An Open Letter to the Buttermilks
by Georgie Abel
Dear person who climbed the Peabody boulders at dawn on November 21, 2015,
I don’t know you who you are. Or maybe I do know you. That would be hilarious. It’s possible—the climbing world is so small. But my point is that I don’t know who I’m writing this to. You were too far away to see clearly. I don’t even know if you are a man or a woman. For all I know, you could be a serial killer. Maybe you’re one of my good friends. Maybe you’re a gym rat from San Diego. Maybe you’re Peter Croft.
I hope you’re Peter Croft.
All I know about you for sure is that you climbed both of the Peabody boulders as the sun came up, and you were wearing a bright-orange beanie.
Let me explain.
The city had me caring about things like bikini waxes and cold-brew coffee. I was becoming so normal that it scared me. I was also, for reasons that I’ll describe shortly, miserable. And in the Bay Area, my misery only added to my normalcy. It helped me fit in. I actually understood the people flipping each other off on the freeway, the folks arguing in a restaurant about who should be seated first, the evening news. Before, I could only wonder why people were so angry all the time. But now I knew. I was just like them.
Cities breed misery; they capitalize on it. Even the smallest annoyance gets pumped full of air. Our suffering gets tangled in the rush hour traffic and bounces off the billboards; it’s held by the smog and given a backbone by glossy magazine covers. It’s so loud and buzzing that our sadness never gets to speak in a voice that’s actually true. It comes out as cars relentlessly honking at each other, bar fights, and worse. The whole thing makes me feel as if I’m constantly getting mildly electrocuted.
A few months ago, a relationship in, which I had poured every last drop of my identity and self-worth into, ended. Don’t worry, he is a good man, and we laughed a lot. He just never really saw me, you know? But I was looking for someone to be, and he gave me a hat to wear that felt important. It went something like this: He needed saving, and I wanted to be the hero. For how unhealthy the equation was, it sure did thrive. Years went by in that manner. We took it as far as we could, but eventually we just got too tired. I stood barefoot in my driveway and watched him drive off. I thought, surely, any second now, he would slam on the brakes, turn around, and come back for me. But his car just got smaller and smaller. I wasn’t sure if I was starting to die, or if I had been dying all along and was just then coming back to life.
Either way, I had to go rock climbing.
I left the Bay Area on a sunny Thursday afternoon. There was no weighing of options or doubts about where I was headed. I knew exactly where I had to go.
The Buttermilks know me better than any other climbing area in the world. They know my quirks and my shortcomings. They’ve seen me send problems I deemed impossible and get shut down on things I swore I could flash. They are the holder of some of my most joyful days, running around the boulders with my best friends with beers clinking and loud laughter. They are also home to some of my coldest nights—all alone in my Subaru, silent and still, with salty tears running into the nylon of my sleeping bag. They know about that time I almost got bit by a rattlesnake and when I peed under Go Granny Go. They’ve introduced me to some of my closest friends. They’ve seen me with my mom, every person I’ve seriously dated, and all alone.
So going to Buttermilk Country only seemed natural.
In those first few weeks, I was so soothed by the mountains that I wasn’t even sure who I was. Even my skin felt softer. There was so little movement and so much silence out there. I could finally hear the sound of my own voice. And as for my misery, yeah, it was there and bigger than ever, but at least I could feel it. That’s the thing about sadness—it’s so much worse when you’re hiding from it. When you let it all in and just let it run its course, it kind of holds you in a way. Nothing else has ever felt so yours. It’s so you-flavored that it even becomes kind of funny, almost.
So there I was, being all sad and scampering up the boulders. You know, just lugging my heart around on my hip like an unruly toddler, trying to smile at folks. But that kind of energy can’t survive for too long out there. Unlike the city, misery can’t breed in the mountains. There’s nothing to reinforce it or make it real. The only thing that can stand out there is the fact that we live for a little while or a long while, and then someday we die. So all of that feeling-sorry-for-myself bullshit didn’t have anything to root into, and it just got blown away with the wind.
Soon I came back to myself in this big, good way with the Buttermilks as my home and breathing for me. I wanted to thank them, somehow. I woke up one morning and knew exactly how I could show them my appreciation, how I could write them a love letter of sorts. I would climb one hundred boulder problems in a day—offering layers of skin as a token of my gratitude and sore muscles as a sacrifice to the land that had given me so much.
I had tried this challenge a few times before—once with a friend and once alone—and both times I made it to around sixty-five boulder problems and ran out of daylight, energy, or psych. This time around, I decided to climb the problems alone but would have my generous friend, Josh, accompany me throughout the day for support. Also, because it was already 11:00 a.m. and I had drank a fair amount of wine the night before, I decided to bend my original rules to make the challenge more fun and more possible—I let myself repeat problems.
