“Hardman” – what does it take to be one? That fabled term has been thrown around by climbers since before I was born, and ever since I started reading the history and lore at age 11, I knew I wanted to be a Hardman.
At first it was my understanding that a hardman was among the best and boldest of climbers. They were the stuff of legend, always winning against the odds. That is, until they found a death worthy of their legacy. Eventually I realized that wasn’t true – Wolfgang Güllich died in a car crash, after all – but I mostly believed it through my teens and early twenties. I sacked up for runout pitches on rotten rock, and later onsight soloed multi-pitch 5.10′s. I explored obscure first ascents and took massive, gear-ripping falls. Whenever there was opportunity for heroism, I volunteered and pretended not to be afraid. For a long time, backing down was never an option. That was the hardman story I repeated silently to myself.
Looking back, I see an insecure, childish jerk in some of those moments. I was so determined to prove my hardiness that I was too caught up in myself to realize it was foolhardiness that might have jeopardized others, or hurt them emotionally if the worst were to happen.
By the time you read this, I will be in a hospital bed recovering from open-heart surgery, with my 32nd birthday approaching in December. You can bet my definition of “hardman” has evolved since those adolescent years, especially this last season. I ticked some of my biggest, hardest routes this year, but the underlying priorities during those climbs were notably different from ten years ago. I see that now. As the surgery – which came much sooner than doctors expected – brought me to my knees, I saw how far beyond the realm of climbing my definition of “hardman” has expanded.
So what makes a hardman? It’s not the grade he climbs, and it’s not the lack of fear. No, a hardman is one who keeps his (or her!) chin up in a cold wind, a person who is aware of those around him and how important it is to carry the burden of morale in difficult times. A hardman is straining, trying, falling, and ready for more, even as he shivers into the sunset searching for a place to bivy, cracking jokes along the way. A hardman can handle risk but does not dive into it thoughtlessly, for he knows he is tied to those around him, whether there is a rope or not. A hardman is a rock as well as a myth, for none of us is such a thing at all times. A true hardman knows this, and knows when it’s someone else’s turn to lead.
This past season, I’ve come to appreciate the words I seem to remember a hero saying – that it’s not the rocks you miss. The rocks are always there. It’s the people you share them with that you miss. So true.
My last day in the canyon of Rifle Mountain Park before surgery was not a glorious, sending day in which I miraculously dispatched a mega proj. It was quite humbling, in fact. But it was divine, a fitting end for the year. The October sun was rich and warm. There was a pink glow on the walls as a friend and I walked back to the truck. Blood oozed from chalky fingers. Muscles pulsed with pain, as did my faulty heart, and I was happy. Still am.
Even if I never climb again (unlikely!), the cliffs will always be there, and they reflect a thousand smiles. I see the people that climbing has brought into my life: the Australians in Tuolumne, the Spaniards in Bishop, the Brazilians in Indian Creek, my fiancée in Rifle, and so many more. Some of them gathered for a surprise party before I went to the hospital, and I see them still, all dressed in my signature climbing attire (a ratty shirt, camo pants and a bandana). These people don’t love me for how hard I climb. They’ve been true friends, which is what I aspire to be these days more than anything. I want to be a good person, through thick and thin. I want to be the guy you don’t mind sharing a bivy ledge with.
So, as I think on it, a hardman is hard – unflinching, you might say – because he has his priorities resolved. He (or she!) has a strong sense of direction and what needs to be done. And most of all, a hardman (or woman!) grabs life with both hands and never lets go.
Age doesn’t matter, nor does physical ability. It’s a state of mind impossible to fake.
Derek Franz writes a blog for SplitterChoss.com on the first week of every month. More of his writing can be found at derekfranz.com.