Climbing and thinking

My dear friend from graduate school once confided to me that he could maintain only three major passions in his life simultaneously. Stretching the number meant losing sleep or dropping his own high standards. While in my pre-college years I valued being well-rounded and gaining breadth of experience, I now live by his system. I find pursuing details and depth more valuable and satisfying. For the foreseeable future, my chosen three appear to be: a loving, committed relationship to my family and partner Leah to whom I was married this summer, a productive and exciting scientific career, and climbing.

I grew up in a family that appreciated the outdoors: took nature walks, identified birds and animals, gardened, went on skiing trips. It wasn’t until Colby College in Maine that I learned how to rock climb and embraced a lifestyle that kept my free time focused on the out-of-doors. This timing coincided with meeting Leah and our falling for one another, though it took me several years to convince her that climbing was a (safe) worthy pastime. I followed my academic as well as topographical ambitions by opting for graduate school at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Leah and I spent many of our weekends exploring the White mountains and walking on the nearby Appalachian trail. Traveling also became a serious passion for us with many of our longer trips including climbing. We went to Paris but made time to explore the boulders in Fontainbleau’s magical forêt. We gaped at Gaudí houses in Barcelona before departing to climb the steep limestone crags of nearby Catalonian towns. We have taken several extended camping road trips, including the recent cross-country drive and national park tour inspired by our move together after my defense and before starting a postdoc in Washington.

Though we have temporarily left our families on the East coast, our focused life together creates an incredible opportunity to begin the building of a family. Our plants are green and healthy, and soon we may adopt a dog—the new biological order among our generation it seems. Our jobs fill our lives with weeklong challenges. She works for an organization that designs socially and environmentally responsible investment portfolios. But different challenges abound on our weekend adventures into the same mountains where America’s finest mountaineers trained for Himalayan expeditions.

Rock climbing is serious. The danger has taught me to be serious in a manner not enforced by other sports because margins of error are slim. Mistakes are not allowable. Knots must be quadruple checked, even the thousandth time they are tied. Feet cannot slip, even at the end of exhausting days. Such practiced discipline translates to my life in general. The tests of the mountains, both mental and physical, make me stronger, tougher, and provide perspective on what can be overcome with grit, care, teamwork, and a sense of humor in challenging moments. The trust and dependence necessary within a safe and successful climbing team have made me both a better student to those with more experience and a better teacher to climbers I have mentored. Escaping to the mountains after thinking about a scientific or mathematic puzzle provides me perspective and refreshes my work. A long hike together with loved ones is the perfect time to soul search, debate difficult issues (both academic and philosophical), and spend time together in ways that I find regular societies manic pace often denies.

The choice of the main extra-curricular/familiar activity fluctuates depending on the season. Sometimes, I cook. Sometimes, I play guitar. Sometimes, I drink coffee and do the crossword. In the long run, I believe that if am absolutely committed to my passions, I can have confidence that my life’s work and pleasure will follow.

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