What Climbing Means To Me

What Climbing Means To Me

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Not your usual climber

I am, I think, a fairly rare climber: Someone who, throughout the course of my life, has been a failure. I think for many climbers they have been successful at many stages in their lives, driven, ambitious, used to success. For me, it has mostly been the opposite – twelve years of failure at school, repeated financial incompetence, broken relationships, no real career to speak of, repeated stopping and starting of interests, lack of focus, poor health etc., etc, ad nauseum. And that is, really, the truth. I was a quitter and a loser.
Don on Broken TopBroken Top - One of my very favorite summits

Mt. Thielsen and beyond

And then I decided to climb Mt Thielsen. One fateful day, ten years ago in September, I started out on the trail up my first mountain, not knowing what I was doing or what to expect, but most of all, having no idea how profoundly that day would change my life. I set out with the idea of getting at least to chicken point, and gave myself permission in advance to not climb the summit pinnacle, especially since I knew we would be climbing without ropes, but when I reached the base of the pinnacle and watched guys much bigger than myself scrambling up easily, I knew I could do it and set out, finding myself more focused than I ever had been before, every handhold, every foothold being the extent of my world and soon, I was standing on the tiny summit, feeling the profoundest sense of exposure and elation. That was it, I was hooked. And while that would be the only mountain I would climb that year, an obsession began that has now led me to the summit of a mountain or crag some seventy plus times in a decade, with the last year and a half being by far the most productive: Twenty summits between July of 2007 and September this year. And every time it has been the same - the same focus and drive and unwillingness to quit, things I sorely lacked in life.
Mt Thielsen  08Thielsen, ten years after.

The Next Stage

Mountains and rocks are my truth, the high places my temples. I eat, breath, sleep and dream of mountains. For myself, it's all I want anymore. To climb as hard and as often as I can while I can. And now, after having done the most technical rock climbing season in my life, a whole new element has been added.
CallahansClimbing the Trolls Throne, the Callahans

Rock Climbing

Before this year, I had rock climbed maybe ten times in ten years, never having felt a huge draw to it, preferring general mountaineering to anything else, but having relocated from Eugene, Oregon to Roseburg, Oregon, where the Callahans, the local crags, are located, I decided to do a little more, and I quickly met Greg Orton, local guidebook author and climbing instructor, and he invited me to help with his intro climbing classes, which I did, helping assist with belaying and rappelling. The next time he called me, it was to go to McKinley Rock, a four hundred foot high outcrop in the Umpqua River area, and I told him I had never done a multi-pitch climb before, but he reassured me that it would be fine with just the basics. So we went, and Greg and I completed the Hang Ten route (5.10a), a three-pitch climb that completely blew away my preconceived notions of what I thought I was capable of regarding rock climbing(see my trip report – my first multi-pitch climb). By the time I was done, just like on Thielsen, my world had been changed again, and I was hooked again. By the end of my climbing season, I had gone rock climbing probably close to twenty times from June until September, the highlight of which was doing the Peregrine Traverse on Acker Rock, one of Oregon's longest rock climbs, when I led every single pitch (before that day I had led exactly one pitch on an easy 5.7 slab). So needless to say, my entire outlook has changed. Now, knowing that I can climb 5.10+, I look to my future and hunger for routes I had always dreamed out of my reach - the North Ridge of Mt Stuart, East Face of Whitney, while my confidence in my climbing has been increased into entirely new dimensions. And I thought I was obsessed before.
User Profile ImageNearing the end of the Peregrine Traverse on Acker Rock

On The Way Up

I'm a better person when I climb. I'm happier, calmer, I sleep better, I eat better. In fact, before I relocated to Roseburg, I was a rail thin 135 pounds, a weight and physique I had maintained for my entire adult life (I was thirty-six when I moved). I had eating habits that bordered on anorexic, at one point going three days without food (and not really noticing). Now, with all the climbing (plus hiking and a little kayaking), not to mention the loving relationship I am in(plus all the good food she cooks for me) , I have gained nearly fifteen pounds (mostly muscle mass). This last year and a half has been one of the most joyous of my life. I even had a newspaper article written about me and my exploits.
Mt WashingtonMt Washington 2008

