The drill whirls about in place, boring into the soft limestone. Fine grit clouds kick out at the edges of the hole, puff, puff, puff. The walls echo with the ricochet of millions of years of solidity grinding back into individual particulates. Water droplets sizzle on stone from sweat trickling down forearm and dripping off at the wrist.
The man at the helm is Josh Cook and he is bolting new sport lines. He’s an English teacher at an international school and he’s developing the first sport crag in Škaljari, Montenegro.
Josh never thought he’d end up in Montenegro as a mis-fit kid in Denver, CO.
When he told people he was thinking of going, the response was generally the same: “nobody knows where it is.” He continues, “That’s already cool. Anytime you hear of a country you don’t know anything about, then it’s very enticing. You know there’s something special there.” So off he went.
This type of adventurism is easy for him now—motorcycle trip across the Himalayas? Backpacking in the Andes? No problem—but things were different when he was young. It’s not that he was a misfit, it’s more like he felt mis-placed.
Josh grew up as one of the few white kids in school. Not that he had a problem with it, he just stood out. Then he got a scholarship and was one of the few lower-income students in a fancy private high school. Not that it was an issue, he just didn’t quite fit in. Then he wanted to be a climber. Not that it should have been too difficult, but there weren’t many of those around.
At last, climbing was a place where he felt he belonged. He started when he was 6 and was obsessed by 16. Every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday: Morrison bouldering area. You know the drill.
At 18 he took a year off to travel the country and climb. He started in Yosemite. To boulder. Mis-fit as he was.
If you’re wondering how an inner-city kid from Denver ends up in Montenegro, you have to start with Yosemite.
Yosemite Valley is an international port of call for climbers. In 2018, over four million visitors came through from 33 countries. Most come in the summer and it can be a madhouse. Especially for an 18 year old out on his own for the first time.
“I’m driving in and it’s just packed. There’s one way traffic, all these cars, rangers everywhere. I’m looking for Camp 4 and I can’t find Camp 4. At that point, it was briefly named Sunnyside Campground so I’m not seeing signs for Camp 4. I finally pull over then realize [I’m here and] you have to have to wait in a long line to get a campsite, and you have to share it with other people. I’m learning trial by fire, this whole rigamarole,” Josh recalls.
He continues, “I squeeze into Site 17 and there’s these scruffy, complete dirtbag-looking climbers. The youngest was maybe 5 years older, the oldest was probably 10 yeas older. I go, ‘oh, uh, I have to share this site with you guys.’ And they just stare at me.” The climbers were non-plussed but helped him unload nonetheless.
Josh stayed a month and they got to know each other. They became friends. Turns out they were die hard trad climbers from the Welsh tradition. As they would go off to climb big walls, away for days at a time, Josh would be there wrestling pebbles.
They couldn’t believe he was in Yosemite just for bouldering. Josh couldn’t believe they were climbing those walls. They opened his eyes to a larger world.
One day, one of the guys hung back.
“Neil goes, ‘I’m gonna take a rest day and boulder with you,’” Josh reflects. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘oh trad climber, he won’t know anything about bouldering, hopefully he can keep up with me.’”
Josh continues, “We’re at Curry Village, warming up on opposite sides of the boulder. He walks around to where I am, and I present what I’m working on. I was just flailing on this thing, it was like a V4 or something. When he got on it he flashed it. And not only that, he did it with such grace and ease that my jaw dropped.”
“I realized at that point my world of climbing had been all about the media and the value of recognition. [Basically,] you were a nobody if you weren’t in the magazines or at the competitions or whatever it was.”
Of course, Neil wasn’t in the magazines.
“No one knew who he was,” Josh laments. “But he was the best climber I ever met, ever seen climb.” Back home he was known as a Dark Horse. “The best climber you’ve never heard of,” he says.
Neil still pops up from time to time in mentions, but not features.
That interaction changed everything for Josh. Neil and friends loved climbing for all that it was, and they climbed all that was available around the world. They didn’t seek notoriety, they simply did it for fun and self-improvement.
“I really came to respect that, doing everything to the best of your ability, climbing all the different styles and disciplines, and to do it humbly. Not trying to seek attention,” Josh shares, admiration ringing in his voice.
“That shifted how I thought about my goals: to become more about being the best that I can be, and to not let it be about ego… I want to know that I can dedicate myself to challenging tasks and become better at them through the learning process,” he sums up.
Josh applies much of his lessons learned in climbing to his teaching pedagogy.
He explains, “Teaching fits a lot of the same characteristics: constant problem solving and decision making, performance under pressure, mentorship, refining weaknesses, measuring growth and skill development (in the students and in myself), the list goes on.”
And he teaches because in his words, “I influence the lives of youth, hopefully for the better. I help make them critical thinkers, lovers of literature, and attentive writers. I give them opportunities to be good people and work with them through the process of creating their own paths.”
He encourages that the beauty is not in the big send, but the progression towards the goal: “I describe this process to my students as: attempt, failure, reflection, refinement, and attempt again (repeat… forever). The signs that we have done that well, that we are conscious and attentive to our experiences, are what we call improvement. That awareness of our experiences is also just good living, I think.”
Josh has bopped around, having taught in Peru, Bhutan, Japan, Montenegro, and soon, Colombia. Wherever he goes he welcome new people into climbing, develops a local area, and finds connection through the sport.
“As you live this itinerant lifestyle, intentionally drawing away from people, it [can] prohibit you from being a part of community,” Josh says.
He goes on, “I found recently, because I’m always living everywhere, my community is climbers that I meet. It helps me feel connected to something larger.”
Climbers tend to be roamers and travelers, perpetual motion in new lands. It sounds like he’s found where he fits in.
You can read some of Josh’s writing on his blog, On The Move.