I sit on the bench in the top-roping zone and tie “my” perfect figure eight just like I have thousands of times before. I grab one shoe and blow warm air into it as if my shoes were cold. It was always a pre-climb ritual for me and after three months of no climbing I instinctually did it.
The gym was crowded with the Tuesday morning “pre-work” crowd, which was irritating. I woke up at 6 am hoping to avoid people, I guess I couldn’t help but feel slightly embarrassed going to the gym to top rope on 5.7’s. Climbing has been such a huge part of my identity for the last 20 years and my ego was horrified with the thought of starting over.
The noise of the crowded gym faded away the moment I pulled onto the wall, and as I climbed the first few moves, all my fears and doubts began to slip away. It’s funny the things you don’t forget, I moved as I did thousands of times before, slowly and methodically.
Ten weeks before this moment I was in a terrible paragliding accident where I suffered numerous injuries. I broke a dozen bones, the most severe being fully fracturing both arms and slightly fracturing vertebra in my neck and back. Needless to say it was a miracle I was standing - let alone beginning to climb again less than three months after my crash.
Matt holding the Hydro Flask that was in his bag when he crashed and probably saved his spine. Photo: Keith Ladzinski
For the last 15 years I’ve scheduled my life around climbing, spending summers in Canada and winters in Spain. Unfortunately my accident didn’t allow me to make my annual pilgrimage north to Canada - but I didn’t want it to stop me from taking my yearly trip to Spain. I also needed something to look forward to and something to train for. I set my recovery goals on a fun trip to Chuilla, a classic limestone destination just outside of Valencia, Spain.
My good friend Jesse Huey was psyched to join me on this little escape. Jesse saw me through my recovery, and in fact was there that first day back with me in the gym. Normally on these trips I have a specific objective in mind, a route I’d like to accomplish by the time the trip is over. But this wasn’t a normal trip. I wasn’t sure how rock climbing was going to feel since I’d mostly spent the last months climbing in the gym and doing tons of physical therapy. I knew my fitness wasn’t back to normal and I wanted to make this trip less about objectives and more about having fun and enjoying climbing outside again.
Spain is truly one of my favorite places in the world; the people, the food and the rock are like nowhere else. There’s something about the Spanish lifestyle that is so relaxed. It’s like people are just there to have a good time regardless of their performance. It was exactly what I needed.
Jesse and I had two weeks to climb as much as we could. After the first few days it was clear to me that I was going to have a few challenges getting back into the swing of things of climbing full time. The biggest hurdle was warming up. When climbing in the gym there’s always tons of mellow options to get the blood flowing on easy fun routes. When climbing outside you kind of just get what you get which was a difficult and painful process. Each day I still felt the lingering injuries on the first few routes, like I wasn’t myself and my body wasn’t performing how it used to or how I wanted it to. It seemed like I started every day in pain. Jesse was an all-star partner constantly reminding me “chill out” and “remember, it only gets better.”
Every day after the first few warm ups I’d begin to feel “normal” and Jesse and I would take turns trying as hard as we could on the 40 meter endurance routes. We’d give it our all until complete failure. I managed to climb a few 5.13’s I was really excited about; each took an insane amount of effort finishing the climbs with absolutely no energy left.
This time it was almost more gratifying than normal because I’d start everyday feeling like climbing was impossible. It reminded me why I really love climbing, because of the partnerships you create. Jesse was a hero on this trip. Everyday when I was super bummed and negative he’d always encourage me to be patient and remind me how rad it was that I was even climbing that soon after my accident. It reminded me it’s not about the time climbing or the accomplishments, but the time in between - hanging out, drinking coffee, laughing and just enjoying being outside.
We left Spain, happy, more confident in my ability to continue my recovery and more motivated to train for harder routes that I’m used to. It also reinvigorated my psyche, spending time outdoors and it reminded me it’s not all about names and grades but the camaraderie that climbing brings. Looking forward to more adventures with Jesse and other climbing partners.