Published in The Link 37.21, Feb. 14 2017
Nick McCullagh talks like a climber. His voice is low and chill, doing that Wilson brother vocal fry thing many outdoors people do. He uses lots of technical words that mean nothing to a casual listener, and he talks about things that seem like they shouldn’t really be talked about in a low, chill voice.
“At four in the morning,” he says, “the first couple of pitches were just easy slab but really runout. The first two pitches there was one piece of pro the whole way.”
McCullagh is talking about his trip to Squamish B.C. last August, with his friends Matthew Lapierre and Matthew Packer. Together, the three did a one-day ascent of The Chief, the largest granite dome in the world outside Yosemite.
This is what those technical words mean, by the way: Pitches are sections of a climb, usually distinguished by as one length of rope. Slabs are a kind of climb where the wall is angled away from you, like walking up an impossibly steep hill except more so. Runout is when you’re far away from your pro. And pro is protection, the stuff that saves your life if you fall.
“Good times,” McCullagh says, and smiles.
He’s sitting in the lobby of Allez Up, a climbing gym in Point-St-Charles. As he talks, people walk in from the cold. They’re very young or very old, very student-looking or very professional-looking, and they all scan their access cards and get a shout of encouragement from the card-scanning machine: “YES!”
McCullagh is here today because he wants more of those student-looking people to come climbing. He’s a vice president of the Concordia Rock Climbers Association, along with his climbing partners, and today, Wednesday at 1:00 p.m., is one of the association’s climbing days.
It’s a quiet one, so far. Two members of the association are present, Clément Clivaz and Alyssa Brown. They’re in the back of the gym, climbing.
They’re relatively experienced climbers, too. Clivaz climbed back home in Switzerland and has continued here. He’s an exchange student. Brown has been climbing for two and a half years, she says.
Brown climbs for the challenge, the thrill, and the satisfaction.
“There’s no better feeling than going to bed knowing you’ve accomplished something,” she says.
Any climber knows the thrill of grabbing the last hold of a hard-fought route, or the ceremonial clipping of a rope into the last anchor. Part of the feeling is the actualization of physical and mental effort—knowing that work actually physically resulted in getting somewhere is hard to find outside of, like, video games, which are designed to trick you into feeling like you’re doing things. Another part of the feeling is getting to come down and stand on firm ground.
These feelings exist on massive domes or on five-move bouldering problems.
When the association started, at the end of the winter term last year, it was people like Brown and Clivaz who were attracted first—people who already know those feelings.
“A lot of people who are new,” McCullagh says, “they’re like ‘this is too extreme.’”
But he doesn’t think that’s right. The community of climbers can ease new folks in, he says. The association tries to do so with subsidized entry into climbing centres like Bloc Shop, a bouldering gym, or with well-organized trips to outdoor sites for low cost.
“Among all the execs we have enough gear to supply like an army,” he says. “The trips cost nothing. It’s just gas.” They’ll be starting up again once the snow clears.
Including new people the right way is important to McCullagh because it’s when people climb and don’t find community that problems happen.
He tells the story of a recent climb on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. During the climb, at the hardest point, there was a lineup of people waiting get through.
Alyssa Brown climbs the steep wall.
With the recent influx of new climbers in the sport, they might be ignoring the traditional community orientation that gets climbers up to speed on techniques and safety—things McCullagh makes sure the association’s new climbers learn.
And so, on Mt. Washington, these people climbing above their level, out of their depth on a real wall, everybody was being held up. Having experienced hands there to help mentor new climbers matters.
“It puts people at ease that other people can do really fucking cool shit,” McCullagh says.
So when Clivaz jokingly says he doesn’t know if he’s even a part of the association, that “I just came and climbed and met these people,” that’s the perfect thing for him to say.
That’s what McCullagh sees the club as: Not so much a membership-based group, but a bunch of friends who climb and share their knowledge. An association bound together by the values of climbing.
“To give you an idea,” he says, “On my first day in Squamish I show up and these two random guys are like do you have anywhere to stay?” He said no, and they said he could share their campsite. Then they gave him a ride into town. Then they went out for dinner and bought groceries, and McCullagh asked if he could put the groceries in their car. “And they’re like sure,” he says. “And they throw me their car keys and say ‘it’s parked around the corner.”
This trust and mutual respect defines the climbing community. Which makes sense, since the sport inherently demands trusting another person with your life.
McCullagh trusts the Matthews with his life on the mountains.
Alyssa Brown trusts Clément Clivaz with her life in the gym.
“The climbing community,” says Clivaz, “is really beautiful.”