Climbing as if there were no tomorrow

This essay originally appeared in Climbing magazine, February/March, 1991. It has been slightly revised.

Carl Henderson

It was during a torrential downpour nearly two years ago that I got the notion to climb with Carl Henderson. I was helping my friend move from one San Francisco flat to another when we were forced by the storm to take cover inside a rented moving van; that’s when I noticed, on top of one of his boxes, a coiled climbing rope and a pair of old E.B.s.

When I suggested doing a route together Carl was ambivalent. He hadn’t climbed in years, and the rop0e and shoes had been gathering dust in closets since he moved to the Bay Area in 1980. He let the offer pass with a shrug and a “maybe.”

Two months later, however, he gave me a call; he wanted to get back on the rocks. Little did I realize I’d soon be struggling, and eventually failing, to keep up with him as he pursued climbing zealously, like a man possessed.

At first I didn’t recognize the source of his devotion; after all, many people climb as though their lives depend on it. But now I think Carl drives himself so fiercely because he clearly sees his life’s horizon, even if he’s not at all convinced the sun will dip below it anytime soon.

In action, Carl is neither the most graceful of climbers, nor by any means the strongest. He’ll tell you that more important than strength on most climbs is balance. His main climbing exercise is something he calls “centering,” which I take it involves grabbing hold of wildly flung emotions and bringing them under control, to attain that crucial balance, not just on the rock, but in life generally.

I think I understand what he’s talking about, though I suspect his effort in bringing his emotions under control is stronger than mine. I do not have AIDS. Carl does.

Carl is also gay; we both are, which makes us anomalies in the largely heterosexual, male-dominated world of climbing. I presume most people know that being gay is in no way a precondition for having AIDS — that while the disease in the United States has hit the gay population the hardest, in other parts of the world it has stricken primarily heterosexuals. I hope most climbers also understand that AIDS is communicable only by the exchange of body fluids, primarily blood and semen. So climbing with a person with AIDS poses little risk of infection.

Some prejudices about gays die hard, of course. A few rude boys still deride other climbers as “homos.” They do so with a tiresome regularity and a carelessness born, I suppose, of outmoded habits or sheer rotten natures. And homophobia, if not rampant in our sport’s literature, is at least common; for example, a well-known guidebook to the Bay Area warns that while climbing at Beaver Street Wall, located in San Francisco’s most gay district, “you don’t want to walk around in your lycras …”

Experience tells me, though, that the climbing world is for the most part a remarkably open-minded, non-bogoted society. On a one-to-one basis, neither Carl, nor I, nor any other gay climbers I know has experienced homophobia among the straight climbers we hang out with. Not only are we open to them about our sexuality, but we mix freely in their social lives, and they in ours.

As it happens, I climb mostly with straight partners. It strikes me as odd to find myself explaining such a thing, because to me the issue of my partner’s sexuality is incidental. Cimbing itself is the goal.

But if I didn’t already have gay climbing friends, and wanted to make some, I’d have little difficuty in doing so. A nationwide network of gay, lesbian, and bisexual climbers exists, founded in Boston by Mark Mueller. Stonewall Climbers, as the group is called, takes its name from a Greenwich Villiage bar where patrons resisting police harassment in 1969 gave impetus to the modern gay-liberation movement.

Yet homosexuality is nothing new among climbers. The name John Menlove Edwards is familiar to only a few, but to his biographer, Jim Perrin, Edwards was the greatest British rock climber of the 1930s, the “father and prophet to the modern sport, one of its greatest innovators.” Perrin also describes Edwards as a “homosexual who preached openness and tolerance at a time when the laws against deviation from the sexual norm were harshly punitive.”

For those reasons, Edwards is a hero to me; I try to honor his spirit when I climb. In that same spirit, I hope, openly gay climbers will emerge at the forefront of the sport. But I also hope that climbers of all persuasions wioll take inspiration from Edwards, to continue striving to overcome barriers, to push to new levels of accomplishment, all the while reveling in the freedom that climbing brings, and appreciating the diversity of its practitioners.

I don’t know if straight climbers everywhere are accepting of gays among them. I’ve climbed in relatively few places, and with a limited number of people, mostly in the Andes and in California. My experience can hardly be considered representative of all climbers.

