Approach As Pilgrimage by Tim Rogers

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Journal entry from 10/15/2014

Zion is the word. Despite all of our differences, to so many people the meaning of Zion remains the same: a place of refuge, a utopian ideal of peace, unity, and freedom. We may not be religious pilgrims, but even as travelers, as climbers, as humans, when anyone asks where we’re going, we tell them Zion, and without having to explain why, they understand.

by Tim Rogers (note this piece was originally published in Volume 8, The Old School Issue)

Climbers are travelers. We are movers and shakers, dirtbag wanderlusts, traveling the globe in search of cracks, crags, and mountaintops. We are adventurers of the alpine realm, voyagers of the vertical world, but despite our powerful, and sometimes spiritual, experiences on the sharp end, it’s often times the spaces in between our climbs that give us the most opportunity for reflection and inspiration.

Horizons call to us. Open roads beckon. We push ourselves to the point of exhaustion, driving all night in order to pull into an empty trailhead or packed campground early in the morning. The climbing road trip is a right of passage, a checklist we are all compelled to complete. We can’t consider ourselves members of the tribe until we’ve experienced each pitch of our friends’ and mentors’ triumphs and horrors for ourselves. But so often the climbs themselves blur into one long pitch of painful fingers, bloody toes, and terrifying triumphs, and the truth is that the climbing is just one small part of an unbroken chain of movement across the land known as the approach.

But what is the approach, and what exactly is it we are approaching? The top? The end? When does the approach begin and when is it complete? For climbers and adventurers, the approach may be best defined as a path, not in the literal sense but one more analogous to the Taoist “Way”—a style or method we apply to all things. In this light, we are always part of the approach, always moving toward the goal, whatever that may be. Even after we tie in and begin climbing, if we are approaching the top of the climb with flailing surges, pulling on gear, cursing the rock, and fighting the process, we are in disregard for the experience, and the only thing we are approaching is another missed opportunity to understand ourselves, connect with our partners, and be present in the moment. The approach as we know it is no different. Rushing through our lives to get to the wall only shorts us of the myriad connections and opportunities that exist along the way, but in a world saturated with speed, it has become all too common and easy to ignore the opportunities that exist in every precious moment of our journey.

Send Train! Photo: Tim Rogers

It’s early in the afternoon, and my muscles are thick and slow. In front of me, the road shoots straight ahead like an arrow for miles: unwavering, unflinching, agonizingly straight. Behind me, the valley stretches on for miles and miles: open, uninhabited, and breathtakingly beautiful. I pull my bicycle onto the soft shoulder, and walk toward the remnants of a burned-out building on the side of the road. Liz and Amos are close behind, and we quickly set up a small picnic, brewing coffee and cooking grilled-cheese English muffins on our single-burner stove. Tired but satisfied, we each lay and nap, draw, or journal a few lines about the morning before carrying on for a few more hours. We’re two weeks, four states, and seven hundred miles into what will become an eighteen-day, thousand-mile, human-powered pilgrimage from Washington State to Zion Canyon.

At what point I crossed the threshold, I can’t exactly remember. People ask me why I made the decision to live without a car like it was a moment, like it was something conscious or deliberate, and maybe it was. Maybe, at one time, I was thinking constructively about my life, about my climbing and mobility, and made the deliberate choice to forgo the automobile in place of a bicycle. But if that moment ever happened, it’s been buried behind miles and miles of pedaling through mountains and deserts in search of my climbing dreams. More accurately, this was just an idea, a wild one I shared with a partner as crazy and adventurous as myself, a wild idea like the late-night campfire induced delusions of soloing the nearest crack naked, or deciding to quit your job and take off for three months to climb in Thailand.

A wild idea, for sure, like the ones that end up being the best. 

Whatever the reason, it no longer matters. After four years of relying on my bicycle to take me to crags, trailheads, and on road trips, why I started doing this matters little compared to why I’m still doing it, and for that I have no better explanation than that it just feels right. It makes sense. It’s the most fun, the most challenging, the most rewarding way to live.