Aspergers And A New Way To View The World

Earlier this year, I happened upon a book written by John Elder Robinson called Look Me In The Eye, a book about his life with Aspergers Syndrome, and a light went off in my head(Aspergers, for those few of you who haven't heard about it by now, is a form of high-functioning autism). I had never heard about it before, but the descriptions of it were uncannily like my own life – crushing social anxiety and awkwardness, and inability to understand social cues, obsessiveness with a narrow topic to the point of excluding other, 'normal' interests, not being able to look others in the eye, etc, etc. I couldn't believe it, this was so like me I felt like crying. I have struggled so much with my life in so many ways, all the while being a highly intelligent, well-read, self-educated person. Well, needless to say, I began to read as much about it as possible and discussed it with a few people who were close to me and realized this was definitely it, and soon I talked to my doctor about it, who, after doing some research, easily diagnosed me with it. It was obvious. This was huge for me, my whole outlook changed, the albatross of shame was removed. Now all the problems I had had in life were more understandable, the struggles with school and friendships, money and organization. Now I am planning on going to college for the first time, to get a degree in outdoor recreation, to follow my passion for all things climbing. I can get help, learn in my own way (which tends to be on my own rather than a classroom setting), I actually can get a degree! I have let so much go that was weighing me down since this diagnosis, I have unfettered myself to be as obsessed with mountains and climbing as I want, since I really can't be any other way anyway.
Three Sisters from Broken TopThree Sisters at dawn


Through climbing I am a success, through climbing I have worked out innumerable problems, grinding out my cares on a dusty trail or steep snow-slope, feeling that gratification at the end of a climb, wearing that shit-eating grin for days afterwards, knowing that I had achieved my goals, knowing that I hadn't given up. Through climbing I have learned to trust my heart, leaving a good job in Eugene to seek a new life with climbing being my main focus, a choice I am so glad I made. I can hardly wait for more.
It has been a long road for me to get here. Many troubles surely still await, but life now is better than it has ever been. I have started to understand who I am, and why I have struggled for so long, and how I can work with being a slightly autistic oddball obsessed with all things Climbing. I'm never going to go back to how I was, though, never. I have given myself fully to climbing now, and will continue until age or gravity forces me to stop. Hopefully that wont be for a nice, long time.
User Profile ImageUnion Peak '07


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-20 of 38

Deltaoperator17 - Jan 2, 2009 4:40 pm - Voted 10/10

Nice Read

I am a Oregon Cascadian, grew up in Eugene/ Bend. Very nice article Don.

All my best,



mvs - Jan 2, 2009 4:53 pm - Voted 10/10

thanks for writing this

Very inspiring article! The mountains helped you unlock your inner potential and confidence. I sometimes feel the same way.

vancouver islander

vancouver islander - Jan 2, 2009 5:25 pm - Voted 10/10

Thanks for sharing...

...your experiences and, more importantly, the hopes and dreams that climbing has brought to your life. Climb on!!

Cheers, Martin


MarkDidier - Jan 2, 2009 6:34 pm - Voted 10/10

Thanks for Sharing

Very well written. Your honest open assessment of yourself is commendable. Glad to hear things are going so well for you.



Luiso - Jan 3, 2009 6:52 am - Voted 10/10

Thanks for sharing

Very good and inspired article.
I only want to say that you're a not so rare mountaineer. Many people I know go to the mountains to escape from something (sometimes, from a theoretically successful live).
But this article is one of the best I ever readed on the reasons to climb.


alpinedon - Jan 3, 2009 2:06 pm - Hasn't voted


I guess what I meant is that most climbers are used to success, and use climbing as a means to further that success, but yes, you're right, lots of people use climbing as a means to escape from whatever demons pursue them. Thank you for your kind words, though, it took alot just to write this.

Augie Medina

Augie Medina - Jan 3, 2009 2:33 pm - Voted 10/10


Parents, counselors and others who deal with children with Asperger's take note!


silversummit - Jan 4, 2009 12:45 am - Voted 10/10

Great insight......

and speaks volumes about finding yourself at any time in life. My heart went out to you as I started reading your article and I suspected something like Aspergers. As a former teacher and Scout leader I can tell you that Aspergers is more readily diagnosed now.