Instinct tells me, though, that I’d find a comfortable home among climbers in just about any place I decide to visit. In part that’s because climbing is such an anarchic scene, an ongoing rebellion against social strictures. Its practitioners seek solace in the liberating wilds from encroaching, smothering civilization. They’ve had enough containment; they want to use their muscles and wits to climb away from the stiff collars, the stuffed shirts, the passive beasts of burden who daily crowd in and try to mold them into one of their kind.

Few people living in cities and holding regular jobs keep more rigorous climbing schedules than Carl Henderson does, now that he is back at it. On most weekends, even on the coldest, most blustery days, he can be found at one of the local crags, setting up one toprope climb after another, chatting endlessly with other climbers, behaving professorially with first-timers by telling them where they’ll find their next fingerhold, or how they should turn out their toes in order to make it through the next, seemingly impossible move. Carl knows what he is talking about, having studied ballet for 12 years.

He was 19 when he moved from the washington, D.C., area to San Francisco with his first lover. Their relationship lasted a year and a half. In the early 1980s, Carl says, “I was a hippie after hippies were dead,” a classical-music freak who listened mostly to Bartok and string quartets, and whose favorite composition was Mozart’s Requiem. He lived in a group house in the middle of San Francisco’s gay ghetto, the Castro, slept on the floor, worked in fast-food restaurants, too computer-programming classes, and was always broke.

One day on Castro Street in 1981, he saw an article clipped from The New York Times and taped to the window of Cliff’s Variety Store. It had something to do with the discovery of a “gay cancer” that was killing people and had no known cure.

“People I knew started dying,” he says. “They would get sick, go in their houses, and close the door. Six months later, you’d hear they were dead.”

He went for his first AIDS test in 1987, and the result was positive: he had HIV, the virus that eventually leads to full-blown AIDS, in his bloodstream.

“I was disturbed, but not shocked,” he says. “I had been sexually active for 14 years, and only two of those were safe.”

Now he’s nearly 30, and though he foresees a cure being found for AIDS, the disease makes him live differently.

“There is no tomorrow,” Carl says. “I live for today.”

He still plans for the future — “I’d like to go traveling,” he says wistfuly — though not without some inconvenience, like having to take regular doses of the drug AZT, which interrupt the life cycle of the AIDS virus, and causes him extreme nausea in the process. Only by smoking marijuana can he ease the drug’s side effect and not continually feel sick to his stomach.

Fortunately, when all about him people are losing their heads over the tragedy that surrounds them, Carl keeps his by climbing.

“It’s a way of relieving stress,” he says. “It teaches me to overcome pain, physical limitations; to be calm, precise, accurate; to go through extreme motions when my brain is telling me, ‘People don’t do this sort of thing.’ Climbing is more than fun. It’s a necessity.”

Not long ago, four of us reached the top of Tuolumne Meadows’ Fairview Dome late in the day after a tiring climb. Trying to descend in the moonless night, we lost our way and had to downclimb exposed granite slabs in the dark. The long night ended with a stumbling thrash through the woods to camp. One of thoughts coursing through my mind during our ordeal was that the strain of our endeavor would weaken Carl’s already compromised immune system. It might even send him back to the hospital, where only a few months before he had struggled to overcome a bout of pneumocystis pneumonia he had contracted — rather foolishly, he admits — by running barefoot through the snow in Yosemite.

My fear then reflected how much I still have to learn about AIDS. Carl bounded back as quickly as any of us, and later we arranged for a November climbing trip to Joshua Tree: a sure sign that he has little intention of letting AIDS interrupt his plans.

. . . . .

 

Carl Henderson finally succumbed to AIDS in 1993. Shortly before his death, he wrote the following verse:

 

Nothing More

 

Masses of air on all sides

What a sight to see

It glides to and fro

With the wind

But it is just a cloud

Noting more

 

So lovely a shape

I have never seen

Smooth on all sides

Round and perfect

Light strikes it

And it dazzles my eyes

But it is only a stone

Nothing more

 

Placidity

No worries left

No pain to feel

An existence of

Tranquility

This is death and

Nothing more

 

— Carl E. Henderson