Climbing has given me so much in life; it has taught me humility, patience, strength, determination, and discipline. It has taught me to be wild and free, to not put all my stock in instruction and education, whether it be the beta of a route’s topo, or society’s urge for me to go to college, get a job, and live an institutionalized life. For these lessons, I’m forever in debt, but it’s the good kind of debt, not the type I pay out in a check every month but the kind that encourages me to bring my best to each climb, to keep climbing as a central but balanced part of my life. Through this I have learned that the more I put into my climbing, the more I get out of it; the more patience I put into my gear placement, the better I feel about climbing above it; the more discipline I put into training and conditioning, the more fluid and calm my climbing becomes. But nothing has had such a profound and transformative impact on my climbing, and life, as my reconsideration of mobility, my approach to the approach. By using a bicycle to access climbs and adventures, my climbs have become less of a tick list and more of a lifestyle, part of an unbroken chain of who I am, what I believe in, and what I hope to stand for.

My hands are tired and raw, but my body is strong, and as I reach above for another jam, despite the trickle of blood coming from my knuckles, I feel powerful. I look down and feel the rush of air beneath my feet. I reach the anchor, a rusted star bolt and Zion’s ubiquitous drilled piton. I disregard the weathered tat and quickly rig my own simple system. With Liz and Amos on belay, I yell at them to start climbing, and I rest a moment while taking in my surroundings. We’ve been climbing in Zion for almost two weeks, and the goal has become to climb more pitches than days we’ll travel. As we run through pitches and discover new climbs, I sometimes have to remind myself how I got here, how far we’ve come, how many miles we pedaled to reach this big wall sandstone mecca. I look down to snap a few pictures of Liz and Amos as they work their way up. The sound of the Virgin River is all but lost in the wind. Far below, the road winds alongside its twisting banks. A bus slowly makes its way up the canyon, tourists packed inside, gawking at these ancient sand dunes. For over half the year, Zion Canyon is closed to automobile traffic, but while pedaling through this magnificent canyon might give you a better appreciation of its size and scope, you don’t have to shut out all the cars to understand—Zion truly does mean a place of refuge.

If I told you I was doing this all for me, I’d be lying. As much as I cycle to pursue my own climbing goals and dreams, the level of satisfaction I receive from cycling to climb has motivated me to encourage others that this is a path all climbers can, and should, pursue at least once. This is a hard reality for me to acknowledge—would I have found the bike, found this path, if not for the sad state of our environment? I’d like to think I would still be doing this even if the message didn’t matter, even if our world was fine, but it’s not, and the truth is everything has its time and place, and I have come to accept the fact that I might not be anything more than a product of the times. Our world continues to become a chaotic mess, and for decades, climbers have escaped this reality on stone walls and mountains all over the globe. But although the political and religious struggles still dominate the headlines, the traumatic and intimidating reality is that humanity is badly damaging Earth’s ecosystems and atmosphere with our unrelenting consumption of fossil fuels. True, climbers are minimalists, and for the most part, our meager use of gasoline for transportation probably has little impact. But as climbing surges in popularity and we all set off on our landmark road trip, every tank of fuel adds up, and it becomes harder and harder to distance ourselves from the world we don’t believe in, while silently buying into its systems.

I’ve always thought climbers are in a unique position. We live simple lives structured around large amounts of time outdoors and away from civilization. We can survive and thrive, on very little, and we value goods and services produced locally and sustainably. But more than any of that, it is our unrelenting drive for authentic experiences that encourages us to travel untrodden paths and live an uncomplicated existence. When I look to the future of climbing, I don’t have a clear vision. Do I see a culture of adventurers using bicycles to access each and every climb? No. But in the era of a warming climate and diminishing resources, I also don’t see a fleet of Sprinters lined up at every crag and trailhead. As a climber, I’m proud that we’re some of the best stewards. I hold myself and my community to the highest standards and expect us to set the precedent for a more socially and ecologically sustainable future. Can I live up to this expectation? Honestly, I don’t know, probably not always, but I’ll continue to do my best. What I do know is that, for me, there’s no turning back; climbing and cycling have taken hold, and I’ll continue to encourage my friends, my partners, and my community of climbers that if I haven’t found the way, I’ve at least found a path, one we can all travel with a sense of purpose.