We had a very successful experience with one young man with Aspergers in our troop who is now in college. Not every camping trip was easy for him (or us) but he absorbed skills like a sponge and Scouting helped him navigate being in a group. His particular interests now are science and math.

Your last picture shows a healthier-looking, happier person; hopefully your life will continue in that direction!


suddendescent - Jan 4, 2009 10:12 am - Hasn't voted

Encouraging !

I'm an utter failure at climbing... Every time I try vertigo gets to me ! My last attempt at it , I basically tried to attain a small hilltop in LaTuque Quebec in vicinity to the Smurfit Stone wood processing plant just to get a picture of that water outlet on top...(mind you despite the minimal vertical, the hill has steep slopes...)

I guess that mountain climbing can be deemed as a good way of getting out of hibernation ! A sense of accomplishement gives people an added measure of confidence to tackle the other challenges of life !..


alpinedon - Jan 4, 2009 6:00 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Encouraging !

Thanks for writing. We all have our mountains to climb, for sure, so good luck with the vertigo!


cascadetraveler - Jan 4, 2009 12:46 pm - Hasn't voted

Nice journey Nieghbor.

I can relate to your story Don, I to have had to overcome alcohol addiction, that began six years ago. I suffice to say climbing is also the avenue in which I have been able to refocus my goals.

When passing thru are visiting Eugene there is a healthy climbing community. The Obsidians outdoor club, Eugene Mountain Rescue,and WillametteBackcountry ski patrol. All three organizations offer mountaineering instruction, rescue training/ firstaid, and backcountry navigation. These organizations have given many people unlimited opportunities to explore there potential. We would enjoy your company out in the field.

Thanks for posting Don, very inspiring to me,



alpinedon - Jan 4, 2009 1:31 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice journey Nieghbor.

Thanks for writing, I actually can't believe all the comments and replies I have gotten! I was going to say, I actually have climbed maybe five mountains with the Obsidians and used to be a member of EMR. The things is, though, I am really afraid of doing group stuff, and so it was always hard for me to attend...


cascadetraveler - Jan 4, 2009 6:47 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Nice journey Nieghbor.

Ya, group stuff does take a leap of faith. What I have found is it is healthy to go outside your comfort zone. It is obvious you are spending a lot more time there.

Cheers Don, I will keep you posted on upcoming fun stuff.



norco17 - Jan 4, 2009 1:06 pm - Hasn't voted

very inspiring

Thanks for sharing, and congratulations on all of your successes.

The Defiant One

The Defiant One - Jan 4, 2009 7:01 pm - Voted 10/10

Excellent article

really, fabulous story. I don't comment much, but this is among the best things i've read on SP. Your authenticity is inspiring. Cheers Don.


alpinedon - Jan 4, 2009 7:42 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Excellent article

Thank you so much. It really took me steadying my nerves to submit this one, so such great feedback is tremendously gratifying. Really appreciate it.


Ingman - Jan 4, 2009 8:10 pm - Voted 10/10

Well done!

Thanks for sharing dude. Nice to hear about your process of personal growth. Good luck on your future peaks! :)


CClaude - Jan 4, 2009 10:31 pm - Hasn't voted

Why do you call yourself a failure...

The western society definition sucks (since I know some people that are "successful" but are #$$'$. Sounds like you are starting to know yourself, which sounds successful to me.


alpinedon - Jan 4, 2009 10:35 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Why do you call yourself a failure...

Thanks, and you're right, it is by that very western definition of a failure that I meant. It's a habit I am only learning now - to not buy into the bs of our hyper-ambitious and driven society!

Arthur Digbee

Arthur Digbee - Jan 5, 2009 5:11 pm - Voted 10/10


You might also find interesting Richard Louv's book "Last Child in the Woods" about "nature deficit disorder." He thinks it might be associated with increases of autism (including Asperger's) in our society, and of course the solution is . . . your new field, outdoor recreation!

Viewing: 1-20 of 38