If you are neither heard nor seen, how can you be sure of your existence?
High above the river, the sound of rushing water blends with that of the road, cars cut through the air and the occasional engine throttles far below.
The cliff isn’t remote, but once on it’s face I’m isolated and alone. Climbing straight out of the river and towering above the road, hundreds of feet of air separate me from the movement below.
On the road, there’s a small pull-out for climbers, and another across the road for boaters launching into the river. On weekends, there are more cars than routes, and automobiles litter the shoulder of the road. Today, a weekday evening, cars filter past on their way to or from somewhere – everywhere – nowhere, and there is not a single car in the pull-out.
I wonder if I’ve been seen. I doubt anyone leaving town would even think to look for a climber when admiring the cliff with no car parked below.
I remember the few cars that passed as I shouldered my bike and scrambled up the eroded trail, but after I stashed my bike in the bushes and started to climb, there was no trace, no sign I could be found far above.
The route was moderate and I soloed with the ease of familiarity, pausing once on a small ledge to grab a sip of water from my pack.
The rock is less than a mile from town and I ride here often, usually after work or early in the morning, moving quickly but making time to stop and appreciate the position.
Today I found myself considering my invisibility, I told no one I was going, encountered no one on the climb, and left no trace on the road, or the rock. My closest friends and climbing partners have always echoes the conservative sentiment that lives deep inside every climber: that the strongest and most inspiring climbers never announce their success or celebrate their achievements, but rather quietly crush and return to their work and life without saying a word.
Alex Lowe famously said that the best climber is the one having the most fun. When considering my best climbs, the ones that were the most fun, I have to acknowledge that they’ve been the ones that were the most invisible. These climbs occurred without announcement or recognition, no fanfare or celebration, and I shared them with a few close partners and no one else. But there was a much deeper level to their invisibility, when you operate outside of standard preconceptions, no one expects to see you, and in a way, you can’t actually be seen.
No car left at the trailhead, no sound except for the soft ranch of gravel as we ditch out bikes in the bushes before the sun has risen. No roof-box covered with bumper-stickers, no permit left in the register, no reason to look for us on the wall, and even if we can be heard, you wouldn’t think to listen for our quiet voices and soft laughter before it’s blown away into the wind.
On these days we usually encounter no one, and I have to believe this is as much because we occupied a different space and time as it is because we climbed off season, or on some remote or obscure line. When your actions conflict with the status-quo, it’s easy to be forgotten, ignored, or invisible. This is why, I suppose, we so easily ignore the violence, the homelessness and suffering that surround us; what doesn’t fit into our preconceptions and immediate surroundings we ignore until we forget – to the point we can imagine it might not have existed at all.
It’s easy to be conflicted about sensationalizing or sharing my climbing experiences. I’m not some big-time crusher and I’m not into self-aggrandizement, but my experiences in the mountains, especially those undertaken by bike and without the use of an automobile, continue to be the most inspiring and transformative, and I feel compelled to share them.
In the mountains, we often speak of a wilderness ethic and the foundation of Leave No Trace. The impact humans have on Earth can’t even begin to be described as a trace. When I climb I often think of what it’s worth to me, what I’m willing to do to succeed and what it’d be like if I was never there.
The closer I get to making my climbing (and my life) invisible, the more connection and worth I draw from it.
As I stumble back down the trail with my bike on my shoulder, and pedal home in the fading light of dusk. I feel like I got away with a crime, no one saw me, no one knows what I’ve done. I savor this time, let it penetrate deep into my bones, until I’m so lost in the illusion I have to question if it even happened. I cherish this short time because inside I know – it will all cease to be invisible as soon as I’ve told you.