Notes while living (the dream)


Words by Doug McConnell

This article is open to all readers thanks to La Sportiva.

During the last decade, Doug has worked intentionally to set up his life towards realising his ultimate 20-year-old dream: to dedicate most of his days to rock climbing while living in a van across Europe. He's been doing that for a bit now, exploring the limestone goodness but also everything that comes with it: community, reflection, self-discovery, growth.

Doug shares some of his thoughts and open-ended questions with us—perhaps igniting our own contemplations about climbing, dreaming and living.

Dreams vs reality

Living in a van for an extended period and focusing on climbing every day has been my dream for 20 years. I've been fortunate to live it for almost 2 years now.

I feel that, back then, many climbers shared this dream. At least, the conversation came up regularly. It was not a very realistic idea then, because how could you make a living while being in a different part of the country, or planet, and while not being physically at work from 9-5??

Fast-forward a couple of decades, much technology development and a pandemic, and now working remotely is the standard for many. Or at least something that its possible to work towards.

I often hear “I’d love to do what you’re doing,” but when questioned further, most people don’t actually want to live on the road. It seems that most climbers value a solid home base and all the comforts that come with it over committing to life on the road. And so I wonder what do today’s young climbers dream of? And what became of your dreams from 20 years ago?

Boredom, contributing to society

As mentioned, I've been living in a car, mostly sport climbing, for almost 2 years now. OK, it's a van…but not what society deems a great lifestyle. It's not classy, it's not always comfortable. I'm sure most people would look down on it with disdain! #vanlife = #i_live_in_a_carpark

Sometimes, I worry that by doing this I am not contributing to society. But is it better to be miserable in a job I dislike? How does that contribute?

I've been asked many times lately, "But what do you do on rest days? Don't you get bored?" or, my favourite, “There’s nothing to do here but climb?!” It makes me wonder what I'm missing out on.

It strikes me that having a passion for one thing - something to be truly enthusiastic about - is enough. And sharing that passion by motivating, encouraging or (hopefully in some small way) inspiring others, might be a sufficient contribution.

Personality and style

How does personality affect climbing? I’ve started to notice the physical manifestation of our “self” in how we approach climbing. Is this overlooked when we think about performance and training?

For example, do you prefer to move dynamically and freely or statically and in control? Do you seek routes based on the aesthetics of the line or its pure difficulty? Or you're just happy to go where your mates are? Do you care what others think about your climbing, and would you climb differently if you were anonymous? What if there were no consequences to falling, would you risk more? What if there was no such thing as “failing”, would you try harder?

In my case for example, I’m lazy, slow and weak. If I can start climbing more, faster and stronger will it also help me stop procrastinating on doing the dishes?!

There’s a reason the hashtag is Vanlife not Tentlife

By far the most impressive people I’ve met in the last two years are not pro climbers or youtube stars but a humble German couple who have become friends and climbing partners. Let’s call them Jack and Jill.

3 years ago they set out on a climbing trip having finished studying but before commencing work. They had a limited budget so decided not to buy a car but instead travel by bicycle. They reasoned that they could travel for twice as long by saving money on a car. And so for the last 3 years they have lived in a tent (free camping near climbing areas) and travelled by bicycle.

It’s relatively warm in Spain but places like Margalef in winter can be quite cold. Often the inside of their tent will ice up and their water will freeze. They will go down to the creek to wash in 3 degree water. They are on their 5th tent of the trip because hail or wind has shredded them. We have just had a 3 day period of constant heavy rain. They walked 1km down to a bbq shelter for dinner with us and then at 10pm, with big smiles they stepped back out into the dark and pouring rain to slug back to their damp tent. But I cannot think of a time when either of them has complained about #tentlife. It’s never an excuse or a reason for them not to perform on the rock.

And, they totally crush. Jill has elevated her level by two grades on the trip to 7c+ (28) and Jack climbed two 9a+’s (36) last week. But you won’t see them making “content” for youtube or bragging on social media. They are genuinely just out there doing what they love, in the best way they can.

If you’re reading this during summer in Australia, in the evening, right now Jack and Jill are sitting alone in the dark, in a secluded patch of forest in the foothills of the Pyrenees.  They’re wearing all their clothes. Frost is starting to form on the outside of their heavily patched down jackets. Jill’s chopping veges on her lap and Jack is heating water on wood fire. After dinner, they’ll spend the next 12 hours in their 2 people tent because its too cold outside. At midday tomorrow they’ll appear at the crag and crush, again. ︎

Doug McConnell is an Australian climber and engineer who is currently searching for the best routes (and pizza) around the Mediterranean Sea.

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