“You look like a beached whale,” Tyler called up to me.
Thanks to fear, I barely winced at the insult. I peered at the vertical ice wall above me through fogged-over goggles. One of my crampons had come unfastened from my boot. I pressed my chest, stomach, and cheek to the ice, wishing my body would somehow merge with the frozen blue liquid to make a 50-foot ground fall an impossibility. I could become a five-foot-two-inch bulge of ice absorbed by this frozen waterfall. A pillar into which other climbers would stab the tips of their crampons and ice axes.
Moments later, Tyler relented and lowered me to the snowy floor of Ouray Canyon, where I began to recover from my first semi-traumatic ice climbing experience. As I stress-dipped Fritos into pimento cheese, I thanked a god I didn’t believe in for allowing me to return to the safety of solid ground.
This was one of many challenging experiences I had with Tyler. Nearly every excursion we took together into wild Colorado served as a crucible for my courage. Not that I hadn’t any courage, but it was sized for an uncoordinated Jewish girl from Washington, D.C. who had only been exposed to outdoor recreation in short summery bursts. My new life out West tested my nerve weekly, year-round.
The nostalgic, mythic vibe of the conditions under which we met shaped my feelings toward Tyler. My parents had taken my sister and me on road trips out West, igniting a curiosity for canyons, mountains, and sprawling forests that couldn’t be satisfied on the East Coast. Lured by those memories, I took a job as a waitress at a dude ranch up Taylor Canyon in Colorado during the summer before my senior year of college.
Harmel’s Dude Ranch Resort could serve as the campy setting of a 1970s sitcom about incestuous service industry staff. Owned by two insane, sexist brothers who live in a cabin together Grey Gardens-style, Harmel’s lures Texans and Oklahomans with its world-class fly-fishing and guided horseback experiences.
Tyler was a few years deep at Harmel’s as a wrangler, escorting “dudes”—in the original sense of the word (hopeless urban folk)—into the surrounding national forest while indulging their boundless questions about the local black bear and cougar communities. Most guests seemed to believe a reservation at Harmel’s entitled them to at least one bear sighting, which they expected to redeem on trail rides. They would have had better odds staying up late and peeking around the kitchen dumpster, where at least weekly an inebriated employee stumbled upon a bear enjoying a late-night snack.
The mix of seasonal employees at Harmel’s included blonde rodeo girls with belt buckles the size of motorcycle license plates. A duo of charming Jamaicans who refused to eat anything but chicken tenders. The Price brothers cooking behind the line after hot boxing the small apartment they earned through a long tenure at Harmel’s (the rest of us slept in bunks). The head chef: Scotty, now father of three, who once drunkenly advised the female servers, “Don’t forget to shave your pussy.” A black guy from Detroit who often disappeared for days at a time, and who everyone suspected was running from something. Dominican Juan with his phobia of being touched on or near the face. Three girls destined to become young single mothers within a year of our summer at Harmel’s. And Tyler, who dressed for work in a pair of worn Wranglers, a belt with a reasonably sized buckle, a blue plaid pearl snap tucked into his jeans, a pair of cowboy boots, a dark brown cowboy hat with two feathers woven into the leather ribbon, and a honeyed North Carolina twang.
On the fourth of July, Tyler and I started talking on an employee outing to a bar in the nearby town of Crested Butte. Relationships progress quickly when incubated by remote dude ranch conditions, and by August, I was wondering if I was in love. I was also beginning to partake in the boundary-pushing that Tyler facilitated from the moment he asked if I wanted to go rock climbing. Immediately, I loved the sport. The feel of the tawny granite warmed by the sun. A requisite level of concentration unparalleled by any other activity I’d tried. The swell of fear followed by relief found back on the ground. And the secret gratification I felt when Tyler seemed impressed at how I’d climbed.
I soon realized that climbing wasn’t just a hobby—it was a lifestyle. I was inspired by Tyler’s dedication to activities that triggered the release of adrenaline, then serotonin, then more serotonin when the resulting adventure stories were recounted around campfires. Perhaps that’s why I decided it was a good idea to jump forty feet off a cliff into the Blue Mesa Reservoir to a goading audience of Harmelians, as we called ourselves. I belly flopped, bruising my throat and some internal organs.