I headed out to the boulders feeling more like myself than I had in months.
“Why the fuck would you do a thing like that?” This question was posed to me after problem number twenty-five or so, shortly after I explained why, in God’s name, I had climbed Birthday Mantel three times. The Birthday boulder was swarming with climbers. There were crash pads thrown on top of bushes, music blaring from portable speakers, people walking through restoration areas, dogs digging holes, poop, and a drone flying over Ironman Traverse. There were over one hundred cars lining Buttermilk Road. It was the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
“I just love the Buttermilks,” I replied. The person laughed, letting out one single “ha.”
I wasn’t sure how else to answer this question. To me, climbing one hundred boulder problems in a day seemed like a perfectly normal and fun thing to do. I didn’t expect it to be met with anything other than psych. I moved on to a different boulder that was less loud but just as crowded. Josh, who was keeping my psych high and cheering me on, went back to the Birthday boulder to grab his sunglasses. He came back with a disheartened look on his face.
“They were all talking shit about you, Georgie,” he said.
He handed me a banana and my water bottle. He had been reminding me to eat and drink the entire morning, something I was very grateful for and wouldn’t have been doing on my own. “They said that your challenge doesn’t count because you’re repeating problems. Sorry, I don’t know if you want to hear this right now. It’s just so weird. This place feels different today. It’s kinda sad.”
“It’s okay,” I replied. “It is sad out here. Something’s off.”
“Yeah,” Josh said, looking at the scene around us. He shrugged. “Just keep climbing. You got this.”
To my surprise, the hardest part of that day was not sending one hundred boulder problems. The crux was simply existing alongside hundreds of people who did not see the land, the boulders, and other climbers as something sacred. Not all of them were like that, of course. But it drained the glow right from my face when I realized that the Buttermilks felt different. They felt angry. They felt like the city.
“The Buttermilks are over. Too many people know about this place,” I heard someone say just as the sun dipped below the horizon. Several of us stood under the Grandpa Peabody, watching the endless line of cars heading into town. I sipped on a beer and looked down at my raw hands. I had sent one hundred problems, but that’s not what was in the front of my mind. As the climbers funneled out of the main area, it was as if the boulders were finally getting a chance to breathe for the first time since morning.
That night, I parked in a pullout off the road that leads to Dale’s Camp. I fell asleep worried about what climbing was becoming and considering if I was part of the problem.
Too many people know, I thought.
You’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with you, person who climbed the Peabodys on November 21st. Rest assured, whoever you are, that this story is not about me, or dog shit, or even the Buttermilks. This story is about you.
I woke up before dawn the next morning; it was still dark. I opened the back of my Subaru but stayed bundled in my sleeping bag. I could see both of the Peabody boulders. Just as the first light touched the summit of Mount Tom, I saw you top out the southwest arête of the Grandma Peabody. You stood on top for a moment and then sat down. You were very still for at least five minutes. I imagine you got cold so you started to climb down. You went slowly and placed your feet on the rock the way you would touch the head of a baby. After you got low enough, you disappeared from my sight. Fifteen minutes later, you climbed up the Grandpa Peabody. You climbed so carefully. You respected the ever-growing air under your feet. The Sierra, bathing in alpenglow, was your backdrop. There was no sound. Everything was still except your tiny body.
What was it that made you peel yourself out of your warm sleeping bag so early? I bet you were cold. I bet you made coffee. I bet you were missing someone.
Climbing’s personality is undergoing a major shift. The reasons why so many of us are attracted to climbing are often for things that are absent—loud noise, traffic, and lots of people. But those things are now becoming a part of our sport. Changes in identity can feel like nothing short of a death. Believe me, I know.
It was never him who I wanted to slam on the brakes and turn around—it was me, it was always me. Yet the truth of who I was never left and never will leave, despite how far away from it I had traveled, and despite all the things that seemed to suffocate it.
Same goes for the truth of climbing.
What you made me realize that morning was that in somewhere as wild as the Buttermilks, there is no way that anything harmful can actually survive. It’s true, a lot of people know about this place. But the Buttermilks aren’t over. You’re still out there. You’re climbing the Peabodys with dawn breaking all around you. You know about the goodness in the mountains.
What really matters is that you know about Buttermilk Country.
Georgie Abel is a climber, writer, and yoga teacher from the San Francisco Bay area. She loves slabs, coffee, power spots, highballs, gin and tonics, poetry, running in the mountains, and not training. She writes about her adventures at https://medium.com/@georgieabel