Working too hard to climb hard
My irrepressible and unrepressed friend Tim Emmett and his lovely wife were recently in Canmore. They are looking at various places around Canada to live, and it’s come down to Squamish and Canmore. The pros and cons of each place were listed, another friend showed up, and soon my living room was filled with a light-hearted but serious conversation about which town was better for climbing. Now, another friend, who shall remain unidentified except for his first name (Sonnie) and the fact that he stole 50 of my bolts to go and get a new project done that will be cool, is ice-challenged. He could re-invent mixed climbing if he ever got into it seriously as he’s that good of a climber, but he’s into ROCK. Tim is more diverse in the sense that all of us ADD people are diverse, we just do what grabs our attention. Look, a pretty squirrel! And it’s hard to climb much rock here in Canmore from about November to April, but I’d argue there almost as many good days as there are in Squamish–if you’re free to seize them, which means no job.
The telling line of the conversation on Squampton to Canmore came from Sonnie when he said, “The climbing here in Alberta is really good, but it’s so damn expensive to live here in Canmore that everyone works all the time.” And there’s a lot of truth in that line. Just about wherever I go in the world seems cheaper than Canmore, or certainly not a lot more expensive. OK, that coffee I bought in downtown Tokyo cost more than it does in Canmore, but you’ve gotta work to find a town that’s more expensive in terms of real estate, groceries, eating out, beer, all the items I spend money on. Now, there are ways to avoid the costs (pack a house full of people, eat Costco sale items by the pallet, all the usual tricks), but Squamish is just cheaper. And if you have a family and/or a house/condo here in Canmore (or Squamish, but it’s cheaper…) you’re going to have to make some money to support that, which leaves less time for climbing.
Two other friends of mine recently moved back into their van for the summer in Canmore. They both work hard, but just felt they weren’t getting ahead in Canmore paying rent, and housing is so ridiculous here (cheapest house in town is about a half million dollars) that a mortgage doesn’t make any more sense at all…
I’ve lived in some expensive places in the world (Switzerland, Aspen, Boulder), and usually the income side of the equation mirrors the expense side. In the end it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s working, but the big point does matter: If you have to work a lot then you won’t climb a lot. And where you live determines how much you have to work. For many years I lived out of my truck on the road; costs were absolutely minimal, and I could climb/fly/paddle as much as I wanted to while working less than three months a year. In Canmore incomes don’t generally balance the high cost of living compared to other places I’ve lived, and the leisure class is not very leisurely (with rare exceptions like Brandon).
It’s hard for most of the general population to relate to the obsession that hard rock climbing (or really any performance sport) instils in people, and the time it takes to feed that obsession. Even “climbers” often don’t understand the difference climbing hard outside four or more days a week vs. two days a week makes to performance on rock. And you simply won’t be able to have it all; you can climb hard or have material things. If you want both then you have to find a way to make a good living in the time that’s left over after feeding the climbing rat…. If you’re an alpine climber, paraglider or kayaker then you need to be free on the days with epic conditions. And if you’re working even regularly then you won’t be.
As I spent my $10 on a Canmore sandwich yesterday I realized that for me, and obviously the many people who want to live in Canmore, the price was worth it. But in some places climbers aren’t competing with Alberta oil field money and international tourists to the same degree, while the possibility is there to make more money as well. Canmore’s expense/costs ratio, from the perspective of an obsessed mountain athlete, is skewed toward costs.
Some people are going to read this and complain that it’s whining about leisure time and costs. It’s not, people make their choices and should shut up about it once they have. The point is that if you want to do any sport at as high a level as you can reach then you’re going to need time, and living in an expensive place is going to take time away from getting better at that sport. Or a creative lifestyle like living in a van, which virtually all serious outdoor athletes spend a lot of time doing.
So what was the upshot of our long conversation? We’ll see where Mr. Tim Emmett and his lovely wife settle. I hope here.