I grew up relatively shy. I was the type of kid who felt right at home playing roller hockey with the kids on my block, yet extremely uncomfortable in organized sports like basketball or soccer. Reluctantly, I joined my high school football team. I loved the sport but there was an obvious disconnect between myself and the team. Perhaps it was the jock culture or merely spending time with the “popular” kids, but I knew I didn’t fit in. Not to mention I was not built like a 35-year-old man at 15, like many of my peers.

Fast-forward 10 years. I am in Big Sur, California with my girlfriend pursuing my love of hiking and camping. While scrambling over some boulders by the ocean, I found myself having an absolute blast. Climbing back and forth for really no reason at all, it brought back vivid childhood memories of climbing the Dana Point jetty with my dad. It transported me back to climbing fences in my backyard, playing with the neighbor kids.

A thought occurred to me. I’ve always loved climbing. This was immediately followed by my next thought. If I like it so much, why don’t I actually do it? At the time, I only knew one friend who had joined a bouldering gym. I asked to tag along and after my first session of utterly eviscerating my virgin palms, I was hooked.

Get to the Top

Aside from basic safety, it is up to me how to climb. Climbing is about freedom and control; there is more than one way to do it. You can climb a problem dynamic (fluidly, with motion) or static (methodical). You can lock in, focus, and crack the code on your own or share beta (strategy) with others and push each other to succeed. It’s not a team sport because everyone is already on the same team with one goal in mind: Get to the top.

But still, I remained hesitant. The only gym I had visited up to that point was 24 Hour Fitness, where everyone wore headphones, hung their head low, and stared at themselves in the mirror. You can imagine my surprise when I learned just how different a climbing gym is. Small groups of people clumped at the bottom of the wall, sharing beta and throwing encouragement to those climbing. Friends laughing together, strangers laughing together, friendly competition, chalk clouds floating through the air. No mirrors.

That was January of 2019. Here we are in November and I am steadily progressing through V3’s at the gym. I take a rabid interest in climbing documentaries and books. I even tried my hand at outdoor bouldering in Joshua Tree, a truly humbling experience to say the least…

Reel Rock

Recently I had the opportunity to attend Reel Rock 14, hosted by the generous folks at Gear Coop. Reel Rock is a yearly tradition that attracts climbers, climbing brands, and nonprofits to socialize and screen the latest and greatest documentaries. With little in the way of expectations and a lot in the way of nervousness, I arrived.

I found myself in a sea of colorful North Face jackets, flipflops, and laughter. These were my people! I immediately relaxed.

Vendor booths with tables covered in shoes, harnesses, rope, and carabiners. A prize-spinning wheel ticking nearby. Blankets, lawn chairs, and food trucks. The smell of popcorn haunted me everywhere I walked. I’ll admit I was in a bit of a daze. As someone who recently started climbing, I felt like maybe I was out of my depth. Had I really earned the right to be here? I feel like I barely know what I’m doing. The more I visited each booth, the more I realized just how friendly and encouraging the climbing community is.

The folks at La Sportiva were able to recommend a second pair of shoes for me when I eventually wear through my first. I met an older trad climber at a booth offering prizes for a test of strength who encouraged me to succeed (I am happy to report I did… barely). When the credit card reader was malfunctioning in the beer line, a stranger and I started the “credit card waiting club.” Our two-man club was short-lived but lively. These were all just small, passing interactions but meant more to me than words can describe. It felt good to finally open up.

By the time I sat down for the feature films, I found myself completely at home without realizing it. The positive energy in that parking lot was palpable. I attribute it to the gathering of hundreds of people with a shared passion for the outdoors. There wasn’t a serious, tense, or stressed person in that crowd and I feel extremely lucky to include myself in that assessment.

Reel Rock successfully challenged my perspective of what it means to have a passion of my own. Specifically, that it is not just my own. It was my first, proper exposure to a community of people I never knew I had so much in common with.

Teenagers, seasoned mountaineers, and everyone in between. Even the dogs were enjoying themselves. I felt as though Thanksgiving dinner had exploded out onto the street, with the whole extended family in town. Reel Rock helped me realize that’s exactly what the climbing community is – one big extended family. Suddenly, I was a kid back in my neighborhood playing roller hockey again. Unafraid to express my passion and eager to socialize.

I am happy to say my neighborhood just got a little bigger.

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