Sometimes I am asked if I miss climbing. I respond differently depending on the time of year or how I am feeling or who is asking, and whether or not I think they want - or merit - the real answer.
For sure, I miss the competence and certainty of movement. I miss knowing how to do something esoteric and dangerous and bold. I miss that moment of realization when I recognize I am equal to a challenge after hours and days of doubt. I miss coming out on top of the unspoken competition between the best guys of the day. Too, I miss being surpassed and pushed or pulled higher by those who were better than me. I miss being scared out of my skin but getting way with it. I miss the release of tension after hours of being strung taut. I miss being exhausted deep into my bones and spirit. I miss the endless days of disciplined preparation, the training, the thinking, the discussion, strategy, and waiting. Oh, the fucking waiting - for conditions to be favorable, for partners to be available, for a grant or a check or a bank account balance that gave way to freedom. Or for a telex or fax from a foreign country bearing invitation or permission to visit. And even though I hated it at the time, I miss days waiting to acclimatize, when I had nothing to do but to hike and to eat, to sleep and to breathe.
These seem like little things when I compare it to the thing I don't know if I will ever feel again.
What I really miss (at this time of writing) is the overwhelming feeling of safety and comfort that would sometimes come after a climb was done. It might happen on the warm deck of a Chamonix bar, lit by a still-warm, late-day sun, when heavy legs didn't matter anymore because they wouldn't get me killed, when stress evaporated in the bubbles of a Panaché, when the certainty of having done something mythical and survived sank in, through skin, through sinew, muscle, bone and settled in the heart like it had found its home.
I treasured the sunsets I saw on those days. The dying glow across the mountains, where I had utterly spent, and - by doing so - found myself.
The warmth might happen in a tent in the Himalaya, as frost melted from the ceiling when the rising sun broke a new day, the first day of the trek out and a signal that it wouldn't get any more dangerous, only less so, that I could lower my guard a notch or two. After two months of up and up, of struggle, came the first morning of the first day of down, of knowing the momentum toward safety and civilization would accumulate into a rush that I might later wish I had slowed a bit.
It might be on that plane ride out of the Alaska Range, again late in the evening, with sun low against the horizon and the heat in the plane rising as we sank toward lower elevations. When I could think, "It's out of my control for now. I'm free of the need to DO the thing that nourishes me. I'm full. I have had enough." Tap water and a thermostat and groceries waited. All of which had been earned.
I miss the indelible mark that is made when desire returns after a period without it. I miss feeling the accumulating need to go to the mountains again, to do something massive, to strike the trivial from my life. Because close on the heels of this desire came something else, an intense torment, an internal struggle against everything that might keep me from doing what I wanted - what I was capable of doing: weather, time, money, worst of all people. Relationships. It was a struggle for independence from some people and total dependence on others. And those who were shucked aside wished to be those on whom I could depend. It was the hardest "normal life" struggle that came with climbing but eventually I could turn relationships on or off like light and water: with the flick of a switch. I was honest about what was most important to me and it was cruel but I couldn't carry those relationships in my pack, because back then, they did not make me stronger or feed me when I needed it.
Instead, my climbing partners nourished me. With them I experienced moments of implicit trust, when we each knew without needing to say it and without question that we would not fail each other. We would not let each other down. We were dependable. Accountable. We were as close as men can ever get. Our love and trust meant something because it kept us alive. We were stronger because of it. Those moments were rare and precious. They could not be recreated at will. Only a haphazard combination of special elements could result in such a bond, and expression of it. Circumstance cut some partners away while others drifted off with no emptiness in their wake. But I miss one of them badly, every day. I miss the One we became when we moved simultaneously, in rhythm, in perfection. And when, after reaching safety but before the inevitable let-down, we met in a shared song and a tune we would forever associate with what we had just been through. He never let me down. He always answered the call. He always held the rope. I suppose each of us is still holding it but the distance between us has dimmed once-shocking energy to intermittent vibration.
Balancing the scale is what I do not miss about climbing, and there is plenty. However, in the years since I quit I have come to realize the things I hated most about it had nothing to do with climbing and everything to do with people. The behavior is universal and excusing myself from the world of climbing did not take me further away from the bullshit of mankind.
I don't miss how technology has changed the way we communicate. Getting to the heart of things was one of the most costly lessons of alpinism and now all we do is skirt the edges. We dip our toes in shallow water. While it is touted as improving our social lives (if we accept quantity as an improvement over quality), that we receive news as 0s and 1s, in nearly real time, has stripped the emotional content and impact from our communication. In the old days interaction was personal. We looked each other in the eye. We touched. We could bite just as easily as turn a cheek. Most importantly, we gave and received bad news with genuine tenderness, sincerity, and care. Often that news was a surprise but not surprising because we could sense it coming in how a friend hesitated, or held himself. And by the time of day.
I don't miss the overwhelming dread of a phone ringing after midnight, when I quickly ran through a list of friends and who was climbing where. I don't miss those interminable seconds between when the voice on the phone would say, "Hey Mark, it's me, I have some bad news ..." and the precise phrase that followed. Because those conversations inevitably shared news of death, of loss. A few terrible words described an irrevocable change in the landscape we found ourselves in, that we had created by being who we were and what we did.
I don't miss that at all.
Except when I do.