The uninitiated, those who don’t climb, always ask me why I do. I normally begin my response with the statement that I don’t climb enough. I’m a marginal climber at best and am thankful for many far superior climbing partners who humor me struggling up 5.7s and 5.8s on their off days from crushing double digit decimals and multipitch routes. But I don’t get into the specifics with the casual observer. The second part of my answer depends on how much time I have. If I’m in a hurry and don’t have time to chat, I’ll say, “because its awesome,” a slightly more updated version of George Mallory’s response of “because its there,” when asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest.
by Stacy Bare (note this piece is published in The Climbing Zine Book)
Banner photo by Chris Kassar
If I have more time though, I’ll respond with the truth, which is pretty simple. Without climbing, I’d be dead or in jail. I came to climbing a couple of years after I came home from the Iraq War in 2007. Two years of hard play with cocaine and alcohol, a life mostly divided from the life I lived publicly and even intimately. Few people, outside of some close friends and an expanding network of strangers, knew how I spent hours of my days. I was also in graduate school, which allowed me to repress my trauma long enough that I came to believe in an illusion that upon graduation, I would vault myself into the upper middle class. I would become a brilliant designer who wore increasingly stylish glasses frames and daring, well tailored suits housed in my loft style condominium.
I spent the four years prior to graduate school in war zones attempting to cleanup the mess others had left behind. I had been hot, sweaty, and smelly. I slept where I could, sometimes cold, and sometimes hungry. I rarely had all the equipment I needed and made do with the camaraderie, laughter, and hard work of friends and comrades. It was a charmed life indeed; a sort of grown-up, real world version of Never Never Land with brutal consequences if and when we failed in our mission. Who could deny my dreams of fine linens now that I was out of war?
The economic crash of 2008, combined with a move to Colorado, where my then girlfriend did not want to go, to take up a job as a non-profit administrator, put those dreams on hold and ultimately led me to an investing strategy prioritizing carabiners over mutual funds.
As a kid, I loved to blow stuff up and play in the dirt. When I was very little, my mother tells a story of how, when I was playing outside, specifically in the sandbox, I would never cry when I crapped my diaper. I did not want to miss anything outside. Conversely, if I dirtied my drawers inside, I would scream like a wounded cat. Not surprisingly, I hated taking baths and going to bed. Outside of the Fourth of July, there were few opportunities to really blow things up but plenty to get dirty. As it was, my brother and I made the most of the sacred, patriotic holiday that is the Fourth of July.
Bottle rockets and cardboard tanks were the preferred fireworks for this great day. Early on we got bored of the imprecise mortar-style attacks that occurred when you launched bottle rockets from actual bottles. We soon learned the trick of lighting the rocket, waiting for the wick to burn down a bit and then hurling it near your opponent. This style of attack brought with it more running, more cussing, and greater opportunity for serious injury. I remember one summer being glad Mike Randall had thick glasses. I am not sure his eyes would have survived without them. Those coke bottle lenses seemed to attract bottle rockets more that year than others.
For more direct and immediate warfare, you could line up entire cardboard tank platoons across from another, light the fuses at the rear of the tanks and have your very own full on armor battle before your eyes. I remember one particularly distressing Fourth of July in the mid-80s. We had spent all day at my cousins’ an hour south of town. We got home well after dark, but rather than putting us to bed, Dad broke out ten remaining tanks from a hiding place. My brother and I then lined up with sparklers ready for a final, epic show down of good (me) vs. evil (my brother Ben).
My tanks failed miserably. Three out of the five sat burning in the night. Good had lost. I choked back tears in the glow of a front porch light illuminating the crushing defeat of good on the curved driveway of my youth that played host to a number of other showdowns between good and evil.
About the time I turned twenty-two I was finally bigger than evil, but at that point my brother had his own platoon of infantry in the Connecticut National Guard and I was a brand new Second Lieutenant with no troops yet of my own.
With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, I can see in my defeat on that Fourth of July a number of pathways that opened to me. At the time, I only saw where I was headed with one foot in front of the other. However, I can lay out three other choices, besides joining the Army, that would have been entirely logical following my defeat at the failed driveway offensive: pacifism, delinquency and dirtbagging.
