Climbing Can Be A Spectator Sport

Picture the scene: Music blares as people tailgate and play beer pong in the parking lot. Ticketholders line up to be let in. Finally inside, the crowd cheers as athletes emerge under spotlight. Where am I? An NFL game? Close. It’s a comp at my local climbing gym.

  While climbing didn’t make it to the Olympics again this year, it can be a spectator sport like a mainstream sporting event. Climbing athletes are finding endorsement by more and more big-money brands. (Welcome Adidas, the newest big kid on the block.) And major news sources feature our athletes’ accomplishments, and even lifestyles, from Alex Honnold on 60 Minutes to Sasha DiGuilian in Seventeen Magazine.

The closest I’ve had to a spectated climbing event is on El Cap. Other climbers watch your progress and sometimes, even from thousands of feet away, you can hear people cheering. Each day Tom Evans photographs all the climbers on El Cap routes (that are visible from his perch at the bridge) and updates the  Tom is our announcer (and fashion critic) broadcasting on a platform that virtually anyone can access. So while engrossed in a largely solitary experience I know some people are watching, vaguely aware of what I am up to and cheering me on in real time.

This June I spent free climbing on the PreMuir Wall (VI 5.13c).  My friend Joe and I toiled for five consecutive days in the summer heat up the most taxing El Cap route of our lives. I made full use of all my cheerleading resources. My packing list included the following cheerleading (aka morale) items to connect me to sources of love: homemade snacks (raw, vegan, and gluten-soy-nut free of course); a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles headband (lucky power animal); a motorcyclist’s Guardian bell (designed to ward off Evil Road Spirits…or rock gremlins); speakers (bring all genres of music, I never know what I’ll need); a shirt sprayed in my girlfriend’s perfume (‘nuff said); hygiene items (nothing beats an evening self-soothe sesh with a file, salve, and a mini dry brush). I texted with my girlfriend and felt supported by her notes and femmeupdates. Overall, I stayed connected to a sense of purpose and I felt supported by a greater community. And maybe it helped feel contented with my performance (redpoint up through pitch 26, the 5.13c stem corner crux).

Aside from the party on El Cap, the majority of my greatest athletic moments are relatively solitary experiences. My climbing partner and I become a cheerleading squad of two. A big wall climbing trip to the Ak-Su Valley in Kyrgyzstan, for example, meant leaving home for five weeks. As a safety measure, we had a satellite phone and I sent text messages once a week to my girlfriend at home for basic communication. I felt absorbed by my remote climbing life and far removed from my fan base. I’d chosen this, but when the intensity of the trip shook our mini cheerleading pyramid, it left me feeling unsupported and our remoteness overwhelmingly vulnerable. Upon my return I told stories, gave slideshows and wrote a magazine article in a vain attempt to integrate the trip. But I was still super-sad and had emotional reentry rickets. (It was hot. Just ask my ex. Note transition from “girlfriend” to “ex.”)  

The return from the PreMuir Wall counterpoints; I arrived back at my van to find it graffitied with words of encouragement.  Fingers had written “Way to go! Spectacular! Love, PB.” I was confused, there’s only one PB in my life and that’s my father, Papa Bear, 3,000 miles away.  Then I found his note slid inside my back door: “It was impulsive,” he wrote, “but I wanted to see you climb El Cap. I saw a lot of the park, although I’ve mostly been here. I was amazed by all the lights of the climbers on the wall. Tom Evans has been great, letting me watch through his equipment but next time I will bring my own telescope. You are remarkable! It looked incredibly difficult…. I love you. pb” He had been there for four days and then gone back to work.  Watching me. Cheering me on. I can’t think of a better fan.