It’s a warm morning in Joshua Tree. Friends are up and milling, coffee smells are wafting, the sun is hot and rising fast upon us.

The sky is blue electric, the sun is white and shining, the day is slow unwinding. I haven’t written in days. In a car, I find myself heading back, and resorting to my old ways.

What do I know?

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The years come and go, ephemeral and numbered. The scale warps and stretches as you look close in, then out both ways. All I know is indistinct. What I know most is rock, and my knowledge of that is solid, at least.

We dance our way across the desert southwest. More often in motion than at rest. Sometimes we find ourselves clinging to edges, scalloped like skin flaking off dried hands. Sandstone crimps and a liberal scattering of bolts. Wilderness outside of Vegas. The experience is hard to define. Trad or Sport? Face or crack? Both? This one they call 5.10+ I say, as she weaves and darts and fights her way.

Only days later, we stumble up coarse granite slabs. The lumps and boulders feel sculpted for astrophysicists. How can this be 5.9? Did you just fall on a 5.10? What do these grades even mean? Who were these Desert Rats–what did the rock mean to them? I try to explain the difference between gym punks and John Bachar, but all I can do is smile and nod vaguely and indefinitely. This is 5.10 and so is that. Same same but different.

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What do I know?

Some things stick. From college, a saying from Chuang Tzu: “The naming of things is the beginning of all ignorance.” From 30 feet off the deck, bouldering can feel a lot like trad. On delicate smears and impossible crimps, the past can feel a lot like the present. A route may be obscure, gain traffic, with it stars, with it more traffic, and with it less stars. It may come full circle. A backwoods offwidth of crumbling grit may just be your 5 star experience. 5.10 may be that, or 5.10 may be this. In the end, it doesn’t make a difference.

Climbing is compelling because we fall. If we didn’t, it wouldn’t be worth a thing at all. We forge our way across the desert southwest. Loving, fighting, laughing, bickering, growing and picking at dead skin. When we fall, we hit the ground hard, not running. We pick ourselves up to the tune of some memory calling us back to love. Dust off your boots, brush off your hands, touch rounded surfaces and try again. Delicate slabs can feel impossible, or ecstatic. It depends on how you breathe, at what angle you hold your head, how you balance on the tips of your toes.

What do I know?

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I like it hard. Tough as stone. The tougher the better. I’m drawn to granite, complex patterns that hurt your noggin. Grades stiff as snot. Laughing at humble imaginings of ground-up voyages from people who were something that you are not.

But clipping a bolt with another at your waist certainly has its time and place. Who are we to say? Who are we to condemn? Bouldering, trad, sport, alpine, multi pitch, ice, waterfall ice, alpine ice, top-roping, big wall, aid… my god! Did I miss any? The micro-factions loom. Highballs and sit starts, eliminates and retrogrades. I wish they all would get a room.

What do I know?

I like it hard. Tough as stone. Almost any stone will do. I like the fall, the dust and all. Then getting back up and tightening down the shoes. I don’t care what you call it. I don’t care what the grade. I just like climbing–upwards trying at impossible flying. Impeccable failings and gut wrenching victories. I like how they all feel different–but also the same. Same same but different.

But what do I know?

Photo by Megan Kelly

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Read more from Chris Kalman at chriskalman.com and his climbing blog, fringesfolly.com.