The reason to climb has always remained the same for me, and I’m sure that for a lot of people in the sport these reasons are shared: to connect with good people in amazing places and to overcome physical and intellectual adversity.
My name is Angus and I believe that tacos wrapped in tortillas are the future, chess is the solution to war, and that coffee is a religious experience. I also like adventure climbing, reading copious amounts, writing, playing percussion instruments you probably haven't heard of, getting myself into trouble, and finding reprieve in vistas too big for my eyes.
From an early age, I’ve always been exposed to the outdoors. Whether it was living on the coast and being a salty little kid digging for pippies with mum; or living on a property in Canberra and pretending to run away from home with our family dog, chasing foxes and digging up old bones and thunder eggs. Then there was my adolescence spent living 5 hours west of Sydney, going camping with mates most weekends instead of studying for the HSC.
Whether the love of open spaces is some genetic preference or pure conditioning, the fact remains that it’s the thing in my life that grounds me. I go out of my way to get at it and into it. It makes the pace at which the world spins with all its chaotic turning gears, slow down enough so that I can savour it- appreciate the smaller things that make the bigger things such a marvel and it helps me put everything into perspective.
Going out and climbing is something I do that makes me feel like I’m not being measured by my utility but my own desire to push myself. There’s just something I find both curious and utterly unadorned about being left with nothing in front of you but your own hands and your own head to help you. There’s a simple honesty to it.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is quoted as saying once that climbing is a “self-communication” and I resonate with that. I’ve learned more about myself through climbing than anything else, by putting myself in foreign lands, on climbs outside my comfort zone, and in situations where you have to dig just that little bit deeper than you have before. In the end, it has shown me aspects of myself I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. The reason to climb has always remained the same for me, and I’m sure that for a lot of people in the sport these reasons are shared: to connect with good people in amazing places and to overcome physical and intellectual adversity.
The types of adventures I enjoy are mostly climbing related but not all are hinged on climbing. One of my all-time favourites has nothing to do with climbing at all. Over the years I’ve had some pretty interesting experiences and if you had asked me at the time if I would call them an ‘adventure’ I’d likely have coughed up my cereal and said, “This? This is a misadventure”. I guess that’s where some of the best stories come from. It’s hard to captivate an audience with an “I was well prepared, everything went to plan, rope and summit, glory, the end.” Unless you’re Alex Honnold, where everything has to be well prepared, go to plan, no rope but summit, glory, the end. Otherwise... well, you know.
What I mean is that for some strange reason, the stories that do captivate us, and hold us quietly in wonder, or evoke the deepest reactions, are the ones where the human experience is scrutinised by the elements; proven with perseverance in face of unlikely odds; or something hasn’t gone to plan and more drama ensues than ‘The Bachelor’ finale. I am like most. I also enjoy hearing/reading/listening to these sorts of stories, and I enjoy adventures with a sprinkle of all of the above. But on the odd occasion I find myself very much the subject of such stories, with a lot more than a “sprinkle” the ones that make you wonder, “how in the hell did I get here?”
One time (I have a love-hate with that beginning, but whether I like it or not is useless, because the truth is, it was ‘one time’), I was in the far North of Thailand with my then girlfriend. To the point, my girlfriend was more prescribed to the idea of pools, spas, massages and comfortable bungalows than the off-the-beaten-path-and-into-the-open-arms-of-spontaneity approach. As you can probably guess, I was much more seduced by the idea of the latter. I was hungry for an adventure. And boy did I get it.
I went for a walk around the village and saw well-made signs for “learn to build a bamboo raft”, “ride an elephant”, and “go on a trek to a waterfall”. These signs were too tourists, like those sticky strips you buy at the supermarket that attract flies. I wanted something a little less sticky and a little more off the beaten path. I found myself almost giving up on the idea when I turned a corner into a narrow alley to make a shortcut back to where we were staying and noticed a cardboard sign hung up with masking tape that said, “THE MR. CHART EXPERIENCE”.
I’ve always been one that operates on the curious end of the scale, and this has lead to some of the aforementioned ‘interesting’ moments in my life. This one is no exception, and has to be one of the most wild, but altogether the most unexpectedly unadulterated trekking experience of my life.
I walked into the makeshift shop front and approached what I figured was the front desk. Behind it was a big hand drawn map tacked up on the back wall. On the map was a great swathe of land with red circles in different places. I asked the person at the desk what they meant and in broken English she replied, “this here”, pointing to one of the smaller red circles, “is ‘John Smith’s’ trekking company area. This one here”, pointing to another small red circle, “is ‘John Bob’s’ Trekking company area”, and then pointing at the largest circle, taking up almost half of the big map she said, “this is Mr. Chart trekking area. He from the hill tribes. He take you into Golden Triangle”.
I probably just stared for a full moment, gears clicking inside my head. The only thing I knew about the Golden Triangle was that it was lawless territory between Burma, China, and Thailand, and that it was famous for drug running and sheltering rebel militia.
True to form I asked, “how much?”
I could write about the next few days in a lot of detail but I’ll refrain. What I will say is that winding up deep in a pathless, lawless jungle guarded by steep mountains on every side, with a hill-tribes man high on opium and nothing but a pair of vans and the shirt on my back, wasn’t the wisest of decisions. But it made for one of the most insane experiences I’ve ever had.
Learning to track deer at 3am, building a shelter out of bamboo and banana leaves that kept us dry in torrential rain, becoming adept at fishing in freshwater with nothing but a string of thin bamboo, a hook, and a worm. Being taught about how to pay respects to the jungle spirit, learning that dirt mounds in the Golden Triangle always mean mass graves of drug runners (scary when your guide is carting around baggies of opium all day), and learning how to pick the right path through snake and leech infested foliage with a machete… was certainly something I will never forget. BUT most importantly, I’ll never wear a pair of vans into the jungle, ever, again. Black toenails and blisters had me wanting those massages and spas my girlfriend was enjoying, more than I ever imagined possible.
Get out there, be spontaneous, climb, surf, snowboard, ski, trek, glide… whatever, it doesn’t matter. The natural world is a place to learn, a place to feel free, and a place everyone should experience simply because it feels good and we can.