“Lets run the Petzoldt”, I joke as we regroup from our last down. Anna is the quarterback and in this pick-up game of football, that makes the rest of wide receivers. Two hand touch, everyone go long style. Anna yells out some irrelevant words followed by “hut” and with the ball in her hands, drops back. Teammates go long as I cut in front and catch an easy hand off, which I run forward before an evasive maneuver has me sprawled out on the grass. Somewhere between the sprint and the sprawl, something goes wrong with my hamstring. I hear a pop. Then feel some pain. I stand up, toss the ball back to Anna, and gamely walk back to the line, while she calls out more meaningless words, drops back and connects with Jorge in the end zone. I limp to the sidelines and sit down. Walk it off Spaulding, walk it off.
A couple days earlier, Anna told me to come play football Sunday morning. “It’s opening day,” she implored, “it’ll be fun.” I, of course, offered up my usual litany of excuses: too old, too competitive, I’ll probably hurt myself, besides, we have to climb the Grand the next day. None-the-less, I showed up. And, as expected, I was too competitive, didn’t warm up, and hurt myself. Being 40 is tough.
There on the sidelines, I thought about our trip to the Grand Teton. We would leave that evening, around five, have supper at Dornan’s, then camp for a few hours before donning headlamps and packs and walking to the Upper Saddle. “Walk it off, walk it off” I thought to myself; “you’ll have at least seven miles to walk it off tomorrow.”
Three Peaks Ranch’s Steele house is pretty quiet. It is the night after ranch party and most folks have gone home or are laying low. A puzzle is spread across the kitchen table, music plays from a phone, and pieces are sorted by color. I am working on the edge that is blue. “It’s Maggie Rogers”, Kellsie says in response to Liz’s question. “You know, she’s the one who did the NOLS course.” Kellsie picks the phone up; “here, let me play her famous one.”
“Walking it off…how many times have I had to do that” Kellsie wonders. It is my first time hearing the expression.
“Huh, not sure I have heard that before. What’s it in reference too?” I ask.
“‘I walked off you and I walked off an old me.’ it’s like going out into the woods to forget about someone, to find inspirations, to figure out what to do next.”
Walking it off. At least I have the mountains. They will provide. I guess I didn’t know what I had been doing all those years as I escaped to the mountains, climbed the rocks, and generally found solace and direction in the wild.
Relationships don’t usually fall into the easy category for me. Maybe that is because I am in the wrong ones or maybe it is because they are not supposed to be. Nothing worth having comes without some sort of fight, or at least that is what I have heard. Sometimes I try hard. Sometimes I don’t try hard enough. Other times I try hard to be non-committal and elusive. Whatever the situation, time in the wild frequently brings clarity of purpose. Of desire. I walk to the mountains, and walk off someone, but so rarely do I go and walk off an old me. Maybe that is what I should have done instead.
I try to plug Anna’s heat pad into her inverter, but no avail. “Cest la vie…it probably won’t be too stiff when I get out of the car.” Anna too, had done some hamstring damage. A duo of limping fools we will be. At lest it will be dark as we forge our way up the dark and fear. We drive into Moose and emerge from the car. “Yep, this will be interesting.” Fear not, my usual doubt and sarcasm has not been affected by the injury. At least we can laugh at ourselves. Two beers, $19 nachos, and a $15 pizza later we walk out, hop in the car, and drive off to find a campsite. At least the pizza was good.
Sunrise finds us at 11,000 feet on the Grand Teton’s Lower Saddle. I pop 400 more milligrams of ibuprofen as we change clothes, adjust packs, and fuel up. The point specific pain is there. I’ll tolerate it more than the pain of bailing, of throwing in the towel and calling it quits. The morning light allows for visibility of our approach and climb and we start off with confidence. The previous hours of darkness have given room for thought.
Walking it off. Walking off an old me. How hard is it to smile? How hard is it to put a bit more pep in my voice? How hard is it to respond with something other than “oh, guess i’m doing alright?” How hard is it to ask someone an open ended question, to try to engage? How hard is it to say “yeah, i’ll do that” or “that sounds awesome and fun?” Why am I so reserved? Why is excitement and happiness a weakness? Why do I have to be right or pleasantly surprised?
Turns out old habits die hard. Anna and I climb upward. The route is a heralded classic and despite this, I am pleasantly surprised by the quality fo the rock and climbing. It is hard to get lost in the function on a 5.7 with excessive beta. The leads go by quick and there is little absorption into the moment. Climbing does bring a clarity. The clarity of knowing what I like. Knowing that I like being in the mountains. I like being in the mountains on terrain within my ability. There is no scared today. There is only Anna and I, making inappropriate comments, finding cams, and huddling from the driving wind. It is easy and it reaffirms my relationship with the mountains. I need it. I want it. And it will always be there. I have shirked from a changing identity, I have lost a name that I had so carefully carved for myself. But I left. And then I came back. And it was still there and it still fit. Maybe I just want to walk off parts of the old me.
I’ve never been known as a “hard climber” or a particularly “strong climber” and that is ok. I have never been known as a motivated climber; that too is ok. I think though, that I have come to accept my relationship with climbing. Accept and embrace it and that feels good. I lead up and miss a step right. Off route and I know it. But the option to get back on track looks doable, so I get it done. The rope drag sucks as I was linking two pitches, but something had to happen. I huddle on a ledge, in the brunt of the wind and belay Anna up. “I got a bit off track down there” I say as she is finally near enough to hear.
“Yep, sure did. Missed that step right.”
“Ooops. If you step behind this block, its pretty calm back there” I suggest, indicating the boulder behind me. She does so and we swap gear and I set up to belay her up the route’s crux pitch. I watch her as she moves slowly but securely up the black rock face. Its only 5.7, but the wind is doing its best to rip her off the rock. Later as she belays me up, I marvel at her poise on the steep rock with widely spaced gear in the driving wind. I wonder if I could have done it.
Climbing isn’t my sole identity. An other isn’t either. Nor is being a NOLS instructor, a dirtbag, a homeowner, or a traveller. They are just pieces of a whole. Pieces of something that is becoming more complex and richer all the time. My thirties were so much better than my twenties; I’ve said that a lot. I was more confident and assured. There was a singularity to my thirties that i found pleasure in when living them. Some would call it passion. Some would say obsessed. Others committed. I would just call it life. Maybe I am walking that off. Or just shuffling the cards a little bit.
The summit was no less glorious than the past times I have stood on it. My partner was different, but like times before, it was someone with whom I have shared a lot of rope and a lot of life. May that never change. The wind, for some strange twist of physics, was mostly absent on the summit. We basked in the relative warmth, enjoyed snacks and water, took pictures, and marveled at the lack of people on the route we climbed.
We were only halfway there. I, however, was probably only a quarter of the way there if that. So much more to go. The descent offered another seven miles of introspection and working out of the hamstring; who said the Grand Teton wasn’t a walk off?
Due to the technical nature of all routes to the summit, the Grand Teton is not a walk off; but today, for me, it was.
Featured Image: Climbers on Grand Teton’s Lower Saddle.