Rick Radliff talks about over­com­ing men­tal and phys­i­cal hur­dles to con­tin­ue doing what he loves: climbing. 

Why I Climb

In 1923, The New York Times inter­viewed British moun­taineer and Ever­est pio­neer George Leigh Mal­lo­ry. When asked why he want­ed to climb Ever­est, his reply was sim­ply, “Because it’s there.” Mal­lo­ry may have been refer­ring to Ever­est, but I believe that he was drawn by the deep­er essence of “it.” The “it” to which I refer embod­ies more than summits.

Climb­ing has become com­mon place. It’s almost banal to talk about one’s recent ascents, but the deep­er essence of climb­ing remains unchanged. Some folks are casu­al about climb­ing, and for oth­ers it’s a way of life. How­ev­er you approach it, climb­ing is unique. It doesn’t mat­ter whether you’re in with both feet or half a heart. For me, pas­sion and par­tic­i­pa­tion has run from one end of the spec­trum to the oth­er. Despite this, I can affirm with­out reser­va­tion, climb­ing is as much a part of my being as I am a part of this world.

I began climb­ing in about 1987 with my broth­er and a friend of his. They were the ones that led me to it. Truth is, I hard­ly remem­ber those ear­ly days. We took a short trip to Yosemite on about my third time out. I don’t remem­ber the route, but I do remem­ber want­i­ng more. Like a new bicy­cle at Christ­mas, you don’t want to get off. Come to think of it, I still have my orig­i­nal harness.

My broth­er and his friend didn’t climb for long. Con­verse­ly, I find myself a cou­ple decades lat­er still climb­ing. It hasn’t been with­out its ups and downs (no pun intend­ed). In those years, I have done a few big­walls and vis­it­ed crags in most of the west­ern states. There have also been times when I strug­gled and con­sid­ered giv­ing up climbing.

In 2001 a scaf­fold I was on col­lapsed and I plum­met­ed some 25 feet to the con­crete below. It broke more than my heel bone and ver­te­brae in my back. It also impaired my abil­i­ty to get on any­thing high­er than a step lad­der. I was injured phys­i­cal­ly and men­tal­ly. In time my bones healed but my head didn’t. It result­ed in some years of want­i­ng to climb, but almost being afraid to. I was unsure if climb­ing could remain a part of my life. At one point I seri­ous­ly con­sid­ered sell­ing my gear and giv­ing it up.

Yet, even when I couldn’t muster the moti­va­tion or get past the doubt and fear, I thought about climb­ing. I dreamed about it; I longed for it. Some­times I would sit up at night and thumb through my old guide­books rem­i­nisc­ing about days past. I des­per­ate­ly want­ed to be able to climb like I once had. Most­ly, I just want­ed to be com­fort­able on the rock again. Maybe it’s true that it gets in your blood, because I couldn’t let go. I was in a lim­bo between two worlds, the one I want­ed, and the one I was living.

You’d be right to ask, “What was so spe­cial about it that you couldn’t let go?” I asked myself that ques­tion many times. I’m not sure I can offer a com­plete answer. What I can say is its spe­cial. The days I spend in the moun­tains, the unique per­spec­tive that high peaks and rock walls offer, can’t be replaced by any oth­er means. It feeds some part of my spir­it that’s dif­fi­cult to artic­u­late. I nev­er feel more alive than when I’m hang­ing at a belay, soak­ing up sun, wind, even rain, while the world below me goes through its motions.

I’ve been called adren­a­line junky, thrill seek­er, and crazy. The prob­lem is, none of those labels fit. Climb­ing is one of the most relax­ing things I have ever done. Thrill is rel­a­tive to the seek­er, and crazy couldn’t be far­ther from the truth. I find peace and seren­i­ty in being hun­dreds of feet up a wall where Pere­grine Fal­cons roam and Cliff Swal­lows delight in their antics.

It’s also about the friend­ships and cama­raderie. Climb­ing requires that we trust anoth­er per­son, with our lives. What oth­er activ­i­ty requires that lev­el of trust? It forges bonds between peo­ple, deep bonds. The friend­ships I have devel­oped through climb­ing are dif­fer­ent, some­how more sub­stan­tive. I owe at least one per­son my life.

The rea­sons I didn’t let it go and the rea­sons I do it are the same. Climb­ing is the thing that makes me feel most alive. Like cells of the body that require oxy­gen, part of me relies on sus­te­nance that I only find in climbing.

I still strug­gle some days with doubt and fear. I haven’t quite recov­ered from that fall. I nev­er will com­plete­ly. The good news is I am climb­ing again, dream­ing about it, and plan­ning future ascents. Climb­ing is about more than grades, sum­mits, sur­vival of epics, or auda­cious first ascents. It’s about human spir­it, and find­ing the fuel to live life to its fullest. For me, that fuel is climbing.

You can browse pics, learn more about me, or delve into stuff I’ve writ­ten at my blog Crem­no­ma­ni­ac.

And thanx to The­Clymb for let­ting me put it out there.

Be Safe, Live Long, Climb Hard