Pacifism: Pacifism may have been the most logical path for me to follow. I ultimately could not hold back the tears of my defeat in battle. I was eight and mired in the middle of a multi-year losing streak to my big brother. Why did my tanks have to burn? No doubt, I had created an elaborate backstory for the men fighting in those tanks and as they burned on the driveway, their dreams, as well as mine, went up in smoke. My Mother would caution me in later years against attending a service academy or joining the Army because I was too sensitive. Not until I returned from a poorly planned (Executive branch, Congress and senior brass) yet well executed (ground troops, junior officers, mid-level non-commissioned officers) war in Iraq, would I begin to seriously consider pacifism as a life path.
Delinquency: I could have given up on tanks in the driveway and focused exclusively on those things I was really good at, like timing just when to throw a bottle rocket after lit to have maximum efficacy on targets like Mike, old barns, and unsuspecting ground squirrels. Veering off towards a life of petty crime and bigger explosives would not have been a shock. Additionally, my hatred for bathing has continued through to today and truancy would have seemed a friendly partner to my growing delinquency.
Fortunately or unfortunately, both of my parents were teachers and stamped out aspirations of my becoming a delinquent truant whenever these twin virtues raised their heads. It is also likely I would have joined the Uniformed Services at some point even if I had followed this path more directly. For better or worse, the military attracts, even encourages, those who were troublemakers earlier in life to sign up.
Dirtbagging: Unlike pacifism or delinquency, dirtbagging is harder to define and it means different things for different people. For the purpose of this piece however, I think its fair to say that dirtbagging involves sacrificing almost anything to the altar of the stoke, in this case climbing. One forsakes housing, steady employment, bathing, relationships, and even things the rest of the world thinks of as necessary like cell phones and regular e-mail communications to climb ever higher, harder, more obscure routes.
Dirtbags live on the fringe of society and may be viewed as not contributing to society at all in their endless pursuit of that perfect line.
My cousin, in her own way, modeled the dirtbag lifestyle for me in her pursuit of the Grateful Dead. She escaped social norms and pursued the endless jam of Jerry Garcia and Boys right up until Jerry died. We were close as younger kids and drifted apart during those years, in part because I did not want to smell like she did. Dirtbags of any kind, Deadheads or not, all have a sort of common stench that attaches itself to your clothes over time. It was the patchouli overtones wafting up to greet my nose hours after we separated that bothered me the most.
In the end, I did not want to smell like she did and I was too much of a weenie to really defy social norms and expectations from my parents. Delinquency and a path to dirtbagging would not be in my future. Shortly after my Fourth of July defeat, my grandfather, who had been a Navy WW2 veteran, died. I began to idolize him post mortem in a way I never had when he was living and had that strange scent of old people and formaldehyde that makes it difficult for kids to sometimes connect with their elders.
I would spend hours staring at an old Korean War era set of encyclopedias we had learning about both the Korean War (as it was happening in my mind) and past military victories. My mind was made up, as soon as I was old enough, I would join the Navy. What is more, I wanted to join the Navy and be not just like my Granddad, but also like Jack Kennedy and command a PT Boat.
Unfortunately, when the time came to pick a service the Navy told me I was too tall and needed a medical waiver to get in. The Army however, was excited that I was breathing and interested in offering me a commission. So, at the age of seventeen, my father signed my enlistment paperwork on my behalf (you cannot enlist on your own until your eighteenth birthday) and I became a cadet in the Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Mississippi. I would graduate and owe eight years of my life to the Army, or I would not graduate and still owe eight years of my life to the Army.
Fortunately, I graduated.
The Army does two things incredibly well for an individual like me: it legitimizes the kind of delinquency where you get to blow things up and it gives form and function, even honor to the dirtbag lifestyle.
I have never slept as rough as a climber as I did in the military. Days on end without showers where your stench became a badge of honor; endless reapplications of greasy face paint; sleeping curled up with your battle buddy under a thin layer of polyester that was your poncho liner; keeping silent when you dove for cover only to find a horde of biting ants with more ferocity than all the orcs of Mordor. And in between: the firepower, the explosions, the joy of throwing a hand grenade or switching the selector switch from safe to semi to burst on your rifle. It was awesome and it paid pretty well for a twenty-two year old kid with a philosophy degree from a state school.
