I’m 33 years old. That isn’t old.
But some days I feel old and those days are happening more and more frequently.
There’s two types of age in my mind?—?physical and mental. You physically get older, it’s unavoidable. Mentally, at some point you become an adult and to me, that means doing what society tells you people your age are supposed to do. If that’s what you genuinely want, awesome, but if not, it seems stupid. Still it’s really hard to watch everyone around you do something and not feel like you’re supposed to do it too. Especially when they seem so content.
I woke up sore this morning. I didn’t even get any real exercise yesterday, it isn’t that good soreness that comes with a big day in the mountains. This is old injury pain.
My right ankle hurts. Tendonitis from running, it’s been dogging me for months now. Means I couldn’t even go for a run this morning so instead I lounged in a coffee shop in Santiago, Chile. My left knee hurts from when I fell through a snow bridge into a river with my skis on and tore my MCL. The ligament recovered but I’ve never gotten all of the stability back and it now just randomly hurts some days. My upper back hurts right under my right shoulder blade. I was carrying a 50lb pack guiding some non-mountain friends into a backcountry hut a few years ago and was carrying all of the communal gear when the pack’s frame snapped and made the load lopsided for most of the trip. I strained some muscle in there and no amount of physio or massage has ever been able to fix it. My lower back hurts right above my pelvis from where I tweaked a disk tossing duffel bags of gear into the back of my car a couple of months ago; I’m still hoping to rehab that one. My right ring finger aches from ligament damage from climbing. My right hip aches, I don’t even know how I fucked that one up but both my hip flexor and side-glute thing muscle are continuous issues for my physio to deal with.
I’m not even someone who gets injured much. On their own each one of these injuries is super minor. Katherine, one of my favourite trip partners has had her entire shoulder reconstructed and her range of motion is now super restricted. She’s cracked vertebrae skiing. A lead climbing fall means she’s now got a piece of bone floating in her ankle that grinds the joint with every step. Hell, she even picked up a parasite mountaineering right here in Chile which has made her lactose intolerant. Injuries as minor as mine, she doesn’t even think about.
But so fucking much of me is hurting this morning that I feel like I’m getting old and that scares me.
A week ago, I was up at the Kokanee Glacier Cabin with a bunch of people, skiing hard. We were out the door at dawn, skied until dark and then partied like teenagers every day for a week.
One of the guys, about my age, told me I’m a freak of nature for my fitness?—?being able to go so hard all day and then party at night; as if 33 is actually old or I’m even all that fit. I told him you just have to work for it.
Every morning when I wake up I have to decide if I’m an adult yet. Am I someone who pushes hard or am I old and soft? I still push hard. I want to push hard until the day I die. I look at a lot of people my age with their adult lives. It looks comfortable, they don’t sleep in their cars, they don’t show up at work Monday with epic sunburns and cold chapped lips. Looks boring. I don’t want to be an adult. Not ever. Not even when I’m 80.
The reality of the situation though is that there’s going to come a day in the not so, so distant future when instead of getting fitter and faster and nailing harder objectives, skiing burlier lines, pushing harder and harder, that isn’t going to be my battle anymore.
Instead, the battle is going to be to maintain. It will be about maintaining whatever strength and ability I’ve got left for as long as possible. Some day, every time I go into the mountains it isn’t going to be about getting better, it’s going to be about getting as least worse as possible.
That fucking terrifies me. One of the biggest things the mountains give me is a feeling of strength, capability, confidence that comes with knowing that I am tougher than I have ever been in my life.
I’m sitting on a bus winding it’s way through the mountains from Santiago to Mendoza. This isn’t a mountaineering trip, it’s not even a hiking trip, but I’m looking out this window and I just want to get off the bus and walk off into the mountains; my fingers itch for the feel of rock, the feel of my pack. Only days since I last felt it, I miss the feeling of my heart charging, my chest sucking in lungfulls of increasingly thin and cold air.
What is it like? To be the mountaineer past their prime? To think back on past trips and realize that they are no longer within their grasp? Those objectives where they turned back just shy of the summit because of weather, telling themselves ‘I can always come back, better to retreat and live to climb again than die for this mountain today’? That saying, that truth that we tell ourselves to fight back the summit fever has become a lie. Now when they look at that summit disappearing into the clouds they have to ask themselves ‘will I ever get another shot?’.
Does summit fever hit the past prime mountaineer harder than those still climbing to their apogee?
