The sun radiated through towering pines, laying a canopy over the dusty trail toward Suicide Rock. Idyllwild, California—the true birthplace of the YDS, home to the world’s first 5.9, and central to the rise of rock climbing in the States. On a clear Saturday afternoon, climbing parties danced up the trail to hop on all the classics. My mom and I planned to do our first traditional climb together—Graham Crackers, a two-pitch 5.6.
We arrived at the Northeast Buttress and joined the other weekend warriors—some were smiling, and some scowling at the increasing amount of people arriving at the crag. We greeted the woman standing below Graham Crackers who placed gear on her harness, preparing to lead. As we discussed our choices to wait or find another 5.fun route, a woman dressed head-to-toe in Patagonia interjected, recommending we try out Etude, 5.11a. A bit alarmed we would jump from 5.6 to 5.11, and a bit honored she assumed my mom and I would be up for it, I responded, “I do love that route but we’re looking for something easier.” The woman looked at me surprised and responded, “you’ve climbed it?”
With this response, she suggested that either she expected us to climb it on-sight, or that she simply said it to measure her climbing ability against ours. I calmly told her I climbed the route last time I was here and my mom added in, attempting to be helpful, “she top-rope on-sighted it!” In a condescending tone, she went on to tell me that doesn’t count and she would love to see me lead it.
The climb tempted me with its beautifully delicate features, but I was new to traditional climbing, I wasn’t warmed up, there were a plethora of stressed climbers defensive of their spot in the queue for Flower of High Rank—the climb just next to it, and my mom would be tense and terrified belaying me. These didn’t feel like excuses, they were valid concerns. And for some reason, my ego still wanted to prove that I could.
I looked up at the climb from where I was sitting and took a deep breath. I knew that it wasn’t my voice telling me I wanted to climb it—it was the insecurity of another. I smiled and brushed it off as if her challenge was a friendly joke. We ended up waiting only a few minutes more for Graham Crackers. My mom and I climbed our two pitches and had a great time together.
As climbing ascends even more into the mainstream, crags are becoming more crowded and the competition becoming far less than friendly. With this, we worry that climbing-related accidents will also become more common. We’re a community, after all. Why doesn’t it feel like it sometimes?
Increasingly, and not just in California, I have seen people pushing their goals—and insecurities—onto others. If someone has a true intention to do something, they will do it rather than spray about it. If you have a goal to try climbing indoors, try it! If you’d like to climb outside, it’s wonderful! If you’d like to climb 5.15, work super hard and get there! But please remember, we all have different limits and we all have diverse goals. Competition can be positive, helping us try hard and do our best. But not everyone wants to compete.
There’s a huge difference between challenging others to be great and shaming them for not being “as good” as you. It takes enough strength and energy to become a better version of ourselves, and criticizing others’ abilities and decisions is a waste of it. We must use this energy to grow, as members of the same community, and encourage others rather than judge them for growing in a different way. Climbing is a beautiful physical endeavor, but it can also help us face the weaker parts of ourselves so we can see that there’s something bigger going on than just scaling a blank-looking rock.
What we learn when we climb—about patience, about respect for ourselves, other climbers, and the natural world, about overcoming fears, about having grace with ourselves—can translate into our everyday lives. If we are busy invalidating others’ pursuits and accomplishments, we will miss opportunities to better ourselves and our community. Wherever we may be in our journey of ability, we must all embrace our own goals and allow others the stillness to reach theirs. Climb on!…if you want.
Staring at the towers above, I imagine a gneiss crack hugging my fingers as I sandwich my rubber toes in a one-inch splitter. A cool breeze flows through the canyon, lifting my awareness higher up the mountainside and further from the water I’m in. With the weighty nudge of a paddle against the back of my PFD and a yell, “Stop looking at the rocks!” I snap out of my fantasy. A sudden burst of water in my face, and I’m back in the front seat of a whitewater raft—and an integral part of keeping it afloat.
