Brian Pardo climbing in Connecticut during this past spring.
Photo by Tory Michack
A look at the growing popularity of rock climbing and checking out in our Occupy-Wall-Street generation.
Photo credits in sequential order:
1. Skip Winter, 2. Joe Knight Morgan, 3. Jackie Allen, 4. Joe Knight Morgan, 5. Emma Harrison, 6. Anne-Marie Spain, 7. Geoff Jara-Almonte, 8. Geoff Jara-Almonte, 9. Tory Michak, 10. Tory Michak
On Sunday, Oct. 23, I walked into Brooklyn Boulders in the Gowanus area for the first time in four months. I’ve been climbing for four years, and every Autumn, life seems to get in the way. Every year, when I walk back into the gym, I again can finally breathe.
This year, work and the fact that Gowanus is an hour away from my apartment got in the way. But really, nothing should ever get in the way of rock climbing because in a concrete city that thrives on competition and twelve-hour workdays, it’s pretty much the only thing that keeps me sane. I think it’s the combination of intense effort and the fear of falling or maybe the hope that soon I’ll make it outside again… but something innate shuts out the world so that for two straight minutes I am only considering where to place the toe.
The world begins and ends with the next hold, and once you get it, you hang on and consider the next one after that. You think about every muscle and its place. When you do it correctly, you feel as if you aren’t thinking at all: you are locked in. Once in that place, you move with the problem. Finishing is like a release; an exhale. And then you go and lay down on the ground and laugh and have all your friends laugh with you as you marvel together at what you just accomplished: the intricacy, the intensity, the strength, and endurance of completing a climb.
Climbing is more than a recreational activity. It is more than a sport. It is more than a way of life: it is art. Rock climbing embodies movement, breathing, competition and focus in a way that affects every single activity a person does while they are not on a rock, real or fake. It pushes people to their limits. And in a society, a job economy that can seem hopeless, it’s a journey filled with exhilaration.
There are those who see only the competition in climbing. They live for the events, the crowds, the cameras, and the cheers. We call these people competition kids. There are those who see climbing solely as a way of life. We fondly refer to these people as climbing bums. In either scenario, climbing can become so addictive that a person can literally make his life revolve around it. People become obsessed with finding the most challenging problem, the remotest location, the biggest payoff, the prettiest rock, and the most dangerous route. In a world that is discovered, rock climbing is one of the last great adventures. I think people see that about climbing, no matter if they are a competition kid, a climbing bum, or just or regular Brooklyn Boulder’s after-work climber. I think they see its potential. The adventure is as inherent in the physical act of climbing as it is in actually going on an adventure to find a problem.
I think climbing speaks to people my age. There’s something about it I’ve been trying to put my finger on. I have two friends who have recently checked out from society to become the formerly defined climbing bums. What’s interesting about these guys is how educated they are. My first friend, Corey Baldner-Hathaway, graduated with a Mechanical Engineering degree. My second my, Brian Pardo, graduated with a degree in physics. Both recently went on extensive climbing trips. Corey worked and lived at Hueco Rock Ranch in Texas for most of last season. He gave tours for a free pass to arguably our country’s best climbing park. Brian left New York City in April and has been traveling all over the country for six months – going from climbing spot to climbing spot. He just settled in Kentucky with a six month lease and his girlfriend Tory. I asked if his wandering was over. “Eh, I bet it’ll get hot here pretty soon, I’ll get depressed, and then I’ll quit whatever job I get and move onto the next spot,” he said.
I wrote them because I wanted to know why they left. Corey’s answer is below.
“After my very first trip to Hueco, maybe 4 years ago, I knew that I had to spend an entire season out there. The beauty of the park, the quality and quantity of the climbing and the happy-go-lucky attitude of all the climbers won my heart. Since that first trip, every other trip only compounded that feeling. There were numerous times through college that I seriously thought about dropping out to go climbing. After I got my degree, there was nothing really holding me down and I seized the opportunity to hit the road, and Hueco was where I wanted to spend my winter. On a stroke of luck I made it into guide training and was able to spend all winter leading bouldering tours and climbing every day.
Lesson #1: A broken down van is more appealing than a tent to women.
Lesson #2: Rest days are completely necessary.
Lesson #3: They won’t admit it, but weekend warriors with real jobs are completely jealous of the dirt-bag lifestyle.