Climbers often distance themselves from the materialistic religion and the dogma of mainstream society, but climbing too has its own faith and spirituality. Call it what you want, but there is something that keeps us all returning to the vertical world, something that bridges the gap between experience and action, and we’re all pilgrims of this faith. But like any devotion, you can’t cheat your way to enlightenment, and for us to continue to chase our dreams and goals without consideration of our impact and place in the larger world is little different than mindlessly consuming the ideology of society’s materialistic culture.

Amos getting back to his roots on Monkeyfinger, Zion. Photo: Tim Rogers

I look down and see Amos dangling in space hundreds of feet above the valley floor. A single strand of rope is all that connects him to this world. He reaches above him and gets back into the crack, slowly inching upward as he unlocks the sequence of jams and locks in the thin crack. Except for his shoes, harness, and helmet, Amos is naked. His white thighs gleam in the harsh desert sun, and somewhere far below, we hear a series of hoots directed at his white ass. I wanted the group to do a naked mile somewhere out in the desert on our long ride here, but it never happened. Instead, we’re here, watching Amos pull down on the Monkeyfinger Crack in his birthday suit. It’s our last day climbing, our last day in Zion. Far below, automobiles have once again flooded the canyon after the restrictions were lifted for the winter. We knew it would happen, and for us, it was an ironic and mournful day, having experienced the canyon in silence and solitude for so long. Tomorrow, we’ll start the 350-mile ride home, pedaling north along the highway back to Salt Lake City. Amos comes off again, and I offer some words of encouragement. Eventually, he tops out and joins Liz and me in the Monkey’s Den, naked and spent. Amos slips his pants back on, and we climb the last few pitches before rapping the route in the moonlight and stumbling back to our bikes in the dark. The ride back to camp is all downhill, and as we coast alongside the river, I take my hands off the handlebars and let the breeze hit me square in the chest. I look up and see stars framed by the towering sandstone cliffs. I think back on the day, on our climb on the Monkeyfinger, most likely its first involving a human-powered approach from any farther than Springdale. I think about the ride home and the road ahead, and wonder how many days we’ll be pedaling. I’m overcome with love for my partners, friends of the thickest thread who are crazy enough to walk this path with me and help me illuminate it’s hidden corners. As we pick up speed, these thoughts melt away, and I put my hands back on the bars. We race through the dark, and the sound of the river echoes off the boulders beside us.

Just like life, climbing has its contrivances, its ways of making things easier or harder for no apparent reason. But the point of us cycling across the country to climb a wall is not to make it more difficult, not to hold it over anyone as an accomplishment to be celebrated. Again, we did it because it felt right, because to us, in this time and place, it makes sense. Climbers will never cease to be adventurers, and traveling will remain in our blood. I have hope for our future not because I think we can persevere or save ourselves with technology and innovation, but because deep down I know that what bonds us as a community is our shared experience of the moment, an experience that has taught us strength, honesty, and humility, traits we’ll need to see us through our troubled future.

How often are we guilty of some sort of disrespect or disregard for our approach? How often do we practice paying full attention and respect to each step of the path? In the face of fear or adversity, how easy is it to place blame or call out a weakness? I know all too often I have failed to observe patience and understanding and have consequently neglected my partners, my approach, my experience, and thus myself. Even our personal relationships have no clear separation from our approach, for how we set about our friendships and climbing partnerships is no different than how we attempt our climbs, or our lives. If we are capable of applying mindful intention to our climbs, to come to the wall calm, open, and prepared to move forward with strength, grace, and resilience, can we not do the same thing with our friends and partners? Is the natural world not in fact our greatest partner and teacher, not some inanimate obstacle to be conquered? If we observe these simple points in our climbing and our lives, both may be met with the success and love that they are truly capable of.

Tim Rogers is a climber, skier, and cyclist.  You can follow his musings and adventures at

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About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

We have also published five books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 


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