Whitewater explodes all around us, and all eyes widen as we approach a huge rapid. Our Montana Whitewater guide, Michael, laughs and commands, “Alright, all forward!” Each member of the boat paddles at a slightly different pace, like a heart with palpitations, occasionally skipping a beat. Our strokes finally sync as we hit Hilarity Hole, an enormous hydraulic known for its hungry belly that flips its food over quickly and digests it without a pause. The only way out: ditching your PFD, swimming downward, and praying that it will spit you out with a breath still in your chest.
We make it through the rapid and water drips from our sunburned faces, revealing the smiles that were hidden behind our unease. After some small-talk, Michael guesses that rafting may not be any of our first choices and asks, “So, what’s your thing?” As the others begin describing some of their outdoor preferences — kayak-fishing, mountain biking, skiing — the serene wind blows through our conversation and silences our discourse. In a moment of stillness, we absorb the perfect warmth of the sun and take in the calm waves and breathtaking scenery. Despite our variety of interests, we’re all here now, synergistically enjoying this experience in Gallatin Canyon.
People from all backgrounds come through this canyon and its surrounding mountains — strapping on their Oboz, Chacos, or La Sportivas and flowing into their activity of choice, often forgetting about the wide variety of other activities available. On this day, when the air was too scorching to climb Scorched Earth, I didn’t even think to jump in the water. And just as I began to make plans to climb indoors at Spire, the O/B crew invited me out to the river — where we could step out of our routines and into a whitewater raft.
In the rugged waters below looming citadels of gneiss and limestone, we prepare for another rapid — this time we’re all a bit more comfortable and collegial. Our strokes sync even quicker this time as we glide over the whitewater like butter on warm bread, becoming one with the rapids. With water up my nose and a smile on my face, I understand that all our “things” are just small ingredients to this same fantastic whole — a whole that would be incomplete if we only saw it from one angle.
At another calm section, Michael tells us he came all the way from Indiana to become a Gallatin River guide. He hasn’t invested in a drysuit yet; instead, he wears only a polyester t-shirt — which he wore throughout his springtime guide training while swimming down the numbing rapids. No matter how cold he gets, he’s out here doing what he loves most — and trying to understand the other “things” that keep the canyon bustling year-round. To our left, he points out some lesser-known public lands to hike and mountain bike. Gesturing to the right, he describes the “granite” climbing. I smile under my PFD and keep quiet. He’ll figure out the geology in time — maybe by strapping on a harness and seeing the canyon in a different light. And who knows, maybe he’ll enjoy the rocks as much as I’m enjoying this river.
And this is what it’s all about, appreciating the abundance and enjoying the occasional divergence from the familiar. Rather than getting cooked on the rocks on a sweltering summer day — or, in my case, wasting it inside — I gave the river a chance, respecting another ingredient of the good life this canyon brings us. And while everyone may have a preferred way to spend time here, if we only engage in what we know, we’ll miss out on the variety and splendor of the outdoor world. Instead, we should savor the entirety of this place, where there’s always an adventure — around every corner, on every type of craft, with every type of person.
Who are you, when you’re alone, without a mirror, without your phone?
When we allow the wild in our minds to find stillness, we can let go of the desire to be anything other than true. It’s too easy to fall prey to the windows of distraction and the mirrors of comparison social media provides. All the various voices, especially the negative ones, have been getting louder and louder, trying to get others to reflect their fears—their fears of being alone.
We may more clearly hear our purpose, not only in the absence of noise, but in the presence of silence. Make more of an effort to let the stillness sink into your day—into you. Stay in it for a little more time than feels comfortable. The more we let the uncomfortable silence speak, the more comfortable we will become with ourselves.
More often we must allow our eyes to gaze up at the stars rather than down at our blemishes, and let our fingers brush against the perfect artistry of a leaf or the hand of another, rather than scrolling endlessly through a screen. Even if only for a moment more of silence each day, we may feel more alive, more ourselves, and less alone.
You are real. You are not a reflection, and you are not what you see on your phone.