My mother introduced me to Peter Pan when I was six years old. I fell in love with the 1960 television production of Peter Pan starring Mary Martin. My mother would dig up the VHS and put it on for me and I’d watch it repeatedly, again and again, until I was sure that the VCR would break from excessive rewinding. I remember being a kid and staying home from school, days spent on the couch with flat ginger ale and chicken soup from a Campbell’s can. These are some of my happiest memories.
Not only was I enthralled with the magic of a never-world far away, full of swashbuckling pirates and mermaids, but also with a mischievous boy who was charming and adventure ensued wherever he went. The fact that Peter was played by Mary Martin made me love him even more, proving to me, right then and there on that couch, that anything the boys could do, the girls could do, too.
Plus, he could fly.
My roommate Adrien and I watched “Hook” recently and my heart was filled to the brim with love for a magic that I’d long forgotten. You know, the magic that you felt when you were a kid when you were actually bored with store bought toys and turned to your imagination instead? I was always running barefoot in the grass in our backyard (which was small, but to me, felt like there were acres of it). I was Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was Caddie Woodlawn. Sometimes I was even Xena, Warrior Princess.
Sometimes I like to be Xena, Warrior Princess when I’m traveling and I’m climbing. I’m Meg Murry, who was stubborn and self-conscious but a badass time traveling mathematician. I’m Starbuck from Galactica, the cocky, anti-authoritarian, whiskey swigging fighter pilot. I’m all of the best things I saw in these fictional characters growing up, and then I’m me.
Remember that magic? The best part about being a grown up is being given the opportunity to recreate those magical moments. I think that the trick is, when we get older, we have to look a little bit harder for some of those moments to seem special. Things always seem like they’re agleam when we’re young. Our world is much smaller.
My climbing world is getting bigger and smaller at the same time. My third trip down south this year came with revisiting old friends, making new ones, and exciting crag epics! Scott Resnick and I met a few weeks back while he was trail running through Sunset North and we went back to Sunset a week later. Having just moved to Chattanooga a few days prior, he was just getting back into shape so he got his climbing legs back on things I’d done (and loved!) the week before. Scott led a few spectacular nines and told me that he’d be pretty happy if he could get back into a ten range again soon. Mid-day came and he triumphantly rapped down from anchors on Jefferson Airplane (5.10a), which follows an arete left of the classic RJ Gold (5.9). The route climbs a flake up to a small roof with a one move wonder crux (but what a move!) AND Scott’s first successful 5.10 on Tennessee rock.
Sam Latone and I connected recently and he and his partner, Robbie Burnham, showed up to warm up before doing work on Tantrum, a 5.12 roof crack. Robbie and Sam both recommended Cornerstone (5.11a) for our next climb. (I believe Sam’s exact words were “This is the best 5.11 at Sunset.”)
All other aretes pale in comparison to this climb! A pretty sustained 11, requiring techy footwork and a sloping rail traverse, I humbled myself all over this route. All the small gear! But really good small gear, from the start to the traverse and well into the (very thin) finger crack. (Thank you, Rock and Snow Annex for my new old green alien.) However, I was premature in my celebration. When I reached the last few feet of the climb, I plugged a yellow alien and moved upward only to be attacked and stung by hornets.
I have always been aware of potential dangers on lead and have never experienced any of them – until that Friday. The funny thing is, the same thing happened to Scott Albright a few weeks ago in the Gunks. Later, on the phone, he asked me, “I jumped. Did you jump?”. I…did not. Not for lack of confidence in my gear. That alien wasn’t going anywhere, and it wouldn’t for the next twelve hours as we had to come back the next day to retrieve it. It really happened so fast that I just remember instant pain and down climbing to my piece as quickly as I could, yelling “Taketaketake!” and then “Lowerlowerlower!”, while in a complete state of panic.
A few moments later, there was an attempt to climb the 5.8 pitch to the right and traverse to the gear, but it resulted in my sixth or seventh hornet sting and by then I was pretty much ready for a sympathy burrito and beer. (Sympathy burrito and beer provided by Kenzi and Zack.) Zack and Kenzi also came back to retrieve gear left on Cornerstone the next day before we trekked off to Foster Falls, and while the day’s events were unlucky, no person can argue that I’m the luckiest son of a b-word to have such amazing friends.
Zack and I also made it out to LRC, despite gray clouds that were rolling in as I left town. The rain held off and we were blessed with the company of Ron Nance, as well as plenty of daylight in our little spot behind the Glamour boulder. We must have looked like insane people, hiking back to Area 51 with a rope and gear. Ron was so kind to show me around the boulder field a little bit more, and despite all of my natural instincts, I’m kind of excited for southern sandstone bouldering this fall and winter.
