Finding Soul

I remember that day like it was yesterday, although it was more than a dozen years ago.  It was a late summer/early fall afternoon in 2001, shortly before the 9/11 attacks on the US.  Reed and his friend met me at a new clump of boulders in Snow Valley Central that I had been developing for a few months.

Developing?  Actually, it was more like scouting.  Addicted to the climbing lifestyle, yet finding the actual act of climbing to be too utterly painful to execute any longer, I would tell people that I was “going climbing”–but what I was actually doing was mostly just exploring uncharted territory, finding new boulders in the forest, mapping their location, drawing their shapes, assigning names to them, taking extensive notes on the potential routes on each face of the boulders, and then going home.  Rarely did I attempt to climb any of these new discoveries.  No matter how tempting it was to deflower the virgin rock, it was just too god damned painful any more.

Reed Bartlett at Snow Valley, 1997.

Reed Bartlett at Snow Valley, 1997.

That day with Reed and his friend, I made a valiant effort to show them that I was still a climber.  After all, this was “my” rock; I had “discovered” it and was now playing tour guide, and so had an obligation to try to keep up with the two of them.  But all that effort was in vain.  I would mount the boulder, make just two or three moves, and the tendons in my middle and ring fingers would catch fire.  I would jump off the rock and sit down, both hands involuntarily locked in clenched fists, wincing from the pain, massaging the tendons for five or ten minutes as the burning slowly subsided, watching my friends having a great time bouldering.  When the pain was almost gone, I would jump back on the rock, only to repeat the same sequence of events over again.  And again.  And again.

After a couple hours of this excruciatingly painful ritual, in a blinding flash of brilliance I made a decision that was even more excruciatingly painful, and yet incredibly liberating at the same time:

I would never climb again.


That night, I tossed and turned, trying with great futility to fall asleep and make that agonizing day end.  I was completely comfortable with my decision to retire from climbing, yet deathly worried, because I knew what was going to happen: it was inevitable that I would have vivid dreams, nay, horrible nightmares, about climbing.  For the rest of my life, I would was going to awaken with a start in the wee hours of the morning, in a cold sweat, having replayed for the umpteenth time the moves of some obscure (yet classic to me) boulder problem in a dream, only to realize that it was not to be, that I was forever vanquished from the climbing way of life.  Yes, that’s the way the rest of my life was going to unfold.  And that thought terrified me.

But a funny thing happened.  Eventually, I fell asleep, and I slept like a baby.

And I never had a dream–or nightmare–about climbing.



After a glorious four days of backpacking along the John Muir Trail through Yosemite National Park, Geoff, Greg, Mike, and I drove out and found a campsite just east of the park’s Tioga Pass entrance.  While it was still light, we raced down to the sleepy little town of Lee Vining to grab some dinner and some firewood, and then raced back to our campsite to get everything set up before we retired to an evening of telling stories around the campfire, drinking wine, and, eventually, sleep.

It had been seven or eight years since my retirement from climbing, and I had few regrets; there so many good memories of the rocks I had climbed and the people I had climbed them with, but I had moved on and spent my outdoors time pursuing other activities.  It didn’t seem to matter what I was doing; all that really mattered was that I was doing it outside.

To the west of our campsite, up Lee Vining Canyon towards Tioga Pass, clouds were rolling in.  It looked like we had finished our trip just in time; a good, hard rain was almost certainly coming.  The sun was sinking low, and would tuck itself to rest behind the Sierra crest soon enough.  But suddenly, we experienced one of those magical moments where the sun, the clouds, and the mountains align themselves perfectly.  Brilliant shafts of light, seemingly hundreds of miles long, reached out from the sun towards the heavens, and we all ran for our cameras.

I tried to frame the perfect photo, but there was a large boulder in the foreground blocking the view.  So without even thinking, I ran towards the boulder and started climbing it.


It looked so much better in person…sunset from our campsite in Lee Vining Canyon, 2008.

It wasn’t a spectacular boulder.  And the route I chose up it wasn’t at all hard.  A middle-aged fat guy driving an RV probably could have scaled it with relative ease and taken the same photo as me.  But I didn’t climb it like a middle-aged fat guy driving an RV.  I climbed it like a rock climber.

The movement…the flow…it all came back, like riding a bike.  So easy; so good.  Standing on top of the boulder, I quickly took my inadequate photo as the rays of light faded away, and then suddenly realized that the rush of joy I was feeling was not because of the glorious, almost religious sunset unfolding before my eyes.  In a gigantic rush of emotions–one magical moment–it all came back.  I had just climbed again.


In the late 1990s, when I was starting to have problems climbing, I had a couple of conversations with the legend himself, John “Verm” Sherman about injuries, pain, and aging as they related to climbing–and specifically, bouldering.  I was struggling with the physical pain, but even more so was struggling with the mental anguish.  What he told me went something like this.

“It’s kind of like surfing,” he said.  “In surfing, they have this concept of ‘soul surfing.’  I think there’s a certain aspect of bouldering that’s almost like that.  Kind of like ‘soul bouldering’.”

According to Wikipedia, “’Soul Surfer’ is a term coined in the 1960s, used to describe a surfer who surfs for the sheer pleasure of surfing.  The term denotes a spirituality of surfing.”


After quitting years earlier, I had sold, given away, or thrown out nearly every bit of climbing equipment–even the climbing gym in my garage.  So I started to buy replacement gear.  Shoes, a new chalk bag, and a new crash pad.  And eventually, I built a new gym in my garage–this one much better than the first one.  I climbed in my garage; went to many of my old haunts–Deep Creek Narrows, Snow Valley, Joshua Tree National Park–and climbed on real rock; and took my kids to a commercial climbing gym.

Climbing in my garage, 2011.

Climbing in my garage, 2011.

Although I was climbing again, this time it was different.  Gone were the lists of routes climbed, and the other lists of routes yet to be climbed.  Gone was the competitive streak that forced me, in the presence of other climbers, to stress and eventually break my weak body.  And gone was the need to advance, to climb ever harder each time I lifted my body off the ground and launched it up onto the vertical.

All of those lists and projects and accomplishments were replaced by a focus on the simplicity and purity of the movement itself, and the sheer beauty of the experience.

The question “how hard did I climb today?” was replaced by a modest statement: “I climbed today.”

I was back on the rock, but I was no longer bouldering.  I was ‘soul bouldering.’

Turns out that’s what it was supposed to be about all along…


One thought on “Finding Soul

  1. Pingback: Coming September 2013: A Life Outside 4 | Matt Artz

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