Lesson #4:The trick to dirt-bagging: Decrease your standards of living and increase your quality of life. .”
Corey wrote a blog about his adventure.
I met Brian and Tory last year at Brooklyn Boulders. This past April, they took off and went to Red River Gorge in Kentucky and then to New River Gorge in West Virginia. When I met Brian, I was depressed. I was working 60 hours a week at Gregory’s Coffee in Midtown Manhattan. I was broke and had just moved to New York. I wanted to be a writer but didn’t know where to begin. Rock climbing was pretty much the only thing keeping me going. The night I met him, we began talking about jobs. He was working part time as an analyst for the Jewish Child Care Association and part time as a juicer for a local juice bar. I asked him what he wanted to do.
“I thought I wanted to be a physicist, but I don’t. So now I don’t know,” he said.
“I guess you just need to find a job you like,” I said.
“Ha. Yea. You know of any?” he said. I didn’t.
When Brian came back from his trips, I asked him where he was going to go next.
“Maybe Mexico. I’m not sure. I just want to keep going,” he said.
Brian was living in an apartment in Bed Stuy. His building burned down just before he left. He didn’t seem upset that his building burned down. He had been living with several guys that started a free grocery store. People would put in and take out from the store as they pleased. They also ventured into dumpster diving. I guess what I find to be parallel between Brian and Corey is how educated yet non-integrated they are. Some people might call them lost, but are they? The world calls my generation apathetic, but we aren’t. If I may generalize, I’d say we care deeply about sustainable living and adding value to the world and the people around us. I think that many of us haven’t found how to translate that into the market place, and maybe some of us never will.
I followed up with Brian recently. It turns out that he and Tory got a six month lease in Lexington, Kentucky on November 1st. It’s forty-five minutes from Red River Gorge. He’s been traveling for the past six months. I asked him how he could afford to quit and take off like that. “I eat pretty cheap and that’s pretty much the only thing I’ve been paying for. If you camp at a site, you can live for a $1.50 a day plus gas, and you’re only driving a mile or so down the road.”
We talked for a long time about climbing and our generation. He told me that he ran into the same people over and over between the New River Gorge and the Red River Gorge. “Everyone was recently graduated. They quit their jobs and went down for six months up to two years… It’s funny I just finished watching this video of Keller Rinaudo, who is a great climber. He’s Harvard educated and worked for a consulting company. He quit his job and has been climbing all over. In the interview he sort of went off on a tangent, saying he didn’t know what he wanted to do so he was going to do this for the moment. I think everyone feels that way. I know I do.”
He told me about how he felt like he was spinning his wheels in New York City. He said he felt stretched too thin here, with too many obligations, running around too much, and not having yet found his passion.
“I think some day I’ll find something that really excites me and I’ll spend at least part of my life doing that. But, I don’t like to look that far ahead into the future,” Brian said.
He talked about what he did love about New York City. He mentioned his apartment in Bed Stuy and how it was “a really eye opening experience” and “one of the coolest living situations,” as he lived with a writer, a painter, a playwright and someone who he thinks is a “key organizer” of Occupy Wall Street, just cause he’s “that kind of guy,” squatting in NYC in the ’90s and stuff.
I told him that I thought of Occupy Wall Street and climbing as reflections of each other. I think our generation might be protesting to realize some type of value system with which we were raised but have yet to experience as adults.
In Brian’s case, he saved enough money and went climbing.
Climbing is physically, mentally, and spiritually engaging enough to keep you going as long as your dollars will float you. I think there’s an economic mismatch going on the United States. Jobs way above and below a college grad’s skill level are available, and not much else. As a result, many young to mid 20-year-olds are slowly shuffling out of the competitive market place.
The new interest in climbing is not entirely based on apathy and idealism. Strong marketing is involved. The juxtaposition is so American that it’s almost an old cliché. Climbing is for young attractive people mostly. It involves spandex. If you aren’t fit when you begin, you will be when you end. It’s also economical.
“It’s pretty much the cheapest way for young attractive people to get a great workout,” said Brian.
The marketing is also working. As of this summer, rock climbing just made the shortlist for the 2020 Olympics.
If you want to give this alternative form of exercise and lifestyle a chance, head to Brooklyn Boulders, in the Gowanus, and read our story about it.