In real war, above and beyond the training I describe above, there is a rush, a surge of adrenaline unlike anything. The withdrawal of which, the post firefight come down or hangover is also unlike anything I ever felt before. And the men and women who are with you when it all happens? That’s teamwork. Fuck a state title in high school football with last minute heroics: IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and small arms attacks are the truth. The first time you see a man get cut in half by three well-placed .50 cal rounds at the waist is a moment you’ll never forget. Awe, inspiration, excitement, and only later, maybe minutes, maybe years, maybe never, a questioning of the rightness of war and your role in bringing death to the enemy. The enemy frustratingly looks a lot like you do. He has two legs, two arms, a head and neck. It makes the act of violence, or watching the acts of violence, a bit more difficult to stomach.
The dirty secret, as you may have guessed by now and first reported in this generation through Sebastian Junger’s book War, is that combat can be incredibly fun. Many people will disagree with me, even be disappointed in this statement. Many people will have had a different experience than I, but many, I would argue most, who have been through a few firefights will agree that combat is the ultimate thrill ride. Perhaps I was never in enough combat; never saw enough death or enough carnage to get tired of the ride.
And still, despite the rush, every morning as I rolled out of my bunk, I was afraid. I was afraid I would die. I was afraid my soldiers might die. I was worried about getting hit, I was worried about the collateral damage of kids and women and old men who might get in the way if the shit hit the fan. But when it happened, brothers and sisters, I’m here to tell you: I’ve never felt more alive.
On the other hand, garrison, and by extension, staff jobs in the Army, drove me nuts. I was absolutely homicidal during a six-month stint on a Battalion and Brigade staff when I first got to Iraq. One of my earliest evaluations in the Army told the world I was good in the field but a potential discipline problem in garrison. Finally, at age twenty-seven, I had become the delinquent my eight-year-old self was too weak to become. And while the Army wanted some of that delinquent edge and some of that dirtbag romanticism in all its members, I was on the verge of taking it to far for their comfort. So, when the time came, I walked away.
Standing on an empty curbside at Bradley International in Hartford, Connecticut, three weeks removed from my last firefight and waiting for my brother to pick me up, I was lost. War had condensed my life experience so much that I evolved, like all warriors do, far faster than my peers. In the rush of combat, you move quickly through the baser and nobler aspects of humanity that those who do not go to war rarely experience. Whether or not you have time to process the changes completely, intuitively you have aged in spirit and mind, body and soul.
Coming home, the sense of fit and belonging I had in war, perhaps the ultimate stoke, was missing and I wasn’t sure how to move on. What hurt the most was that most of America didn’t seem to care. While my generation of veterans has had a better public welcome than any generation since WW2, yellow ribbon car magnets, free baseball tickets, and discounts for appetizers and oil changes on Veterans Day do not translate into empathy. For the record, showing pictures of eagles in front of the America flag, playing Lee Greenwood’s greatest hits, or buying free shots for every kid you see with a short hair cut in an airport bar, also does not translate into an effective welcome home.
I came home mostly intact physically. My shoulders were hunched, I had a few more dings in my skull and a lump in my collarbone a doctor would later tell me was a serious fracture that healed poorly, but everything was still connected. All the same, I was a mess. I did not feel normal and I certainly did not feel ok. I don’t blame my family and friends. They kept me alive through the process. They were all, in their own way Saints and Angels.
But I defied them with my addictions, my depression, and my dreams of suicide. I wanted to go back to war or I wanted to fade into the darkness you see at the end of old movies. When the reel was run all the way through the film projector, there are a few audible flips, the whir of the twin reels, and then just a bright light on a blank screen. That’s what I wanted more than anything but I was either not courageous enough to make that final decision or somewhere inside of me, I believed I had something else for which to live.
In 2009, I found a job in Boulder, Colorado and moved west from Philadelphia where I had ultimately landed when I came home in 07. I never told my girlfriend at the time, but every morning I wrestled with myself to see if I couldn’t take myself to that big bright white light. Day after day though, to paraphrase from the band Frightened Rabbit’s song Floating in the Forth “I chose to save suicide for the next rainy day.”
I called my buddy Chuck, who was a retired Green Beret and had been a contractor in my office when I was a staff monkey in Baghdad, to complain to him about my life on a pretty regular basis. I wanted to die or I wanted to go back in. Life sucked. Neither, Chuck or I do well on the phone. We sometimes even sit awkwardly quiet now when we hang out. When he does call, his girlfriend makes him put it on speaker and she does most of the talking. I can only imagine how painful these calls were for him.