Together, Tyler and I climbed sandstone cracks and granite arêtes. Trotted on horseback into the wilderness through hail storms. Got hopelessly lost in the dark of night in a valley of junipers and orange rock. Survived a landslide that washed a 100-foot chunk of road into the river within spitting distance of my car. Smashed his truck into a deer, then harvested the meat on a blue tarp spread out on the carpeted floor of our little house and ate venison steak for dinner.
During nearly every moment of the five years I spent on and off with Tyler, I was on edge. Nervous about some upcoming adventure we’d planned. Worked up about whether I’d remember the new knot he’d taught me. And anxious, most of all, that he’d leave town again. With short notice, he’d announce he was going home to Raleigh to work on his dad’s roof for a month. Heading out to the wilderness to guide for the fall elk hunt. Flying down to Patagonia to attempt another summit. Driving to Alaska to suffer in solitude for several months until he felt ready to return to civilization (and me).
Existing in a place of pushed boundaries is contagious and addictive. Even in Tyler’’s long absences, I found myself purposely putting myself at unease. If he wasn’t there to test my limits, I had to test them myself—then tell him about it later.
On a trip to Bolivia, I decided to boulder in sneakers without a crash pad. I traversed a red chunk of wall as the desert winds attacked my bare shins with sand. I thought of Tyler back in Colorado and how I would tell him about this unexpected bouldering opportunity. I weighed the words I would use to convey the way the eroding rock felt, the empty horizon, the sense of bliss. Then I fell. The back of my foot snapped over a slab of rock in the sand. When I stood to walk, I felt my bones shift.
With three fractured metatarsals, I hopped through my last two days in Bolivia, since all of the towns we passed were devoid of crutches. I hopped out of a jeep, behind a rock and to an awkward squat to pee. I hopped into the luggage compartment of a full bus so that my travel companion Josh and I could get back to La Paz quickly and fly home (they assured us that this is where the bus drivers slept between shifts). I hopped out of the dark luggage compartment at a midnight stop and down a flight of stairs to pee. On the tedious hop back up, I wondered if I should stop consuming fluids. Finally, I hopped into the La Paz airport and heaved into a wheelchair.
Back in Colorado months later, I spent a few more years following Tyler on adventures and challenging my nerve. My tolerance for his M.O. bottomed out on a climbing trip to the desert. Hiking with heavy packs around crags, I lost sight of Tyler, who had picked up his pace. Everywhere I looked: big red cliffs, low pale bushes, tawny boulders and rocks under which surely lay coiled rattlesnakes. Nowhere I looked: a familiar landmark, sight of our truck, Tyler.
“What do you love about him?” my mom often asked me over the phone. It was a question she posed about every guy I started dating who didn’t meet her criteria for me (Jewish, white collar career prospects, etc.).
“We have great conversations,” I lied. “And he makes me laugh.”
What did I love about him? Even Tyler asked me the question. When I told him I loved him one night, he said, “How do you know?”
“How do I know?” I snapped. “I just do.”
As it turned out, Tyler had never said “I love you” to anyone except his mother. And he wouldn’t say the words to me until the inopportune time of several months after we separated.
Why did I love Tyler? Can you ever accurately verbalize why you’re immutably attracted to another human? Was it his stupid close-lipped smile and eyes the same color as mine? Sometimes when I considered the question, answers came not in words but in deluges of memories: the two of us incapacitated by laughter at a photo we’d found during a night spent in his boss’s trailer. The time he asked me to punch him as hard as I could when he’d done something to hurt me. The way he always begged me to make doughnuts from scratch. How he said my name over the phone when we were apart. The many resistances he waged against any viable future together—fears of commitment, abandonments with short notice, exclusions from his plans. Or was it the way he acquainted me with my edges, like he did when he was on one end of the rope, I on the other?
Still lost in the desert with no sign of Tyler, the love I felt for him turned to anger. I spun around, the desert rocks blurring into streaks of red around me. “Tyler!” I called. For an hour, I backtracked, then retraced my steps forward again, calling his name, wandering, furious. I wondered if I could find my way back to our campsite alone. Then, finally, I saw him. He stood before me like a desert illusion, his thumbs snugly tucked under his red pack straps. Our separation had barely fazed him.
Not long after Tyler and I became separated in the desert, he drove up to Alaska for an indefinite period of time. A few weeks after he’d parked his car in some remote location and set up camp, the call came. He needed to “find himself,” and it wasn’t fair to me to wait for him thousands of miles away. I thought of my desert illusion of him: thumbs tucked under his backpack straps, a guileless smile disagreeing with his eyes, which communicated exasperation, disappointment in my lack of direction, apathy toward me and most of the other things in life that didn’t elbow him to his own edges. This image could appear on the cover of a book called Sufferfest, an allegory about someone on a fruitless lifelong search for meaning through physical discomfort and solitude.
