Carlos Tkacz

Tipping The Balance

Carlos Tkacz
Tipping The Balance
The Whites, Bishop. Photo Jean Micheal Auffant

The Whites, Bishop. Photo Jean Micheal Auffant

I met David out at the boulders on my second long stint on the road. He too, was on the road alone, following the best conditions, and so we soon found ourselves as climbing partners so long as our paths overlapped. This meant long days out trying hard, laughs and frustrations, and nights talking over beers in the shifting light of the campfire. I want to tell you a little about David, and maybe tell you a little about what I learned from him. 

First, it might do to say a little about myself. At this point, I had been climbing a few years and had immediately been taken with the culture of the rock climbing world. I was a college dropout; disillusioned with the world and people around me, I found the climber’s dedication to something outside of economics and society incredibly attractive. An entire culture that looked up to the dirtbag rather than the millionaire or the star! I threw myself into climbing, and soon it dictated much of my life. Not long after, I began a cycle that would last me a few years: Work whatever job I could find (washing dogs, trimming weed, guiding, retail, whatever), save some money, hit the road until I ran out. I loved this life, and I did not ever intend to stop. Until I met David, that is. 

David, I learned, had done much the same in the years before I met him. He had lived in the Valley, spent winter after winter in Bishop (where we were then), had guided travelling climbers in Heuco, had climbed on the beach in Thailand, had done it all. For the two weeks we climbed together, I was inspired by his stories of life on the road, a life without any responsibilities and worries, aside maybe from the ever-present hope of sending, the question of where and what to climb that day. But I could not help but notice a slight shade of regret in his voice when he talked about his journeys. He had given those days up to become a teacher, to settle into a career, traded unlimited climbing for the two-week winter break he was now on. I didn’t understand, and, on the last night of his break and our last night as partners, I finally asked why he had given up the life.

I didn’t know it then, but, for me, it was an important question. I had been living this carefree life for a little while , and I loved it. Moreover, I found myself often surrounded by people on the same path or hoping to get on it, people of the same tribe. These people were affirmations of my decisions; the fact that they desired the same thing I did made my way feel right, correct. And here was someone who had achieved that and who had traded it away—for what? A 9-5 job? The weekend? I could hardly believe it.

It took David a moment to answer my question. “Carlos,” he said, “We have talked a lot about a lot of things these last two weeks.” This was true. The firelight had seen many discussions of politics, environmentalism, philosophy. I was an avid reader and had many opinions, most of them more like criticisms, about the world-at-large. Common fireside talk, I had thought, but David had truly been paying attention. “Let me ask you a question,” he continued. “In light of all the things we have discussed, all the problems we both see with the world, what are you doing to help?”

I was a little stunned, for I recognized this question. It was a question that laid somewhere hidden within the recesses of my mind, buried under the lighthearted façade I put up, buried under the fun I was having. Hearing it aloud dragged the issue out of my subconscious, and I began to answer it with the idea I always told myself when I got a little too high and faced that part of me. 

“I have removed myself from the chain,” I said, almost immediately sensing the falsehood in my statement. “By being out here, by not being a part of the larger social structure, I remove myself from contributing to the problems as I see them.”

David nodded. “I used to say the same thing about myself,” he said. “But then I realized that it wasn’t really true.” He looked at me. “How do you get from crag to crag?” A rhetorical question I didn’t answer. “Where do you get your climbing gear? Your food? Your beer? The books you read? The pens and notebooks? Who built the roads you drive on? Who developed these boulders? Where do you go when the money runs out?” Still, I did not answer, because I could see his point.

“Whether we like it or not,” David said, seeing the understanding on my face, “we are a part of the larger world. In fact, this life, the dirtbag life we climbers love so much, would not be possible without the world as it is today. Or, at least, it wouldn’t be as much fun.”

I thought about this, wanting to fight it, but found that it rang with truth in my mind. Everything I needed to live the life I was living was produced by the system I loved to hate. The sudden sensation of cognitive dissonance washed over me, and I felt as though something had been peeled back from my vision. I anticipated where David’s thoughts would go next.

“So,” I said guardedly, “everything I have said about people living off of the exploitation of others… all of that applies to me as well.”

David did not answer, leaving me with my thoughts. We talked a little more, but of other, less painful topics. Soon, we turned in for the night, but sleep eluded me. I lay there, in my bag on my crashpad, staring up at the multitude of stars thinking about David had pointed out to me. I could find no way around his premise. Climbing was a luxury. Hadn’t Gullich himself said that climbing was a city person’s sport? That, had he been a farmer, he would have no need to climb? And weren’t all luxuries dependent on the same system, a system that allowed for frivolous pursuits because it produced more than was necessary? I then saw my life in quite a different light. Not only was I benefitting from the economic systems and social structures I routinely criticized, I was also perpetuating them while oblivious to my own involvement. I was no different the millions of “others” I had attempted, through faulty logic and shallow nitpicking, to separate myself from. 

I awoke from a fitful sleep just as the sun crested over the distant mountains and washed me with its immediate warmth. David was already awake, drinking a cup of coffee and facing the rising sun. When he heard me stirring, he offered me a cup; I accepted and sat next to him. The sun continued its perceptible, upward march, and the warmth of its light combined with the heat of the coffee to spread through my cold flesh and bones. After a while, David spoke.

“It’s quite the paradox,” he said. “This moment, this rare and wonderful moment, is undoubtedly good, no matter how you define the concept. So how do you reconcile this goodness with the premise upon which it is built? The fact that we can sit here and enjoy it precisely because someone else gave up their chance in order to farm this coffee, to make our sleeping bags, to… it goes on and on.” He paused for a moment, and I thought about his words. “And there are things wrong with the world, things that can and should be done better. With more equality, more fairness, more thought, and more compassion. Of this there is no doubt. The issue here is not that our criticisms of the world at large are wrong, but, rather, the idea that we carry no blame in what is happening. I can’t think of a more destructive lie.”

David was quiet again, and I mulled over his words. I realized that this lie was precisely what my mind had chaffed against all this time. Somewhere, deep down, I knew that when I had been sweepingly criticizing  society, I had also been talking about myself. 

“Is there any way out?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” David said. “But I think accepting responsibility is a good place to start. That is why I gave up the life and become a teacher. I couldn’t think of myself as separate anymore, and I couldn’t stand to be someone that criticized without helping. I decided to do what I could to maybe help improve this place, at least a little. That doesn’t mean I had to give up climbing. You can’t help others if you aren’t happy.”

And then David said the thing that I try and remember every day.

“I play to make myself better, and I work to make others better. Balance.”

Based in Bishop, CA where he pursues black belts in: climbing, teaching, reading, writing, traveling, and whatever else captures his attention.