A Separate Reality

Mandi Prout takes a nap after climbing Fat City Crack on Lumpy Ridge, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO. Photo by Derek Franz.

Climbing is still a fringe sport, though it hasn’t seemed that way here in Colorado for a long, long time. I was reminded of this while visiting my girlfriend’s family in Milan, Ohio, this Christmas.

It’s understandable that people living in the flat farmlands of the Midwest would not be exposed to mountain sports as much. Of all the people I met in Ohio, the ones who do visit the mountains generally do it for snowboarding, and several have not been to Colorado in the summer. The most striking difference between there and here, however, is the culture.

Mandi’s family is huge. Simply put, family is what you do there. The average household probably has three to five kids, and most of those kids get married in their early 20s and start having their own kids. Mandi and I have been together more than four years. We get plenty of flack from her relatives for not being married.

“Those eggs aren’t getting any fresher,” Grandma Prout once told her.

Grandma Prout has barely traveled outside Erie County, and she really doesn’t understand the climbing bug. For one thing, she perceives it as being very dangerous.

“Do you think you could ever find a new activity?” she asked me when I first met her three years ago.

I grinned and shook my head, but she still holds out hope that Mandi and I will move to Ohio someday.

On this recent trip, Mandi’s mom, Betty, told me about this old limestone quarry where we might be able to climb. Betty has visited us in Carbondale, Colo., and done a little toproping, so she knew the quarry wouldn’t compare to what we have out our back door.

“Maybe between the quarry and the ski hill in Mansfield you two could have enough to be happy here,” she joked. Grandma Prout and a cousin named John overheard and took her seriously.

“Yeah, that quarry has walls that are pretty vertical, you could probably find some hard climbs there,” John said, emphasizing the steepness with his hands.

Grandma Prout turned to me and said, “How about that?” Betty laughed.

“You have to come and see what they have in Colorado and then you’ll understand,” she said. “Somebody just has to get married so that you have a reason to go there!” That comment popped the cork off the marriage topic and a loud round of teasing poured in on me from all sides of the room.

Betty went on to tell them how I’m always climbing up buildings and anything else I can get my hands on.

“You should have seen the way Alex looked at you when my mom was saying how you can climb anything,” Mandi told me later.

Alex is another cousin who recently married into the family. Like John, he is very athletic but in a different way from climbers. The two of them weightlift and have biceps the size of footballs. In their eyes, I probably look too weak and scrawny to carry my body up a cliff. Of course we climbers are more concerned about that thing called strength-to-weight ratio than big biceps, but this goes to show how some athletic men in the Midwest perceive the physical requisites of climbing.

After that visit, we hiked out to the quarry Betty told us about. The walls were about 50 feet high, broken and crumbly. The hardest challenge would be finding a line harder than 5.8 and not breaking the holds off. Despite the No Climbing signs, Mandi went over to one of the blanker-looking walls and started scrambling up. Betty snapped pictures.

Just touching the rock made me miss Rifle Mountain Park – which locals often deride as “choss” – and affirmed that I have a bit of a curse; there aren’t many places I could live and be as happy as I am right now. If you are like me and grew up in the mountains, it’s easy to forget that most of the world’s population doesn’t relate to us as well.

So, as much as I enjoyed the family in Ohio, it’s great to be back in Colorado. I haven’t climbed in at least two weeks and I gained 10 pounds from all the cheesy casseroles and meat, which brings up another difference: It’s really hard to find a good salad there. Mostly what you find is iceberg lettuce, with croutons, cheese and bacon, ham or chicken, or all three.

“When we visited you in Carbondale I looked around at everyone and felt fat,” said Mandi’s dad, Steve. “Then I went back home and felt thin.”

Indeed, climbers tend to live in a different world. That’s partly what drew me into the fold and still grips my curiosity, as I always wonder, looking at a cliff, what is it like up there, or there, or there?

Derek Franz is 31 years old and lives in Carbondale, Colo. He’s been climbing since age 11. This column appears the first Monday of every month on SplitterChoss.com.

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