I trust my belayer will give me a soft catch on her end of the rope if I fall, that moment before I fall is always kind of startling.

No two climbs ever feel alike and a climb I’ve done a zillion times feels slightly more strenuous, or less daunting, on any given day: maybe I’m tired, maybe I’m stressed, maybe I’m out of work, or overworked, or I’m feeling badly because I was late for plans last night and I’ll probably be late again, tonight. I still need to focus; because even the “easiest” climbs demand my full attention. As a really talented, accomplished 5.13 climber friend once said, of a surprisingly thought-provoking 5.8 warm-up route: “It’s still rock climbing."