The Great Escape, Part One: From Ladder Climbing to Route Climbing

Sam Anderson

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In the spring of 2013, I was a 24-year-old framing carpenter. I did not frame houses because I liked it. I did it because it paid the bills. I worked in Austin, Texas, but I lived in Elgin, about 25 miles east on highway 290. Every morning, I would get up at 5:30 at the organic farm I lived on, drop my cooler into my truck, and stop at the gas station on the way out of town to buy Gatorade and ice. My framing crew started at 7:00 and got off at 4:00. Framing is a physical, weather-exposed job, and crews are notoriously volatile. Macho tempers often flare throughout the day, and our team was no exception. Days of heat exposure, hard labor, yelling, and physical violence piled up. I would start driving back to Elgin at 4:00 and fight through about an hour of traffic. Again at the farm, I would collapse alone and exhausted onto the tile floor of the house, right in front of the window-mounted air conditioner.

I was miserable. I spent weekends drinking aimlessly with friends in Austin when I could muster the energy to do anything except lay on the floor at the farm. I had been a traveler and an active poet throughout college and my early twenties, and now life felt bleak and uninspired. After a spring and summer of long, hot, repetitive drudgery, something happened: I went to a climbing gym. Initially, my interest in climbing was an extension of small-scale alpine hiking and peak-bagging I had done for years. Little did I know, climbing would not only change my life but eventually offer me an escape from the daily grind. 

Instead of learning rope skills at the gym (the facility had auto-belays), I found a supportive community and a refreshing blend of athleticism and creativity. I established a presence there by visiting consistently. At first, I would show up once every weekend or so, skipping weekdays due to occupational fatigue. Soon, I discovered one climbing day a week did not satisfy me. I felt like an athlete again, and I ate that feeling up. My youth had revolved around playing baseball and stayed that way through high school. It felt revelatory to exercise methodically (or as methodically as one does when one first learns an entirely novel movement system) and unlike the groveling labor of house framing, climbing did not seem to produce chronic pain or mental exhaustion.

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The other half of climbing, for me, was creative. I had become a highly active poet during my transition away from baseball. Creative writing and performance felt significant and adventurous. I loved using words as a framework for interpreting and fashioning the world around me. I wrote, no matter where I was or what I was doing. Climbing felt somehow similar. Pulling down on a hold, looking at the next one and solving the time-sensitive puzzle of how to get there, was kinesthetically creative. I thought of my body as a dancing, intelligent entity that connected disparate elements (holds) into one cohesive shape after another, and my mind was the engine that choreographed the action.

In my day-to-day house-framing life, I almost always felt exhausted. Here, in the climbing world, I was wide awake. I was hungry to learn, and I was excited to find that the community at my gym energetically supported me. I remember watching climbers finish routes that to me seemed physically impossible—5.12, 5.12+. These seemingly god-like athletes were almost always quick to share a smile and a little wisdom with me after lowering off.

“It’s not that hard. One of these days you’ll be on harder routes.”

“If you can figure out the moves, it’s more mental than physical.”

“I just do it because I enjoy it—just like you!”

Five years out from those early days at the gym, I am in the rowdy process of becoming a full-time climber. Along the way, there were a million times when it seemed like I would never find myself in this position. There have been months-long stretches, in fact, when I thought I would never climb again. However, here I sit, poised to escape the 9-to-5 forever.

How did I get here? The answer is a little complicated: support from friends, lessons learned from mistakes and detours, and work performed in the effort to maintain my stoke. I decided to write the adventure as a series of articles, in the interest of paying my dues by paying it forward.

I have news for anyone who longs to escape the daily grind. It is the same thing I would tell anybody trying to achieve a goal or make a change. It is the same thing I would say to anyone facing a vital ascent, the same thing I say to my belay partners all the time: you can do it.