Focus. Relax. You can do this, I told myself 20 years ago, barely clinging to one of the hardest routes I'd ever tried. With screaming forearms I latched the edge of "Jack Daniel's Pitstop," a mysterious landmark 80 feet up Zee Wicked Witch, an overhanging sport route on New Mexico's Enchanted Tower.
I stuffed both my elbows and my head inside the "pitstop" — a small hole in the rock — to relieve my arms as much as possible. My feet dangled in space.
And there, inches from my sweaty face, a naked woman in a magazine stared back at me. I stifled a laugh, scared I might fall backward. Next to the centerfold balanced a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey with a note reading, "Drink me."
While I declined to "refuel," that experience, for me, represents a common attitude for the time: that climbing and drinking were inseparable.
I would read every Climbing magazine cover-to-cover and it seemed like alcohol was as essential to 1990s climbers as sticky rubber and a swollen ego. Climbing was my addiction and it annoyed me how alcohol was ubiquitously glorified. Once, I tried to find a feature article about climbing that did not mention alcohol. I couldn't find a single one.
"Alcohol has the climbing community by the balls," Todd Gordon messaged me on Facebook. "It's sort of a dirty little secret, isn't it?"
On Monday I posted a few questions on Facebook for this article, expecting a light, mostly useless or sarcastic response.
Instead, the post blew up; I had hit a nerve.
Gordon, of Joshua Tree, Calif., is 62 and has been climbing 45 years. He told me another one of his hard-drinking climbing buddies had just died. "I'm sure his battle with alcohol didn't help any."
Alcohol-related trauma has affected everyone, climbers and otherwise. But since that day in 1997 at Jack Daniel's Pitstop, a subtle yet major shift has taken place. Diehard climbers are no longer on society's fringe, eking out a vagrant lifestyle. Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll are yielding to strength-to-weight ratios and training regimes. Protein shakes are the new "road soda."
Hell, climbers are calling themselves athletes!
Our collective keg empties slowly, to be sure. But overall, drinking seems to be losing its grip on climbing culture, one generation at a time.
The hungover heroes of our past, like Warren Harding (and his beloved red wine) are giving way to the sober superstars of today — professional climbers who don't drink at all, such as Alex Honnold, Colin Haley and Josh Wharton.
"I've never once seen people who drink regularly get close to their athletic potential," wrote Tyson Schoene, a climbing coach in Seattle. "Plenty of people who drink are successful athletes. But I truly believe they would be better without it."
For most climbers, athletics remain secondary to adventure. Physical potential is an abstract idea, at best. Even still, especially among youth, the pull of alcohol is weakening.
"When I was starting out I thought it was the cool, hip thing to do — to bring a flask on ice climbs, to pack in scotch," responded Keese Lane, of Salt Lake City. "Now I don't. The media brags about this and sets that as the example. I think it's the rub-off impact of 'dirtbag' culture on climbing."
While dumpster diving is becoming one of climbing's lost arts, I doubt we'll ever lose our appreciation for the sweet, piney flavor of a post-climb IPA.
Charlie Boas, of Salt Lake City, echoed many Facebook comments when he wrote, "For me, climbing is a life experience, not purely an athletic pursuit. Enjoying a cold beer after a long day is one of the small pleasures of that experience."
It's something I certainly look forward to often. But then again, at 42, I represent the older climbers.
"I'm seeing a very dramatic generational line being drawn in these comments," observed Dan Gambino, of Denver. "I'm not sure where the cut-off is, but if you climbed before, perhaps, 2000 you will have a very different relationship with booze than the current crop that picks performance over partying."
Contact Chris Weidner at email@example.com