Thursday, June 6, 2013

Age and Youth: Always Learning More

Just the other day I turned 49, something that was as inevitable and unremarkable as anything else that happened that day. Oddly it seems that many of the things that get me up out of bed in the morning remain just as interesting now as they did, say forty years ago, around the time that I was first introduced to the sport of climbing. Much like the bewildered character in the song, I ask "How did I get here?" and with no clear answers other than there has been something about the act of climbing and the nature of its surroundings that keeps drawing me back.

A video still from a recent ascent of Running Scared V11 at RMNP

It's a good time to think about this perennial topic in climbing, the intersection of age/time and climbing. The attention currently paid to youthful ascents of relatively hard climbs remains high and I will say for my part that's a good thing overall. The more young people getting out and climbing well the better But more interesting to me is watching a generation that really launched the notion of youth climbing suddenly growing up. Chris Sharma is now well over 30, for instance. Some from that mid-90s era have persisted in the sport while many more have left climbing for the most part. I wonder about the process that climbers might undergo as they leave the sport, assuming that injury or other catastrophe hasn't forced the issue. It's difficult for me to understand. I find myself pretty much a "lifer" at this point, still obsessed with difficult movement on rock, absorbed for hours in the intricacies of form, immersing myself, as I have been recently, in the alpine environment of Rocky Mountain National Park as it changes from winter into spring and now summer.

I know for a certainty that very few other climbers my age are pursuing bouldering seriously, that I am an anomaly in the sport, especially in the States. I like this contrarian aspect of my climbing though it implies a certain solitary aspect to my journey. Perhaps it's strange in this hyper-social age, but I welcome the solitude that high-altitude bouldering offers, the respite, however brief, from the demands of other people's attention and opinions. But I question whether the young climbers of the day, brought into the sport on an infrastructure of parents coaches and gyms, will ever really know this feeling that sustains my pursuit of climbing. Will they persist in the sport after the support systems they have relied upon in the past are no longer there? Can they persist in the face of ever-encroaching responsibilities and demands on their time?

This is the factor that I think renders comparisons between mature and youthful climbers irrelevant, that  we are basically playing very different games. The physical differences are minuscule but the psychological and mental differences are massive. Teenage climbers are responsible for, well, basically nothing. For socially privileged teenagers (which describes most serious young climbers) there is the added advantage of unearned resources that do not have to be accounted for such as cars, travel, and so on. Rarely will anything such a teenager does have serious consequences financially or socially. None of this applies to an average adult over 35, many of whom will be starting families, owning and maintaining houses, and will be involved in full-time professions and careers that neither care about nor respect lives outside the workplace. In our culture it is near impossible for such an adult to find breathing room for any recreational pursuit, let alone a serious regimen of training and high-end climbing. This burden explains why I am much more impressed by older climbers and their achievements.

I have taken in recent years to working with a number of such individuals as their climbing coach, trying to help them reach their full potential, not merely in physical terms but also in terms of understanding the deeper nature of climbing and how it can expand their lives and their live's meaning. This is work that is a natural extension of my career as a teacher and writer and is something I hope to develop over time. Climbing well is so much more than a physical action and has benefits that stretch across an entire lifetime, not merely a brief interlude before settling into a sedentary adulthood. If I have learned anything in the 35-plus years of climbing, it is that the heroics of famous climbers are just the surface appearances of a much more complex world, one that holds incredible promise for achievement and personal fulfillment well after one's supposed physical "peak." If I could hope for one thing to happen to today's generation of young climbers, it is that they learn this valuable truth.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Always learning more indeed, Peter.

"one that holds incredible promise for achievement and personal fulfillment well after one's supposed physical "peak."

At 55 I still find bouldering to be incredibly rewarding and enjoyable on so many levels. Cheers to all the old ones still at it. We're lucky to have it and even luckier to be able to continue doing it.