Finally, tired of listening to the same story and repeating it back to me from his own life, he told me to buck up and do something about it. There is no way this is the prescribed protocol in any sort of psychological textbook. But it worked. The way I remember it, and he remembers it differently, he gave me the options to end it all, re-up, or meet him at the First Flatiron in Boulder in two weeks time. I chose to go climbing.
I had two weeks to find a pair of size 15 climbing shoes. Only one company at the time makes a shoe so big, maybe two do now, but good luck finding trad shoes. Evidently if you have gigantic feet, you are born to sport climb. They’re really just an enlarged pair of size 9s and don’t have any extra support or stitching that the size of person who would wear them (I was 6’8” and 265 pounds at the time) would need. But they fit as all climbing shoes fit with a degree of discomfort and pain.
In the military, you get pretty good at faking your way through what you don’t know how to do. Your first combat patrol, your first gunfight, and the first time a mortar round falls close by. You may have trained for it, but you never really know how you will act until it happens. You fake through it the first time the best you can and from their real experience builds. I think its one of the reasons that many service members and veterans are hesitant to learn new technical skills outside of the military context, because you can end up looking like a fool.
No one looks like a fool when they run and jump for cover at the first mortar blast, but there are times in climbing where, no matter how good you get, you’ll like a complete moron. That’s part of the joy of climbing, that effacing, equalizing quality of rock that can happen from 5.4 to 5.14, but when learning, you’re worried, or I was, about the judgment of everyone else around you who evidently never struggled on anything less than a 5.11c route.
Walking up the trail from the parking lot to the base of the First Flatiron, I had all the butterflies in my stomach I had when I first went to the rifle range right after my eighteenth birthday. The only difference being that I thought everyone else knew what they were doing. Hikers past us, and in my mind, looked on with a bit of jealousy and whimsical wish they were as awesome as we were, off to climb on the rock. I hoped they would continue down the opposite way we were heading, as I did not want to be exposed as a fraud.
I had taken the morning off of work to climb without any telling anyone and was horrified I’d run into someone I knew. But what would they say? It was like the time I ran into a pastor at the bar. He was an associate pastor at the Southern Baptist church where I led a bible study. Are you guilty when you meet someone in that situation, or are you recognizing just how free you both really are?
When we got to the base of the climb, I was all thumbs and thick tongues. I could not tie a knot and could not express what was going on in my head. I had some experience with tying into a rappel rope and making my own Swiss seat from Army days, even doing a bit of plastic rock tower climbing, but this was a whole new experience. I take great joy now in telling new climbers that I’ve been diagnosed with a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) and sometimes struggle with sequencing and short term memory loss, but at the time, I had no idea why I could not get anything right. All I could think of as positive was that I did not have to twist strands of sketchy, twine like rope around my testicles and be hurled off of a wall by a gruff Army sergeant who had killed kittens for amusement in his youth.
It was a hot day in the dog days of September and the cool in the shade of the climb quickly gave way to the hot sun radiating off of the granite and back into my face. The start of the climb is the trickiest bit, all friction and slabs. All fear of falling and ending your life twenty feet above the ground in a town full of hippies only two years after making it through the surge in Iraq. It was humiliating and it was awesome.
By the second pitch, I had more or less stopped yelling, “falling” every time I was nervous about falling. My hands and feet began to work together. By the third pitch I was mostly breathing on my own without a constant reminder from Chuck. By the fourth pitch, I was Elvis legging my way up bomber holds and learned I could hold onto the rock without the strength of trying to hand squeeze eviscerated lemons. By the fifth pitch, we recognized we were horribly off route to get to the top of the climb, but gave ourselves one more pitch to a rappel station. My mind shut down at this point and became a place where only sensory information mattered. The world slowed down.
I could hear, and can still see each of the fingers on my right hand find a hold at eye level. A sound like a bird flapping its wings in the middle of a deep fog, as each pad on the tips of my fingers found comfortable seating on a tiny ledge. The smallest particles of chalk puffing up through the air. My breath dry and ragged, not joyous, not strained, just dry and ragged. My head turned down to the left and watched with borderline confusion as my left hand reached up with no such signal being directed from my brain.
My left hand slapped once, twice, found a hold and I heaved up, as all new climbers do, straining my shoulders rather than pushing off with my right foot. Chuck’s head, haloed in his ginger head above me was a blur as I swung back down to find a hold for my right foot. My left foot found a bomber step next and with the next move I reached up only to feel Chuck’s hand slap into my own. I was elated and the world sped back up to every day speed.
