The American Century As Seen By A Rock

by J. Tobias Beard

Warning: If you’re not a serious rock climber, this may not make any sense.

This was written in the late 90’s and appeared in a now defunct climbing magazine called Boulderdash. It was the first piece I ever had published. It’s basically a rip-off of something David Foster Wallace wrote about tennis in his novel Infinite Jest.

The American Century As Seen By A Rock

You Know how to Rock Climb. That, at least, you can do and do well. You can Crank, Pull Down, Grapple, Tug, Send, Fight Gravity, Fall, Get Up, Get Your Ass Off The Ground, Yank, Crimp, Pinch, Cling To The Sheer Rock Face, Slap, Tweak, Jam, Stick, Grip, Adhere, Hold On, Fall, Get Up, and Allez, Allez! You can Rock Climb. At least that. All else has been failure.

Here is how to deal with failure. Climb. Start as soon as you can. Start because you love it. Start climbing, not just because it’s cool, but also because it feels good. It feels like your body has just found out what it’s like to truly move. This is what young birds feel like when they discover their wings. This is Strength. This is Grace. This is Climbing and it will become your life.

This is your first climbing partner, at fourteen, the one who learned how to climb on an Outward Bound course. This is your first harness and the used rack that the two of you bought. This is your first chalk bag and first pair of shoes. Learn to love them, as they are the needle and spoon of your addiction.

Learn by doing. By trying, and failing, and trying again, and coming so close to seriously blowing it that you know you must really want to do this. Do stupid things because of that desire. Jump onto the sharp end of some heinous crack with nothing but big hexes and small wires, and bail for a thirty footer because your partner doesn’t really know how to belay. Sew your own runners at home with mom’s sewing machine. Steal gear from shops. Get your rope stuck. Get rescued. It will be a miracle if you survive, but you’ll be stronger and wiser for it.

Here is that first climbing partner telling you not to clip bolts or wear lycra because “Ron Kauk doesn’t wear lycra.” Forget Ron Kauk. This is Scott Franklin. This is Jim Karn. This is a picture of Smith Rocks. This is your first pair of Verve tights. Here is how to sell all of your trad gear on your first trip to Hueco. Sell it dirt-cheap. Take what ever they offer you. You’re not selling it for money. You’re selling it because you want to be good. You’ll never miss it.

Here is what it’s like to see the world in terms of how it can be gripped, touched, climbed. Here is how to dump your girl/boyfriend when she/he Just Doesn’t Get It. When they say “It’s either me or climbing,” you say, “Goodbye.” You say “I’m sorry.” You say “this is who I am.” Climbing is more loyal than any human. Climbing will always be there for you. Here is how to live in a world where there are only climbers.

Here is how to deal with caring one-hell-of-a-lot about an activity that the rest of the world does not understand. Learn that you are different from most people. That most people consider what you do childish and dangerous. To them you are simply playing. To them you are wasting your life. Ignore them and they will go away. Do not read newspapers. Do not watch TV. Do not go to malls. Forget that there is any other way to live. Here is how to live with an obsession.

Here is how to justify dropping out of college to climb. Tell yourself that nothing matters except climbing. It is the only thing that has ever felt Right. Tell yourself that Success takes Dedication. Tell yourself that You Have What It Takes. Tell yourself that you’ve finally Got Your Priorities Straight.


Here is how to justify living off of your parents. Pretend that you are poor. Here is how to live in self-imposed poverty. Learn to shave and shower in bathroom sinks. Learn to ignore No Trespassing signs. Learn to live on peanut butter, pasta, and Powerbars. Stop caring about how you look. Learn to love buffets and dollar movies. Learn to live without stuff. Here is how to sleep in your car. To sleep in rest areas. In hotel parking lots. In the middle of the desert. Bring a pillow.

Those are the lights of Las Vegas. That is the New River Gorge bridge. Over there is the tower at Sky Top. Welcome to Slade, KY. Welcome to Rifle, CO. Welcome to Bend. To New Paltz. To Boone. Fayetteville. This is Bishop. This is Chattanooga. This is El Paso. This is anywhere and everywhere. Learn that Where You Live is wherever there are rocks and good weather. Learn that Home is someplace far behind you.

Your mind will become full of moves: Here is how to make the undercling clip on Lactic. Here is the leg thread on Mentor. This is the Rose Move on Rude Boys. This is the Rose Move on La Rose. This is how many knee bars there are on Slice. Here is how to do the mantle on Raw Terror. Here is how to do Double Boiler with the cross through. Here is how to do it by matching. Here is the entire sequence to Churning In The Wake. Here is the name of every hold on Survival Of The Fittest. Go over these moves in your head every night before sleeping. Then go over them again in your dreams.

Learn how to take care of your fingers, because they are what it’s all about. Buy an emery board and some nail clippers. Cut off any skin that sticks out. File down your calluses. Become fanatical about keeping your skin smooth. Use moisturizer daily. Neosporin is your friend. So is Advil. Here is how to ignore what is so obviously tendinitis. A snapping tendon is loud. The POP made by a tendon breaking will actually echo in an enclosed space. Here is how to use Krazy Glue to repair a bad flapper. Here is how to climb with bleeding fingertips. Learn a lot about excuses, rationalization, and self-criticism.

Here is everything you need to know about Anorexia. About Bulimia. Let me tell you about Body Image Problems. Here is how to deal with your body. Never, ever, weigh yourself. Weigh yourself constantly. Always look at your body in the mirror. Always check and see what other people are eating and then eat less. Never let them see you snack. Learn that how much you weigh determines how hard you climb, and how hard you climb determines your value as a human being. So stop eating. Learn to like feeling hungry.

Here are some more lessons that climbing will teach you: The weather Here doesn’t tell you anything about the weather There. Some days you have it, some days you don’t. There’s no way to tell what kind of day it will be, or why. Ratings have a way of becoming frighteningly real. Although they are meant to tell you something about the climb, they end up telling you something about yourself.

Here is how to let competition, sponsorship, egos, your weight, ratings, training, and How Good You Really Are, possess you. Here is how not to have fun. Here is how to hate Rock Climbing.

And here is how to love it again. Give up Sport Climbing and start Bouldering. Give up Bouldering and take up Trad Climbing. Quit Trad Climbing and head for the Mountains.

You are not how much you weigh.

You are not how hard you climb.

You are not your sponsors.

You are a Climber, and that is what you do.