When I went out to Wyoming during the summer of 2018 I was pushed out of my comfort zone in so many ways; after creating a community for myself in Tallahassee – one that included my boyfriend, my dog, and my closest friends – I was once again alone, I didn’t have a car so I was dependent on others for transportation, I was working in an industry that was completely new to me, and I was in an environment that was unlike anything I had lived in before.
All of those factors forced me to stretch myself and expand my mental and emotional horizons, which was exhausting and difficult. I expected to find solace in that fact that I could rely on climbing to stay the same despite the unfamiliarity of everything around me: climbing was supposed to be the North Star fixed in the sky that would guide me through that new territory.
I had naively thought that climbing would be the same in Wyoming as it was in Florida and the Southeast, but it wasn’t. Climbing in Wyoming was just familiar enough for me to feel at home, but it was different in a way that opened my eyes to the sport and allowed me to see it more clearly.
I had several revelations about rock climbing during my two months working at Brush Creek Ranch, and today I want to share them with you.
You don’t always have to send it.
The greatest gift that Wyoming gave me was the realization that climbing isn’t all about bagging sends.
The climbing community that I came to be a part of in Florida views outdoor climbing trips as conquests. Since the closest real rock is over five hours away, there was usually a lot of pressure to make the most of each climbing trip by climbing hard. Every free Friday we would load up our cars with as much gear and friends as we could and drive to the crag as quickly as possible, so that on Saturday we could relentlessly throw ourselves at the wall. Climbing trips were few and far between as life went on and schedules got busier, which only increased the pressure to send each route.
That climb-as-hard-as-you-can mentality is draining, both physically and mentally; I would often beat myself up for not completing a route or for having to take while climbing. Wyoming offered a monumental shift in my perspective because outdoor climbing was only a five minute ATV ride away from where I was living; because of that, climbing became less about sending a route and more about enjoying a route.
Don’t get me wrong, I still threw myself at projects and obsessed about completing them, but I didn’t feel obligated to climb if I didn’t feel like it. I felt empowered to do more than just climb while at the crag. I would often bring my camera with me so I could take pictures, or write in my journal, or draw in my sketchbook.
Of course, not everyone who climbs in the Southeast feels that pressure or obligation to climb hard, and it is definitely possible to enjoy being outside while at the crag and do more than just climb. There have certainly been trips where I felt that same laid-back, daydreamy energy in the Southeast; however, I rarely felt that way when I was climbing with large groups of people.
I absolutely love the endless passion that climbers in the Southeast feel towards getting outside, and I truly believe that the level of enthusiasm and stoke is so pure due to the amount of sheer effort it takes to get on real rocks. In order for me to grow in my relationship with climbing, however, I needed a drastic change in the way I interacted with rock climbing in order to have that paradigm shift, and being out in Wyoming enabled that change in perspective.
Grades are arbitrary.
The majority of climbing that I did in Wyoming was on ranch property, since it was so unbelievably accessible – I could grab a crash pad and wander through the desert looking for boulders to climb solo, or jump in an ATV and be on a rope in under 15 minutes. All of the routes were established by other ranch employees, which meant we had no real idea what the grade was for any of them. Our measure for how hard a route was to climb consisted of “so-and-so struggled on it” or “she was able to flash it!”, and that told us all we needed to know about the relative difficulty.
One of my personal projects was called “The Impossible Route” simply because no one had successfully climbed it clean. Phil and I threw ourselves at that route tirelessly, day-after-day, but weren’t able to get the send. What made that route different than anything I had ever projected before was simply the fact that we were projecting it because we loved it. Phil was drawn to the line, which was why he put anchors on the route, and he sparked a similar adoration for it within me. We kept returning to the route even though it constantly shut us down because we enjoyed the struggle, and we relished in the opportunity to puzzle through the beta and ultimately come up with a way to piece the route together. The Impossible Route is still without a first-ascent, and I look forward to working on it more when I return to Wyoming, but for all we know it could just be a really technical and beta-intensive 5.10.
In my opinion, the beauty of not having any grades on routes is that there is nothing to hold me back from attempting something. I have always tried to remain open minded while climbing and to not get caught up in chasing grades, but I’ll admit that if something is harder than a 5.11 I don’t have the confidence to give it a try. By taking away that limiting factor, Wyoming has removed a barrier that kept me from climbing in the past and pushed me to try any route I come across.
On that note, routes themselves are arbitrary.
This next “revelation” is already understood by anyone who climbs outside, because unlike in a gym setting there are no color-coded rocks outside. Almost every established climbing area has a guide book that offers some context to where a route begins and ends, and which sections of the wall are part of that specific route. At Brush Creek Ranch, though, there isn’t a guidebook.
At the Tallahassee Rock Gym I was able to put in some hours as a route-setter, which meant I put the holds on the wall and created a fun series of movements that I wanted other climbers in the gym to replicate. I thoroughly enjoyed being able to create routes at the gym, but when I was first learning I often got hung up on how I wanted the route to be. I would worry about if it was aesthetically pleasing, if it had good movement, if it was approachable, and if every hold was in the optimal spot on the wall. When I set routes at the gym I was very focused on each individual placement and I constructed the route piece-by-piece.
I had the unique opportunity to put up routes at the ranch, and that experience made me rethink everything I knew about routes. I bolted an area that I thought would have an interesting climb, and when I was done Phil and I went down to see if it was even climbable. We had a vague idea of how the climb would be done before I bolted it, but we allowed the route to form itself. I felt less responsible for the formulation of the route because I knew the rock already had a specific movement in mind for how it would be climbed.
I am by no means trying to disrupt the structure of rock climbing by suggesting that we disregard the importance of routes. I’m simply trying to convey the way it felt to be out in the desert, knowing that all of the routes we climbed were ones we made up ourselves, and that the way we got up a rock today might not be the same way we get up that same rock tomorrow. The lack of structure in the form of a guidebook meant that you could create a route anywhere, which in some way diminished the importance of routes to begin with.
Climbing has nothing to do with where you are, and everything to do with the people you’re with.
This final lesson is the main reason it was so hard for me to say goodbye to Wyoming at the end of my two months out there. I was lucky enough to explore some amazing crags all over Wyoming, but what really made it special was the people I climbed with. This fact is true no matter where you climb, but while I was in the Southeast I think I took for granted how amazing the people I climbed outside with were, because I had never climbed outside without them.
When I moved to the ranch, though, I had to find the people that would make climbing exciting and memorable, who would get me psyched about my projects, and would remind me to never take things too seriously. Without them, the walls at the ranch would have just been another dusty crag in the middle of the desert as opposed to a sanctuary for my wandering heart.
Rock climbing has always helped me navigate new places and new friendships, and for that I am so grateful. I fell in love with the sport because it allowed me to get outside and enjoy nature, and it gave me friendships that are literally rock solid.
When I returned to the ranch last May, I was counting on the picturesque boulders and the unforgiving sport walls to welcome me with open arms, and they did not disappoint. Leaving Wyoming last summer and then coming back this year taught me an ultimate lesson about climbing: no matter where I go in life, if I can climb then I can feel at home.
What are some lessons that climbing has taught you? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos in this post were taken by me unless otherwise specified in the caption. Header photo by Kyle Murphy.