It is our deepest desire and oldest challenge to understand where we came from, and thus, who we are. All societies, sciences and religions have their own haunting brands of bullshit that attempt to answer life’s biggest, most important questions:
Who are we, where did we come from and where are we going?
One time I was in a gym in Boulder, and those questions came into my head as I watched a hopeless human, doomed with baldness and shoes too big, tie in for an indoor lead of a 5.10. To myself, I quietly answered those questions for him: He is a gumby, he probably came from my home town, and he is going to fall at the fourth clip.
Who says life is complex? Seems simple, though I have yet to figure out why the afterlife is bright and mysterious, but the afterbirth is slimy and gross. I suppose some things are not meant for understanding.
I was wrong, though not about him being a gumby. He fell clipping the second bolt, not the fourth. Even an infallible cowboy like myself can make errors here and there, but so what? Let’s move on. You have to hear what his fall was like and I have to distract you from the fact that I make mistakes.
With the rope tangled around his fingers like kitten yarn, he batted at the carabiner of the second draw, hoping that for once things would work out in his favor and the rope would magically clip itself in. Good fortune, however, was not on the menu for this gumby du jour. Suddenly all remaining balance and poise was lost, as if the section of his ear that kept him upright had spontaneously combusted. It was an unexplainable, yet ruthless destruction of everything that regular people take for granted, such as knowing not to fall at the second clip with a loop of rope out. He peeled backwards and into the air. He crashed into the padded floor of the gym, landing smack on the back of his neck.
This gumby’s gumby belayer stood dumbfounded and embarrassed as everybody in the gym looked at him accusingly. When a climber decks, the immediate reaction is that the belayer screwed up. The belayer shook his head vigorously and put on his cry face like a guilt-ridden child. The gumby on the deck rose awkwardly and started laughing way too loudly.
Ha ha! Did you see that? I sure missed that clip! Maybe I should stick to the topropes! Ha ha! HA HA!
Yes, gumby, hitting the ground and narrowly escaping a broken neck is really funny. … I’m serious. I was laughing my ass off.
“Jen,” I said to my climbing partner, “did you see that gumby deck? That was the best thing I’ve ever seen!”
“You know, you were once a gumby, too,” Jen said. “We all were at some point. You probably still are one.”
“What?” I snapped. “You’ve lost your mind. Have you ever decked while leading? Especially in the gym?”
“Well, no,” she said. “But everyone has to learn.”
“Gumbies don’t learn anything,” I said, “because they can’t. That’s what makes them gumbies. It’s like the Indian caste system, if you’re born a gumby, you stay a gumby.”
“That’s dumb and you know it,” Jen said.
Was it, Jen? Was it really dumb? Or was it the most undumb thing you’ve ever heard? I had to wonder, but I also had to try and send my gym project.
OK, you got me? I asked, and Jen nodded. I grabbed two plastic edges and cast off into the elite realm of the super badass pink route. However, crazy techno music was blaring everywhere, making it difficult to decipher these vicious underclings. Something awful was happening to me. I was getting pumped and growing weaker. I can’t fall on the pink route, I thought. I’m not even to the fourth clip yet. Why me?
I happened to look down at my double bowline, and … tap-dancing Jesus, it was half untied! How could I have forgotten to finish tying my knot? Wait a second … could it be? Was I a gumby?!
Someone named James Baldwin once said, People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them. I’m too stupid to know what that means, but I suspect the same applies to climbers. Something within us, our wretched gumby nature, perhaps, might shed light on these ultimate questions. Who are we as climbers? Where did climbers come from? And where are we going?
Well, the last one is easy if you’re a first ascentionist, which automatically means you’re guilty of chipping, killing trees and lichen (aka cleaning), bolting, sandbagging, redtagging, stomping cryptobiotic soil and establishing a route no one likes: You’re going straight to hell. I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do about that.
But to hell with the future. It’s what’s here and now that matters most. From all I know, there are no final consequences, no such thing as eternity, just our lives, painful, pathetic and meaningless, but sprinkled with those rare moments when we actually aspire to do something that isn’t totally selfish and cruel.
Selfishness and cruelty are possibly the essence of humanity, but it’s certain that climbers are gumbies at heart. Being a gumby used to mean that you couldn’t climb very hard, but due to the genealogical efforts of doctors in this field, such as myself, it has been discovered that the Gumby Gene is the goofy, murmuring heartbeat of our sport.
The word gumby obviously came from the 1980s green Playdo thing that rode around on its trusted steed Pokey. Someone a tad more coordinated noticed his partner bumbling around a belay ledge one day, and simply pointed and said, Gumby. Today, many variants of gumby exist: NOOBs, punters, chossers, hacks, wangs, dorks, nerds and dildos. But none are as apt or elegant as gumby, a total embodiment of all human error, only the uncool kind. It’s the reason we sometimes die, and the reason we sometimes clip our chalkbags to our harnesses with a locking carabiner. You’re a Gumby, damnit!
But there are many varietals, and a quick look at some standard models might hold a few clues about who we really are as climbers, where we came from and where we are going. Plus, it’ll be fun, and a statement on my life’s work, to rip on a few good gumbies. This is in no way a complete list, just a working document. Please add your own gumby to this pivotal study in the comments below.
