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Dr. Tryhard or How I learned to stop worrying and love the climb

Dr. Tryhard or How I learned to stop worrying and love the climb
By Olivia Harris (she/her)

To hear Joey tell it, we were characters in some fantasy novel- scrappy and determined to accomplish our goal. To hear Joey tell it, we stood back to back and fought dragons. To hear Joey tell it, we were emboldened adventurers, and I shouldered that bravery just as much as he did. I remember it differently.

I remember showing up to Joey’s house in classic Olivia fashion- late, a little hungover, running on four hours of sleep, and with cold leftover pizza in tow. We piled our gear into my Tacoma and headed off to Rumney on a beautiful October day. I remember feeling like this trip would cement my status as a “real” climber. I’d come back and say, “Me? Oh yeah, I’ve been to Rumney,” full of that arrogance that comes from walking into Mordor and back out again.

The parking lots were full and it was drizzling by the time we arrived; clearly we weren’t the only ones looking to prove ourselves this weekend. I stuffed the last piece of pizza in my cheek and we headed off towards our first of many adventures. Joey charged ahead and I stumbled along behind him, wheezing all the way. We found an open climb, and after consulting with the guidebook, decided to try our hand at “B-B-B-Buttress”, 5.9+.
Joey took the first lead, and I watched him climb higher and higher up the 100 ft line. This climb wasn’t your run of the mill jug haul- it was a gosh darn journey. The distance between each bolt provided a unique challenge, like chapters of the novel in which we found ourselves characters. First there was the bouldery start, where we needed to mantle off the ground to gain the first bolt. Then, about 40 ft up, was a fork in the road. Joey got off route here, and had to down climb a few exposed moves to get back on track. Then the climax of the story- a corner above a ledge 80 ft up. In order to clip the last two bolts before the chains, we had to stem up some loose rock. It felt like every other hold was marked with the cautionary white “x”, and the threat of decking on the ledge below was always just in the corner of my eye. But the final chapter was worth every second. A tight hand jam allowed me to reach the chains, and when at last I could look behind me I was level with the treetops. Glory, hard won.

I remember getting a few more climbs in that day before throwing in the towel. It was hard to find anything to climb. Each crag was either swarmed with groups or exposed to the drizzle that was quickly becoming true rain. At one point, we found ourselves at the base of the most epic of Rumney test pieces: “Predator”, 5.13b. We looked on in awe as someone fought, move by grueling move, through the roof. I remember leaning back as far as I could, craning my neck to watch and thinking, “That will never be me, thank god.”

The next day, Joey suggested we bail on Rumney and head to Marshfield Ledge in Southern Vermont. “Sounds great!” Two big objectives in one epic weekend. It was midafternoon by the time we arrived, staring up at the granite behemoth. I remember feeling good, I had already proved myself so this was just fodder for my story of this weekend. “And then we ticked some climbs at Marsfield, no biggie.”
Our objective was “Black Streak”, 5.9. Joey asked if I wanted the lead. “Sure! I love slab!” Famous last words. I started off strong, before noticing how much space it felt like there was between bolts.
“Where are all the holds???” I screamed down at one point, five bolts up.

“Holds…? It’s a slab, there’s not really…holds,” came the reply. “Wait, I thought you said you loved slab?” I could hear the gears turning in Joey’s head. He was one of my two climbing partners, and he had never climbed slab with me before. He also knew that my other partner and I almost always climbed at Upper West, which has no real slab climbing of note.
“Olivia, what slab climbs have you done?”

“Mr. Rodgers,” I called down. “Mr. Rodgers”, 5.7, Bolton Dome. Not a slab climb. Less than vertical, sure, but it has plenty of holds and is a classic first outdoor lead for many, myself included.
I made it another bolt up, but the doubt and fear had set in. I’d never climbed slab before, leading 5.9 was hard enough for me on its own…what the hell was I doing here? A moment later my foot slipped. I skidded down, toppled over backwards, and bounced to a stop about 12 ft down.

This is the part of the story where I remember something inside me shifting. I had a meltdown, I cried, I kicked the wall, and I wrestled with what I should do next. Everything in my body was telling me to suck it up, put on my big girl pants, and finish the damn climb. 5.9 slab is hardly worthy of a meltdown. I remember being flooded with shame, self hate, embarrassment, and doubt. This trip was supposed to be a chance for me to prove myself, to prove that I had what it takes to be a “real” climber. But here I was, facing the dragon, and I was…crying? Ugh. I remember I couldn’t stop asking myself “What the hell am I doing here?”
I bailed. Joey lowered me down, he top roped to my high point, and led the last few bolts to the top of the pitch. I remember that trip was the last time I ever really climbed hard outside.
It’s been over a year since that trip, and I’ve done a lot of reflecting. My two biggest conclusions are firstly that I don’t like leading slab, and secondly that I have had a much better time as a climber since I changed my mindset around what it means to be a “real” climber.

I’m sure we’ve all heard the saying, or even said it ourselves: A “real” climber is simply someone who climbs. I’ve certainly said it myself, but I never really thought about what it meant for me personally. In my heart of hearts, I know that I love climbing. It is the best feeling in the world to find that flow, to feel the world drop away for a few minutes. To have all of my fears, stress, whatever, be narrowed down into a few pieces of plastic or schist a foot in front of my face. As Joey says, “The demons can’t get you when you’re climbing!” And it’s true. But for me, being a real climber means not pushing myself to grow exponentially. I don’t need to lead harder and harder climbs each week. I don’t even need to lead at all if I don’t feel like it. That’s not what’s important for me. What’s important is that I remember that weekend like Joey does.
To hear Joey tell it, I couldn’t stop talking about this guy who had driven all the way up from Boston to see me. This guy was the butt of our jokes all weekend, much to our delight. He also happens to be the guy I’m still with, who I’m moving across the country with in a few weeks, and who is still the butt of our jokes, much to our delight. Joey remembers me being fearless on “Buttress”, even after he tried to warn me about how full on it was. Joey remembers literally jumping for joy when, on that first drizzly day, I tied in first and sent “Lonesome Dove” 5.10a, my second ever 5.10 lead and the main objective for this trip. Joey remembers me breaking my vegetarian diet for, of all things, a roast beef sandwich. The worst roast beef sandwich he had ever seen. Joey remembers driving home singing “Good Day Sunshine” at the top of our lungs. Joey remembers the picture he took of me holding a rock that looks like Vermont, while I looked stoned out of my mind (I wasn’t, believe it or not).

Most of all, Joey remembers me leading “Black Streak”. Not because of my meltdown, or because it made me rethink my entire identity as a climber, but because it was badass. To hear Joey tell it, I did fight the dragon, and I actually won. Sure, I didn’t finish the lead, but I tried as hard as I could. I was scared, but I tried anyway. When Joey tells this story, he is full of pride.

So as I reflect back on my time as a scrappy adventurer, the trusty sidekick of one of my best friends, I am going to try to remember it like Joey does. I’m going to try and forgive myself for not living up to the expectations and ideas of being a “real” climber I set for myself. I’m going to remember all of the laughs, inside jokes, running jokes, stories, songs, pictures, hugs, and the incredible time we had on that trip. And I’m going to try to lead this next chapter of the adventure story of my life as a climber. Not what I thought a climber should be, but a climber that my best friend would be proud of.

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