Me and my higher self,
We often would speak
Somehow we lost the connection,
Might meet at Joshua Tree
Banner photo of Hobo Greg by Emmie Snead
My greatest fear as a climber is becoming crusty. Not the good kind of crusty but the bad kind of crusty. The crust that says my glory days were better than the younger generation’s current glory.
Let’s start with the good crust: That which we earn from being a veteran. Experience. The only way to be experienced is to have experiences. I think Jimi Hendrix said that.
Experience gives us credibility. When climbing was smaller, before the internet, information was usually passed climber to climber, from mentor to mentee. The mentor was the guidebook and the internet. They had war stories, tales of being so close to death, but somehow lived to tell the story.
Somehow, by surviving, I’ve gone from the young kid at the crag who needed guidance on every move—from tying the figure 8, to making the morning oatmeal—to a veteran. I’ve seen the highs and lows. I’ve lost friends and watched the legends pass on to the other side.
I’ve been tempted by vanity. The right photo posted to Instagram can make us all look good. Sometimes in life you need your ego, but most of the time in climbing, it’s best to quiet that voice. Unless you’re Ondra, someone is always better than you. And Ondra will only hold on to his throne for so long. If you judge the best by the Olympics, he’s already been dethroned. Still, perhaps the Dawn Wall should be the golden standard. And if these climbers really are the best, why isn’t crack climbing one of the categories in the Olympics?
The crust that I have earned is the good crust. The crust represented by my salt-and-pepper hair and the crow’s-feet around my eyes. The one that allows me to stand in front of an audience and tell my stories. The crust that allows me to publish The Zine. But the glory should never be about me. The glory should be about the energy, the experiences that I’ve lived, so that somehow someone younger can learn and absorb the complexity of what it means to be a climber.
The bad crusty, the one I fear so much, is the one that assumes superiority. There’s a lot of that in climbing; perhaps I see it because I know I’ve been tempted to glorify my own era, when you could just roll into J Tree and easily find a campsite, for free or close to it. When all connections were made face-to-face. When there were so many fewer climbers.
Why do I fear this bad crust so much? I’m easily in a situation where I could take advantage of it.
Because I know climbing is not mine. Climbing is ours. And as John Gill so eloquently said recently on the Climbing Gold podcast, climbing belongs to the people who are doing it.
Climbing is an energy. Some call it sport, some call it art, but most of all it is a verb, an action. Climbing can never be negative. It always has to be positive.
I understand what drives older climbers to be bad crusty. It was a quiet, more romantic time back in the day. Crowds hardly existed. Regulation was minimal. It was wild and free, and first ascents were ripe for the picking. Style mattered.
Those days are mostly gone. Our summer and fall skies are often filled with wildfire smoke. Crowds of new climbers often don’t know how to interact with the wild. They leave scars on the land that didn’t have to be there—poop and toilet paper out in the open, tire tracks on pristine land—and many look like they are on death’s edge when they are leading or belaying. So many new climbers are dangerously dancing in experiences that won’t let them live to become experienced.
It’s too easy to write off climbing in its current state. Just because climbing is mainstream doesn’t make it any less beautiful or magical.
For me, the most powerful tool to avoid becoming bad crusty is interacting with the younger generation, whether that be in person, through the written word, or through the medium of podcasting. Recently, I was interviewing Kris Hampton of Power Company Climbing for our Dirtbag State of Mind podcast, and he expressed the same thing. Like me, Kris has a fear of becoming jaded, and also like me, Kris gets hope and energy through real-life engagement in the climbing world.
One thing I know that all of us climbers have had is a good day—at the gym or at the crag—and how the energy and camaraderie can spread so infectiously. The same thing can happen at a climbing event, even when there’s no actual climbing taking place. This energy—and of course a lot of spray—seems to take over, and the world seems like a better place for a short period of time.
This conversation in my head is ongoing. I’ll always be a little crusty, some good and some bad. The battle for me is gravitating toward the positive, engaging in the real-world good, versus the negativity that can manifest in my mind (or online).
In the desert, here in the Southwest of the United States, we say, “Don’t bust the crust.” In this case, we are referring to the black cryptobiotic soil that takes a long time to regenerate after it is crushed. It’s a beautiful creation of nature once you are aware of it, and the sighting of a nice path of this soil is something to behold and take in.
With this other crust, the one in my mind that might trick me into thinking I’m somehow superior because I’ve been climbing for over two decades, well that crust does need to be busted. And what lies beneath is the true spirit of humanity, the oneness that connects us, and the one to give good energy to, because it makes our spirits immortal.
Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Zine. He is currently working on his sixth book: American Climber 2.
Thank you for this piece, it resonates. When I was in my 40s, I climbed with a bunch of people who were 5 to 7 years older than me. I appreciated their sense of the history of climbing my, as well as their participation in parts of it. They were mentors and teachers.
Yet, as they began to enter their 50s, I noticed a gradually shifting phenomenon occurring with some of them. A bitterness and crustiness (in the negative sense) began to seep in with some of them. I even gave it a name: Gumpy Old Man Syndrome. Some succumbed to it, while others danced with it and seemed to have made it through, becoming crusty in the positive sense and being appreciative of what climbing is in whatever its present state may be.
As I entered my 50s, somehow I found inspiration and stoke from the up-and-coming younger generations. In fact, one of my daughters called me a millennial in a 57 year old body a few years back. I took that as a complement. Next week I’ll turn 60. I’m pretty sure I made it through and still have that joy inland stoke.
I love that thanks for sharing Eric! – Luke