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A climbing legacy, bolted in place
How a 70-year-old New Zealand climber thinks about fulfillment and leaving something behind
The plan was just to pull up, unannounced, in the middle of the day, and see if he was there. Last weekend, my son and I were driving from Rotorua to Waitomo, and Bryce’s Rock Climbing Shop was on the way.
I wrote about Bryce last week, the Kiwi from 20 years ago who casually leaned back and declared, “I reckon New Zealand is paradise” — the owner of a climbing hostel and shop and guiding business in the middle of the North Island. Bryce, who had been seated into memory through a week of climbing adventure with my buddy Zach, and late-night debates about politics as we drank beer after beer.
My son was skeptical. So you’re just gonna pull up?
And you don’t know if he’s even there?
And this was twenty years ago…
So he probably doesn’t even remember you.
My son was anxious to get to the Waitomo caves, where we would don wetsuits and go on a three-hour underground adventure to see the glowworms. I was anxious to see if Bryce was still there after all these years, and if so, what he was doing with his days.
The first time I’d come with Zach, we’d hitchhiked from the Te Awamutu bus station 17 miles away based off directions Bryce had given us over the phone. This time, I pulled up in a rented Mazda Demios, Google maps pointing the way. The sign was still there: Bryce’s Rock Climbing Gym, with the URL underneath.
We got out of the car, put on our masks, walked over to the shop, and went in.
There he was: masked, but unmistakably Bryce. Stout, bald, and strong. A customer he was talking to thanked him and walked out, and Bryce welcomed us —
For the next twenty minutes, I told him about my memories, we walked around the shop, and I asked him about his life, the business, and the past twenty years. He asked if I still climbed. All the time, I said. I asked him if he still climbed. And that’s when he started talking about legacy.
I remembered Bryce as a competitive sport climber who would lie to us about grades to push us to climb harder, and who relished mocking anyone who he perceived as not going all in. He was a tough love kinda guy, with a dry humor.
But now the years had moderated him, and his interests had changed (though his humor hadn’t). He wasn’t into sport climbing so much anymore, Bryce told me. He was into development. New routes.
Nowadays, Bryce likes to go by himself (“I like my own company”) to a new cliff, one that’s never been climbed by anybody. He sits, he makes himself a coffee on a portable stove, and he looks at the unclimbed rock. He studies it, he visualizes, and he starts to piece together where a route might go.
New route development—as far as I can gather, since I’ve never done it myself—is a high art form combined with serious craft, not to mention the cost of gear to place each route. Bryce described the process as intensely creative, but also requiring “broad shoulders,” i.e., the shouldering of lots of responsibility, combined with a thick skin. As a route developer, every climber who comes after may have an opinion about the work you did, the climb you created, and the decisions you made. Whether to place a bolt here or there, why you took the left sequence and not the right, how you let it get a little too run-out at just the wrong spot.
But Bryce said nothing is more satisfying to him, at this stage in his life, than creating something new that will be climbed for decades to come. Anyone who just walks up to a sport climb, gives it a few goes, or tries hard and then leaves, is just a “bolt clipper,” he said, with not a little disdain. They come, they go, and they leave nothing behind.
I asked Bryce how old he was, if he didn’t mind saying. He is 70. I don’t know exactly how many routes he has personally established but it’s at least in the hundreds, and it could be more. According to his website, there are 800 routes walking distance to his place, and more than 2,500 within an hour’s drive. Many of those were his first ascents—I remember that much from the guidebook 20 years ago that he wrote. Bryce named and gave most of these climbs their route descriptions. But it’s clear Bryce felt his real legacy was the climbs he created out of nothing, and that hundreds and thousands of climbers would come to climb after.
I resolved to learn this art, learn the craft, and invest the time and money. Climbing can sometimes seem a little frivolous, though I believe the sport to be nearly transcendent—important for civilization, even.
Yet even with it’s strengths, Bryce is right: most climbers come, climb, go, and leave nothing behind. Some, like me, donate annually to Access Fund, the national organization dedicated to protecting land access for climbers (if you consider yourself a climber and cannot spare at least $50/year for Access Fund, then shame on you). Others serve on the boards of local organizations, like the Rumney Climbers Association, dedicating their time to ensuring the areas are well-managed. They supervise the maintenance and replacement of old bolts and anchors, raise money to build and maintain trails, and negotiate for access to new and existing areas, or purchase land to ensure access.
But there are an even more select few who develop climbing areas in the first place. I ran into one of these climbers, Lee Hansche, just a few weeks ago in Rumney. Lee (and many friends, it should be noted) spent much of the pandemic developing a new area, coincidentally called Russell Crags, just a short drive toward the mountains. In fact, the friend who I was climbing with that day had just been to Russell Crags, and came back with rave reviews, which he passed along to Lee.
Lee gave me some beta on the 12b I was struggling on, called Jedi Mind Tricks (first ascent: Ward Smith; route description on Mountain Project submitted by none other than Lee Hansche), and then he continued on down the trail.
Climbers like me owe climbers like Lee and Bryce an enormous debt of gratitude. Their legacies are there, in New Hampshire, in New Zealand, glued and bolted into place, and will be for years to come.
I asked Bryce if he’d ever considered retiring. Nah, he said. What would he do, sit in an old person’s home? Dream about the bolts he clipped in the past? No—he’d rather be there at the shop, having conversations like the one we were having just then.
It was time to go, our appointment for the cave adventure was drawing near. I asked Bryce what I should buy from the shop before I left. He took a deep breath, and said I should buy a book. Over in the corner he had a crate of used ones. I walked over and picked out an old volume by Peter Matthiessen I hadn’t seen before.
He’s never written anything bad, eh?
No, he hasn’t, I said.
I paid Bryce the 15 NZD, and I told him I wanted to get into route development back in New Hampshire. He gave me his email and told me to write him. If he’s ever in the area, he said, he’ll look forward to getting on one of my climbs.