I want to ask one. But how do you ask someone ‘how does it feel to suck more with every day at the thing that means most to you’? Do I even want to know the answer?
Let the mountains become just a hobby and life gets a lot simpler. I could have a much more conventional life. Holding onto a partner is tough when they always come second to the mountains. I lost my Dad to skiing so I know what it’s like to lose a parent to the mountains and I really don’t want to do that to my kids so I feel like my relationship with the mountains would have to change before I could explore that. Personal feeling, lots of people would disagree with me.
I don’t think I’d be as afraid of getting older and slower if the mountains were just a hobby. You know those people who say that they’re total mountain folk and then tell you about the three epic day hikes they did last year? That seems a lot easier to fit into a ‘normal’ life. There’s an ensnaring charm to the idea of letting myself become an adult. It would be so easy. I certainly see plenty of friends take that path and for many of them it seems right. They seem so happy with their decision to trade pushing in the mountains for family life and the occasional weekend of mellow mountain fun. Others look like they got cliffed out. They aren’t sure how they ended up here and they don’t see a way out.
I think though, that I would be the latter. I wouldn’t get that high that I need so badly. That feeling of pure and unadulterated perfection as I drop into a line on my skis that scares me and then ski better than I ever have before. That feeling of rounding the last corner on a crazy long trail run; topping out a route that scared me; of being better than I have ever been before.
But no matter how hard I fight it, eventually I’m going to lose that high. Will I regret not making room in my life for a partner and kids at that point or if I do make room for them, will I regret not seeing how far I can push myself? Terrifying. Age is creeping up on me. I have a few years yet of getting fitter, faster, stronger. I don’t know how many, but I still have them. Once I start to lose that, I still have a few more years of doing more technical objectives where my growing technical skills can make up for my decreasing strength, for my aches and pains.
Right now I’m sitting on this bus at the border crossing between Chile and Argentina, looking out at these mountains with literally the only person I’ll make compromises for anymore and give up some vacation days?—?my mother. As nice as it is to take a vacation with my Mother, Brother and Sister-in-law, it’s also tough to look at these mountains and not be out there. I feel like a shitty person for longing to walk away from this bus. I’m itching to feel these mountains under my feet, the rock in my hands.
Someday I’m going to stop getting better and have to just try not to get worse faster than absolutely necessary. I’m terrified that I won’t have gotten to a point where I feel I’ve accomplished enough. I’m even more terrified that that point doesn’t even exist. There will always be an objective just out of my reach. I’ll just have to deal with that fear like I deal with the fear standing at the top of a line on my skis.
Objective hazard is hazard I can’t do anything about other than minimize it where possible. Risk; that comes with this game. Worry about the stuff you can control, not the stuff you can’t. I can’t stop getting old. I can keep myself from becoming an adult.
I know someday I’m going to start getting slower. But maybe instead of just a loss, it’ll be another challenge. As you get older, you have to fight harder to stay strong. I see that already. Maybe that will be enough of a challenge. Maybe I won’t get stoked by how I’m stronger than I ever have been but instead will be stoked by how much stronger I am than I thought I would be at that age, stoked about all of the countless objectives that I can still do. It’s not the destination but the journey after all. Would we be so stoked to reach a summit if it was easy? Maybe dragging my old and busted 80 year old self to the top of some hill will be all the challenge I need.
I don’t care about the pain. The allure of being an adult isn’t working on me. As attractive as it might be, I can’t give up the mountains. They have given me so much. They have so much more to give. Sitting on this bus, looking out at these mountains, I can feel that abrasiveness under my fingers. The momentary scrabble of mountaineering boots on sandy rock. I can feel the weight of a pack on my back. I’m going to be back, with my gear this time. I’m going to feel the twinge under my shoulder blade from the weight of the pack, I’m going feel the flare in my knee as I high step up a boulder. I’m going to feel all those aches and pains that I earned out in the mountains.
Maybe this age that I’m feeling today, maybe I earned it. Maybe it exists to remind me of everything the mountains have given me and will still give me. Maybe it’s there to remind me that everything great comes with a cost. Maybe you have to pay for memories of greatness. Maybe I’m supposed to grow to accept that I just can’t get better every day until I die and that the challenges I have yet to face will be no less exciting or worthwhile than the ones that gave me these aches and pains. But I sure as fuck ain’t going to be an adult.