The two of us stroll to what feels like the edge of the world. I drop my pack to the wet earth and, crouching low, peer over the edge. You’d never guess this is land’s end — the Atlantic Ocean has disappeared and the ground is lost in fog. The horizon fades in and out as phantoms of cloud appear and then vanish with the wind.
Damien O’Sullivan throws one end of a 260-foot rope off the cliff — it will just touch down. I rappel into the murky void as sheer, columnar dolerite passes before my eyes.
It’s June 2016, and after six days of sunshine I experience the dreary Northern Ireland I had imagined since last year when I accepted Damien’s invitation to the Fair Head climbing meet, a spirited gathering of climbers from all across the U.K. and beyond.
We climb back up the vertical cliff via Sandpiper, a delightful corner crack. The mist, gummy and palpable, sticks to my skin. The rock isn’t exactly wet, but the veneer of green and white lichen feels slick and saturated. Damien pulls over the perfectly flat clifftop wearing an ear-to-ear grin.
I last climbed with him 10 years earlier, at an International Climbing Meet (ICM) in Wales, where it rained almost every day that week. Amid the wet and cold, I climbed with people from all over the world, many of whom, like Damien, became quick friends. That trip remains one of the most meaningful of my life.
Since 2006 our lives had changed considerably, but climbing is wonderful like that: You rope up with someone after 10 years and, save for the deeper creases around the eyes and the whiter hair, it’s as if time has barely passed.
A lot more time will certainly pass before international borders reopen to pre-COVID levels. For now, I’m intensely grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to travel and climb abroad. Specifically, international meets and exchanges have been a highlight of my climbing experience.
Two years after the Wales meet, the American Alpine Club (AAC), based in Golden, held its first ever ICM in the U.S. I immediately volunteered to host, eager to once again experience the fellowship of ascent.
Fifteen languages from 24 countries overwhelmed the crackle of the evening fire at Indian Creek, Utah, where dozens of us climbed and camped in the desert for more than a week.
The following year, Alex Honnold and I were the token Americans in the first Siberian meet to accept foreign climbers. We clocked the fastest time in a bizarre speed competition, though we didn’t exactly “win” because we couldn’t understand the rules. Regardless, we laughed and bonded with the Russians over climbing — our only shared language.
In 2010 I was a host climber during the third annual ICM in Yosemite Valley. One day I climbed with Eszter Vorhath, a 35-year-old Hungarian who told me this trip, her first to the U.S., had changed her life by inspiring her to travel, climb and prioritize her dreams.
A year later I was one of 13 lucky applicants chosen for a climbing exchange in Iran. We bouldered above Tehran, clipped bolts along a remote, dusty highway and climbed multi-pitch granite jutting from snowfields above 13,000 feet.
After two weeks in Iran I felt like a privileged guest. Strangers treated us with extraordinary kindness. Many went so far as to thank me personally (in excellent English) for visiting their country. I learned first-hand that Iranians and Americans are of similar hearts and minds, regardless of the what we hear in the news.
In 2017 I helped facilitate a South African climbing exchange, where we roped up with locals for two weeks of adventure near Cape Town and Johannesburg. The following year, they flew to the U.S., where our now-bonded group climbed together all over Colorado and Utah.
I was in the process of organizing two more exchanges — one in the U.K. and another in China — before COVID slammed that door more than a year ago.
Yet despite the richness of these overseas adventures, I really haven’t missed traveling abroad. In fact, since COVID, I’ve gained an even deeper love and appreciation for all that we have right here at home.
Contact Chris Weidner at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @cweidner8