Monday, May 9, 2011

Is 40 really the new 30?

Recently I posted an article from Gripped Magazine on my Facebook Mountains and Water page. About a year earlier, Gripped ran a similar story, focusing on male climbers, but with the same angle, that older climbers can still get up hard routes. Thoughts of this sort even circulated a bit in the media after Chris Sharma's stunning ascent of two 5.15s just after turning 30.

On the one hand, I want to agree with the yea-sayers who assert that age is mostly an imaginary barrier, one much more easily overcome than in the past, thanks to much better equipment, proliferating climbing gyms, and much more rational attitudes towards the sport overall. However, I also want to caution against unthinking acceptance of the belief in the ageless climber.

There is no question that the physical demands of high-end climbing are not entirely incompatible with aging. Sure, you have to be much more careful to avoid potentially threatening moves, mostly because you realize that an entire climbing season lost to a soft-tissue injury is not just an inconvenience. But I find that the mental and psychological demands are the hardest to overcome and by that I don't mean forgetting a sequence or dealing with fear.

Instead I am talking about the undeniable truth of aging in general, that you simply perceive the world differently. In my current chosen discipline, there are very very few serious 40+ practitioners of the sport in the entire country. If I want to get out at all, I have to accept that I will either be climbing alone or in the company of people whose life circumstances are completely different from mine, which sometimes can feel like the same thing. Very few serious boulderers that I know are dealing with the demands of a family and career in any meaningful sense of the term.

But there is a deeper problem and that is one of finding meaning in the activity after such a long time practicing it. For me it is a constant struggle, a process of self-examination and reflection in the face of external pressures and internal change. The paradox is that in many instances I find climbing well to be one of the least self-reflective of activities and yet preparing for a problem and looking back on it can involve hours of contemplation. The tension between the two states of mind can be difficult to resolve at best.

The landscape changes underfoot, so to speak while I am crossing it. The familiar becomes too familiar and then in an instant uncannily different. My response to the climbing environment is tempered by the presence of histories both personal and general. Perhaps other older climbers don't reckon with these spirits of the past but I find them everywhere. Friends and acquaintance age and transform, even here in the world-headquarters of eternal youth and age-denial that is Boulder.

I think this process moves ahead regardless of physical appearance and indeed, Oscar Wilde's parable of Dorian Gray may allude to it best. The outer appearance of physical strength and climbing achievements is only the surface of a person. Deeper, darker and truly human truths lie beneath, truths that only emerge over time. Sure, celebrate the persistence and determination of older athletes. But understand also that the real struggle is probably happening somewhere else, out of the reach of cameras or even words.


boe said...

for me that tension (between reflective and unreflective) has always been there in climbing; i can't imagine climbing without it. i think the main risk comes from pretending it isn't there. a potential benefit of aging is that it makes this tension harder and harder to ignore; it gives us the chance to learn to deal with it in richer, more refined, or at least less stupid, ways.

Unknown said...

You go Peter, you are one of the most if not the most inspirational boulderer no matter how old you are.

Unknown said...

You go Peter. You are one of the most, if not the most inspirational older climbers I know. You motivate me to get off of my ass and try hard. We'll see what having a kid does to my climbing, though that was not a topic in your piece, you do have a little one, are older, and still gettin after it.
Keep up the good work.