This sequence has become a dream repeated through many nights. It represents nothing I think but the subconscious desire for pure elemental movement, spiritual ecstasy. My mind and body moved through the intense physical and mental exertion necessary to get to a fine focus into something deep and clean, only to be wrenched back into reality with the sound of laughter and encouragement.
Leaning against a rock, the Boulder Valley spreading before me, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches never tasting so good as they did right then. I was alive and I had not been able to say that without doubt for some time. I thought I had found the answer. And in repeated climbs in Colorado, out in Joshua Tree, up snow and ice in the San Juans and New Hampshire, and now at my home crags in the Wasatch Range, and to a far lesser extent in the sanitized oil and plastic dependent indoor gyms, I find it again and again.
There’s something about getting vertical and scaring the crap out of yourself, trusting completely in another person should you fail to make the next safe hold, that helps the mind forget, just for a moment, past traumas, even while carrying the capacity, the limitless possibilities of discovering new trauma. It was not until I looked back on our climb did I realize that for the duration of my time on the rock I was not feeling guilty for being home while others were still at war. I was not feeling ashamed that I was struggling with my trauma from one year of war and relatively few combat experiences while others were dealing with multiple tours and battles like Falujah, Ramadhi, or Anaconda vs. the few skirmishes I encountered. I was not wishing for death and the accompanying silence, but reveling instead in each hold and foot placement made, the heat of the sun on the rock, and the welcome clap of Chuck’s hand on my back as I made it to belay station after belay station.
Both complete mindfulness and mindlessness, I was fully in the moment on the rock that day. I knew it then too. I knew that if others like me, others from war zones and traumas from disasters or just the grinding down of everyday living in this world could climb rocks; the world would be a more peaceful place. It is true of course that you can take any maxim of joy, any revelation of pure goodness and corrupt it into something evil. Certainly climbers do that, but at the fundamental level, climbing connects you to something so much bigger than yourself, while at the same time disconnecting you from the never ending static and noise of the world around you, that it is perhaps the closest thing to pure expression we can ever hope to attain.
Each climbing line is ephemeral and artistic and then it is gone. To have witnessed someone climb is to witness an act of creation, destruction, achievement, and at times failure all at once. Where else can that happen? I truly believe if the world climbed, if the entire world got vertical, we may not have the need for more wars because we would understand. We would understand that thing which happens every now and again to all climbers, that thing, which cannot be quite explained to those who have never climbed. We would live in the moment.
Even better perhaps, climbing filled a whole inside of me that had been there since at least returning home from war. It replicated much of what was good from war, the camaraderie, and sense of purpose, mission, and warrior spirit. People talk of the brotherhood of the rope. It’s as close I’ve ever found to the brotherhood wrought by fire and hot lead.
I wanted to climb forever. I wanted my calves to stop shaking (I am an Elvis climber) and my fingers to unclench. I wanted to buy a van, a full rack, and hit the road. But I didn’t. For one, I lived in Boulder. Two, I was still the same kid who was too afraid to take his delinquency without the legitimization of a larger organization, and three, I enjoyed my apartment, my new duvet, and a pay check that gave me a healthy diet of free range chicken and kale.
Three years on, I still haven’t dropped out of society, bought a Vanagon and hit the road. Not unlike suicide in the mornings, which I put off for another day, dirtbagging is what I think about in the afternoon with a whole separate host of consequences. I think one of the main reasons I don’t drop out is because I really do love my job. My edges have dulled a bit in the nearly five and a half years I’ve been home now. My sides aren’t what I’d call fat, but they are not what I’d call svelte either.
Climbing saved my life, and, if I’m lucky, a few times a month, it ensures I have a great day. And while I’m on a route, when I’ve pushed myself harder than I’ve been pushed before and make a move I never thought I’d be able to make, all there is, is the climb. When I rap down that route, I think about committing all I have to the pursuit of that stoke. And maybe I will, maybe someday, when all else fades away. But for now, I’ll take my free range chicken, my warm duvet, and the wing back chair where I’ve done most of the writing for this piece. Then again, I think I could fit this chair into the back of a broke down diesel van.
Stacy Bare received a Bronze Star for meritorious service in Iraq and began climbing to deal with addiction, depression, and suicidal tendencies. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife and new baby daughter.
This story is published in The Climbing Zine Book, a collection of the best stories from Volumes 1-11.