Why do so many people seek meaning and contentment in pushed limits? This is a question I’ve asked Tyler and many other edge-seeking friends again and again. To humble yourself. To rise to the greatest challenge, and glean the satisfaction from achieving elusive success—a summit, a first ascent. These are some of the answers I get, but I still don’t fully understand.
Tyler solved part of the riddle on a solo climbing mission in Wyoming. Carrying a massive pack loaded with gear, he began the many-mile journey back to his campsite when it began to rain. The rain turned into a storm and winds blasted him. He stopped walking and looked up at the dark sky as if to address God. “Why?” he bellowed upward. It wasn’t just his voice crying out—his exhausted muscles, sore bones, and searching heart issued the call. Then he realized that no one was to blame for his heavy load and the weather but himself. He had made all the decisions that orchestrated this scene of suffering—a scene he so often found himself in.
The motivation to seek edges must come from somewhere deep within—somewhere so deep that the origins might be confused with divine force. Those who continuously live a life on the edge are not motivated by external forces.
But as I observed Tyler relate this story of his unfortunate Wyoming climbing trip, something else occurred to me. When you subject yourself to physical trials so great, any metaphysical problems you have back in the real world dissipate, at least in the moment and its aftermath. How can you be concerned about whether you’re happy, with the right person, or taking the best path in life when all you can think about is your gnawing immediate pain and long, dubious path back to civilization?
The source of my own motivation was on my mind when I signed up to compete in the Lake City Ice Fest. Since Tyler and I had broken up a year earlier, I had been trying to break the habit of pushing my limits to impress him or anyone else. I wanted to learn what it was like to do things because you sincerely wanted to, reaching your own personal peaks, and stopping when the fun fizzled into uncomfortable fear.
So why was I pushing my limits by competing in an ice climbing festival? Was I self-motivated, or driven by something else, I wondered as I peered up at the 100 feet of vertical ice above me. I still wasn’t sure when the clock started.
I began my first attempt too quickly, got off-route onto a steeper pitch of ice, and fell below an axe. But on my second attempt, I stayed on route and climbed quickly. Thwack—the satisfying sound of an axe’s tip securely landing in ice. Swing, swing, kick. Swing, kick, kick—the rhythm it takes to maintain a solid triangle of points in the ice, a rhythm it had taken me several years to grasp. The five minutes and change it took me finish the climb swallowed my consciousness. I found myself in a daze at the top, where a cast iron skillet hung from an ice screw to mark the climb’s end. I tapped the tip of my axe against the skillet, popped off the ice and let my arms dangle below me.
I had felt nervous, but not scared. I had climbed in the competition because I knew my skills had reached the point where I could, not because I wanted to impress Tyler or concede to his urging. No one had refused to lower me, egging me on up the climb. I had not been in the vulnerable position of “keeping up” like I had in the desert when Tyler and I had become separated. That day, I had decided to climb of my own accord, because I wanted to.
The problem, I realized, is not living on the edge. It’s who’s prompting you to do so. When we push our limits, we should be internally, not externally motivated. Discovering our boundaries should be orchestrated by our own will, at our own tempo. But if Tyler was self-motivated, why was he still so discontent? For him, edge seeking often became a means to an end, not an end in itself. For many it is not always about the experience alone, but about escape or a search for some unplaceable meaning or fulfillment—the same search that might lead others to religion or drugs.
Years after we broke up, Tyler and I met to ski a few runs in Crested Butte. I asked if he wanted to ski a black diamond run, and he looked uneasy. I’d been spending the last few winters improving my skiing and suspected my abilities had surpassed his. He was a climber, not a skier, as he often reminded me. After a minute or so down a blue run, I turned back and watched him making telemark turns methodically down the run. I continued skiing to the bottom, where I waited for what seemed like five minutes. Finally, he showed up covered in powder and out of breath. “I fell,” he panted with nervous laughter. Our eyes met and I wondered if he finally understood what it was like to be pushed, always, to your edges.
Maya Silver is a writer and outdoor maven. She’s written for NPR, Earth Island Journal, Civil Eats, CureToday.com, and more.