BUDDY GUMBY: He or she (though usually a He) knows less about climbing than you do, and consequently loves you. Buddy Gumby is your little pocket buddy who builds up everything you do and constantly puts himself down.
“I can’t believe you led that 5.10 and only placed five pieces!” said Buddy Gumby. “That’s so awesome! I would’ve been so scared.”
“Well, it was actually a 5.8 in the guide book. I just told you it was 5.10 to scare you.”
“You have such good footwork! I love you.”
TRAD GUMBY: Except for about 20 or so people in the world, the phrase trad gumby is actually redundant.
DYNO GUMBY: Some gumbies start out stronger than most who have been climbing forever. One genus is the Dyno Gumby, who only wants to dyno in the gym. This person has great natural power, but lacks the attention span to learn good technique. Dyno Gumbies are like border collies in their strength and single-mindedness, even though one day they’ll get smoked when they try to herd highway traffic. By which I mean they will try slab climbing and face-plant.
SPORT GUMBY: A trad climber who goes sport climbing.
MOUNTAINEERING GUMBY: A sport climber who goes mountaineering.
CROOKED-HELMET GUMBY: Helmets are not gangsta hats, gumby.
ICE GUMBY: Like Crooked-Helmet Gumby, but fatter, balder and with access to the sharp things.
1) A gumby who is confused. If you see one, hit it in the face with an ice hammer. Trust me, they’re used to it.
2) A combination of any two types of gumbies. Not purebred.
OLD GUMBY: Those deluded into thinking their 5.9s are actually 5.10s. Old Gumbies also have this maddening brain malfunction that perpetuates themselves in their memories as fearless and hardcore, even though they climbed in the same cowardly manner in which these Social Security hogs will meet their ends.
APOLOGETIC GUMBY: You know those people who apologize even when there’s nothing to be sorry for?
One time I needed to hang, it happens.
“Take,” I said.
“Sorry,” Apologetic Gumby said, fumbling with the Grigri. “OK, got you. Sorry.”
“Why are you saying sorry?”
“I don’t know. Sorry.”
“Stop saying sorry, gumby!”
DUMBY: A dumb gumby.
Z-CLIP GUMBY: Perhaps the single most irritating gumby on today’s market, Z-Clip Gumby is so paralyzed by the thought of any old mundane leader fall that climbing is an apocalyptic exercise in placing so many pieces per square inch of crack that Z-clipping becomes as inevitable as the ensuing freakout.
FRENCH GUMBY: When people begin to learn new climbing techniques, the one that really stands out is the French flagging technique, whereby you swing a free leg beneath/across the other leg for balance. When gumbies learn how to flag, it’s like when fourth graders learn how to use commas, they do it everywhere. A sure sign is if you see a gumby on a 25-foot route and count more flags than at the United Nations.
French Gumbies are also known to blow on their finger-tips when they’re grabbing those super friction-dependent 5.9 jugs.
SPANISH GUMBY: Also known as Mullet Gumby. Has a special power over Female Gumbies that no one can figure out.
AMERICAN GLADIATOR GUMBY: With the writers’ strike still in full effect, the desperate TV networks have thankfully resorted to bringing American Gladiator back. The show is a great reminder of just how totally uncoordinated humans are. These so-called Gladiators eat shit on the most trivial rope ladders and slabs and I absolutely love them for it.
CANADIAN GUMBY: Similar to Buddy Gumby, but less annoying and genuinely nice.
HELMET GUMBY: Was once the victim of a one-in-a-million rock shot to the head, and now refuses to do anything, even bouldering and deep-water soloing, without the safety of a brain bucket. Helmet Gumby pisses everyone off with his incessant reminders that catastrophe is just around the corner.
EDITOR GUMBY: Also a redundancy. Editors are gumbies at heart. They garner experience and feign expertise through reading rather than doing.
One time I was invited by a big company to attend a backcountry ski/gear test with about 10 other editors, who mostly worked at ski magazines.
Now, it’s well known that I don’t even ski, the sport is mainly reserved for rich assholes, and though I am certainly an asshole, I’ve never been rich.
The ski-mag editors huffed uncontrollably as we reached the apex of this sweet backcountry bowl. They were out of shape, burdened by their gear armor and pointless gadgets. The whole thing stunk, but it really got bad when I actually saw them ski. They were worse than me, the quintessential Ski Gumby. One of them tore his new company jacket on a tree and had to walk back down so he wouldn’t get too cold. Everyone was falling face first into the deep snow. A couple dudes could actually ski, but most were pathetic.
That’s when I learned that editors are de facto gumbies, and since then, I do everything in my power not to be like that. But can anyone ever truly escape our deep-seeded Gumby nature?
The pink route showed no signs of relenting. I was seriously pumped and my knot was extremely undone. I hated myself. Maybe I was a gumby.
But maybe we all are. Maybe that’s what makes us climbers. We are fallible, cursed creatures who use climbing to teach us how to lead more enriching lives. It’s a parallel to life in that, through friends and society, we teach ourselves not to be selfish and cruel. I think there are great rewards in learning to quell your most rotten instincts.
A jug protruded from an adjacent yellow route, and I lurched desperately for it, sticking the upturned tooth with one hand. With my single free hand, I tied my bowline back together. Ha! I thought. No gumby could do that!
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 167 (April 2008).