I began technical rock climbing about 25 years ago. Before that I just climbed anything — trees, buildings, swing sets. I started wondering how all them folks went up those big rocks with ropes, I wanted to understand the systems. I walked into an old gym in Denver called Thrillseekers and looked around for someone who looked like they knew what they were doing. Under one overhanging wall, all by himself, was the fella who would teach me everything I needed over the course of the next 5 years. Gary Begley. He was from Philly and spoke with that heavy accent. He was (and still is last I checked) a lean, hard ball of muscle with features from the faces of old spanish kings. I watched him as he did reps on the same two holds over and over till failure, never more than a foot off the mats. He saw me looking and asked what was up, I said, ” hey man, do you ever climb outside on rocks?” Gary’s face lit up with the fire that I would come to understand as I belayed him on thousands of climbs and as I ran support for him over hundred mile runs or talked to him about terrain in foreign countries. Within a week after my question, he was dragging me up Petit Grepon in the Rocky Mountain Nat’l Park. That day was complete with a 4 a.m. start, a lightning storm at the top and a solid lesson in hustle. Gary was and is and always will be a hot wired engine. He taught me and did not mince words if he saw me being unsafe. He didn’t put up with excuses and lies about life. Once I mentioned that I wanted to learn Spanish, we were sitting in the bar having a beer after a day in the limestone coves below Vail. He sipped his beer and allowed the fire to flash from his eyes while he responded, “no you don’t.” I looked at him. He finished his thought, “you don’t really want to learn Spanish, you’ve been saying that for over a year but I’ve never seen you studying or trying. You’re smart, Tobias, so if you really wanted to learn Spanish, you would.” I was irritated and my beer tasted bad all of a sudden. Two months later I exited a bus in Punta Arenas, Chile. Seven months after that I returned to the states with a solid grasp of Spanish grammar. I remember the smile on Gary’s face when I told him, it was genuine and big. I had used his honesty as fuel and discovered some truths about myself in the process.
Gary flies these days. He fires up mountains and para-glides off the tops. He’s a top-notch pro with multiple disciplines. I know he’s got a family now, I haven’t seen him in years but I check on him now and then. His hair is finding silver through the black and the drive that I saw all them years ago in Thrillseekers still manifests itself in his every molecule. I reckon he’s mid 40s and if he called me and told me he was training to be an Olympic wrestler, I’d put money on him to make it. It’s nice to be the student of someone whose belief in the simple act of living extends beyond his own person and snatches you up by the nap of your neck and drags you along for the ride.
All these years later, last Monday, I was climbing alone in the desert backcountry and Gary’s voice came through the quiet. I was halfway up a beautiful set of fissures that finish on top of a huge stone in the middle of the Wonderland. Soloing is a personal choice that is difficult to explain. I won’t go into detail, but it allows a certain form of moving meditation in which there are equal parts of exertion, attention and self-reflection. Most folks think it’s stupid. I see it differently. Somewhere in the middle of all this, I was climbing and I had been in the spot before. I decided to turn back, for some reason I didn’t like the way the world was spinning at that second and I chose to climb down. I wondered if this was about getting older (tricky for someone who has always enjoyed a good, old-fashioned pull-up contest). I might have even felt the tiny pangs of some form of depression. Then I heard Gary’s laughter and his advice about smart choices, “living longer means you get to play more.” I smiled and started trotting back to my rig.
Afternoon coffee sure does taste good.
It’s nice to be 48 and sore from running and climbing.
I reckon there’s still a lot to learn, a lot of playing to be done. So many pretty places!
I keep my eyes on the sky whenever I’m in the mountains, there’s always a chance I might spot a golden eagle or a great horned owl…there’s also a chance I’ll catch sight of my old friend as he rips through the blue on a high speed glider leaving a vapor trail of spanish fire. Funny that he’s still teaching me without saying a word.