A few years after first moving to Vancouver, I started some new hobbies: camping, hiking, and, rock climbing. The first two I still do, albeit only occasionally and not very well. Not unlike the third one, which I did more frequently (and only marginally better) but gave up after a few years, once appreciating my limitations and mortality.
Rock climbing, like most outdoor enthusiasms, brings with it a wallet-draining plethora of gear, a friendly and wide-ranging culture (from fun-loving to quasi-religious), and the opportunity to test one’s boundaries for strength, stamina, and fear. In those first few years, I had made some good friends in Vancouver who were already rock-climbers, and so I had some friendly mentors to get me started.
My main place for gear acquisition was Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC as it is now known). Back then, the Co-op was almost exclusively about mountain equipment, something that has been lost in recent years with their expansion across Canada (many mountains in Manitoba?) and the diversification in to fashion and bicycles. But I digress – a rant for another time. In 1991, the Co-op outfitted me for local rock climbing, and tempted me regularly with gear and other fine toys for sale. As I did more climbing, and got marginally better at it, I was at the same time trying on the climbing culture for size. And so the accoutrements of that found their way into my life.
And so, the carabiner and nut. Both items are climbing grade – meaning they could actually have been used for climbing – but they became a part of my universe of things for much more mundane purposes: for my keys. The carabiner held my keys, and the nut was primarily decorative but also a handy identifier. The ‘biner (the climbers’ nickname for the device, and just a short leap to my own nickname) allowed for keys to be hung from a belt or other loop, helping to keep them handy. I confess to having MacGyver-like fantasies, where my ‘biner and nut would allow me to escape from a locked room or burning building (neither of which was a likely scenario, but still), but mostly just counted on these talismans for their boring but practical uses.
No amount of gear or gadgets can make climbing truly safe – safer, but not without risk. After all, you are climbing up a vertical or overhanging rock face, suspended by your own fingers and toes and protected by a rope held to the rock by little metal bits shoved into cracks that either you or someone else has just put there. My most challenging climb was a route called Sky Dancing, a 5.10c arête in an area known as Ronins corner; the completion was thrilling. While I’ve never had a fear of heights, I do have a fear of falling, and so overcoming that was always part of the “thrill”. And certainly the view from the top of cliff or peak was always a worthwhile reward. After a few short years, my own enthusiasm for climbing peaked, and dropped off rapidly after a near-miss rock-fall in 1994. And as I said, I wasn’t ever very good, so the climbing world is no worse off without me.
No one would ever call me a hard-core climber – I was really just a dabbler in an intense world. But the few years I spent doing it were fun and fantastic. I was in the best shape of my life in those days, and really learning a lot about who I was, and wasn’t – and a climber I was not. Practice makes better, and so regular trips to the gym and to the Squamish bluffs were my own proving ground, and I did genuinely enjoy the experiences, especially the friendships that have long outlasted my enthusiasm for the sport. And those years and times included the rites of passage of young adulthood, such as the discovery and loss of love, as well as the foundation of key parts of me: a lifelong appreciation of the quiet of the outdoors and the beauty of nature, an introduction to the joys of solo travel, and the start of a love of writing.
I still have most of the gear, somewhere in storage. The ‘biner and nut continue to be part of my daily life (although the pictured ‘biner had to be retired after 20 years, when it became unreliable for staying closed) as part of my keys, and so a quotidian reminder of those lessons and loves.