I realized that I missed the real point when I originally wrote this in 2012. Revisiting the idea in 2014 brought out different emotions.
Climbing mountains consumed me. Now I don’t do it. Sometimes I miss it. When asked if I do my answer differs. It depends on how I am feeling or who is asking, and whether or not I think they want - or merit - the real answer.
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 signaled freedom, and a plane ticket. For a telex from a far-off country bearing invitation to visit or a fax from a foreign government granting permission. 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 are little things. They don’t leave an ache. What injures most is a feeling that I doubt I can or will ever feel again.
I miss the overwhelming feeling of safety and comfort that would often come after a climb was done. It might happen on the 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. After two months of up and up, of feeding ambition, of struggle, came the first morning of the first day of down, and 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 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. Back then I turned relationships on or off with the flick of a switch. It was cruel but I couldn't carry those relationships in my pack. 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. We would not let each other down. We were dependable. Accountable. We were as close as men can be. Our love and trust kept us alive. Made us stronger. Those moments were rare and precious. They could not be recreated at will. Only a fortunate combination of special elements could produce such a bond, and the expression of it. I miss the belief we had in each other.
Circumstance cut some partners away while others drifted off without leaving 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, in a melody 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. And even though time has dimmed the energy we passed along that rope between us our bond remains strong. Hard-earned. Learned by heart.
I thought I missed our partnership the most but writing this proved it isn’t gone. Instead, I miss knowing exactly what I want. When climbing was everything I knew what I wanted most. I would do anything for it. My ambition was certain despite an uncertain outcome. I honed the sharp edges of consequence into the guideposts along my route. Those blades focused me. Without them I wander. I’ve tasted and tested too many distractions. A lifetime of opportunity, of accomplishment and its opposite, and exposure to my fellow man have become heavy ropes. These ropes don’t liberate. They hobble ambition. They hold me to the ground. But wisdom reminds me it’s not a bad thing.
The ties that bind are braided of love. And who I love taught me that what I miss is not what I need. I miss climbing and the feelings it provoked. I miss the constant risk, and the learning that went with it but I don’t need it anymore. Because being alive to miss it at all is the greatest gift of having survived twenty years of climbing.