In a recent conversation with Pamela Pack, she revealed a wide roof crack to me – one like I have never seen before. Chris Chestnutt and Kirk Brode put this thing up with much gut and grit. At once, your entire body is engulfed in the start of the crack, and then you’re desperately (and blindly) trying to crawl out of the crack without falling out of it. We’re talking full body encompassed by rock. The worst part was trying to turn my head inside of it to place gear or take a rest with glasses (yes I know I know I know, contacts, but also putting things in my eyes? Ow!).
And of course the whole thing was soaking wet. Hey, off-width climbers? Are off-widths ever NOT wet?
Kirk and I got a chance to talk on the phone about the first party on Human Chew Toy in 2008. Jeff Achey, a photo editor of a climbing magazine, was down south doing an article on roof cracks at the time, so Kirk and Travis Eiserman took him to as many roof cracks as they could find (and there are roof cracks aplenty in Tennessee). Travis knew of a roof crack at LRC and that day, they ran into Chris Chestnutt randomly in the boulder field. Kirk belayed Chris first, who fell at the crux but made it to the top. Then Kirk climbed and onsighted and Chris sent it his second attempt, giving Chris the FA and Kirk the FFA of the 11d monster roof crack. Travis and Jeff both sent it on their second attempt as well.
Kirk’s dog, Cosmo, standing next to the rock, inspired the name of the climb. When he told me this story over the phone, I imagined a beautiful, normal sized, long haired dog with a miniature rag person, head hanging out and legs flung across the side of the dog’s mouth. He was right to name it Human Chew Toy: “One second it’s chewing on your head and torso with your legs sticking out, the next second it’s chomping on your thighs and legs, then your side and one arm (and at this point, you’re hoping it don’t let go of you). I felt like an action figure being abused as a dog toy.”
I’ve honestly only climbed a small number of off-widths, and off-widths involving inverts are still a complete mystery to me. I approached the roof without even knowing what it looked like – only things I’d heard from Pamela and Zack. But today was the day and I brought my big cams and my game face (which often resembles my gawky, scared face). Having had some invert experience on Let’s Get Physical (5.12a), it actually felt very comfortable stuffing my legs all up in there. Talking with Kirk thereafter, he confirmed that we all climbed out of it in a similar way. I couldn’t put into words then and I can’t put into words now my psyche for moving out of the invert and back into the crack, right side up. It was a proud moment and I deeply thank Zack and Ron for being there for it.
I love Tennessee.
I was driving back to NYC from Tennessee about a month ago when this really perfect sunset made me pull the car over. Every sunset is perfect in its own right, but when I stop and WATCH one (and I mean, really watch, and taste and smell and feel it, too) I don’t feel something stir. Inside, I remain unchanged. What I feel is peace. I love THAT part of the day, the part where the bulk of the day is finished and you can just stand in front of the sky and soak it in. I thought to myself, “I want that sunset every day.”
This last trip was especially meaningful because it marked the four year anniversary of my best friend from high school’s suicide. I was lying in bed, glanced over at the date on my phone and it hit me. It was as if four years time ceased to exist and I was suddenly sitting in my Bushwick apartment again, getting the worst phone call of my life. It took me a few years to find my heart again because for months, I refused to give myself time to grieve. I kept telling myself that you can’t go through life allowing your pain to dictate how you behave.
What I learned about mourning is that it’s cyclical, and you can’t do it alone. You have good days and you have bad ones. Moments like that will always pass and figure themselves out if you let them. And I did…and they did.
Fast forward four years later. Life did go on, not with great joy, but with a somewhat surprising contentment that I never imagined I’d really know. I used to be afraid of losing the people I loved, constantly thinking, “It may happen. One day, someone I love will disappear and I won’t be able to go with them.”
The impression it leaves only makes you grip a little tighter and kiss a little harder every time you do.
Being a part of Mikey’s adventure has made me realize how unique my own is. What happens next is that you learn to love the world he left with you. Every pitch I climb, every mountain I scale brings me a little bit closer to him, in a way. When he left, I promised him that I’d live a little bit extra for him, in little ways and in big ways. All of the days. And every day, you take charge. Every day, you do things with more purpose.
Although his departure was premature, it’s the memory of Mike that remains timeless. For me, he will always be a skinny fourteen year old punk kid, skating down the block to meet me at my house in the early morning hours when the rest of the world was sleeping. I’ll always be kissing him with strawberry Lip Smackers chapstick in my back pocket. We’ll always be stupid kids watching that stupid sunset and then waiting for that sunrise, together. He’ll be Peter Pan, and I’ll be Xena, Warrior Princess.
In loving, loving memory of Michael Cocchiarella
May 7, 1986 - August 14, 2010