The Boulderer's Valentine's Day

Over the years, I have found many great things at Eastern Mountain Sports—fantastic coworkers, lifelong friends, an increasingly large pile of gear, and, most importantly, my wife. EMS has also taught me to love new sports, such as trail running, skiing, and climbing, as well as some valuable life lessons along the way. As one, spending time with people who prioritize getting outside can warp things like what constitutes a romantic date.

To most, a climbing trip to Alabama for Valentine’s Day might sound bizarre.

For many people, Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to show the person with whom you’re romantically involved how much you care for them. Or, perhaps, it’s the chance to express to someone your feelings for them. Images of candlelit dinners in dimly-lit restaurants, romantic movies, and moonlight walks come to mind, along with traditional gifts like jewelry, heart-shaped chocolates, and bouquets of flowers. But, for me, when facing my first Valentine’s Day with my now-wife, I quickly thought to myself, “I should take her climbing at Horse Pens 40 in Alabama.”

To most, a climbing trip to Alabama for Valentine’s Day might sound bizarre. But, when you’re working in a store filled with fanatic climbers, one of whom you’re dating, a trip to the South’s Sandstone Belt to visit one of the country’s more unique bouldering destinations makes much more sense than dinner and a movie. So, with the school where she taught closed for vacation, my abundance of paid time off, and my need to wow her for our first year together, we packed our bags, climbing shoes, and crash pads, and headed to Horse Pens 40 to spend an uncommon romantic holiday— really, nine days total—together.

After an 18-hour car ride from Worcester, Mass., to Steele, Ala., we found ourselves amid a bouldering heaven. Rather than rest or set up the tent, we went right to work, tackling Horse Pens 40’s classic problems and distinctive slopers, and quickly settled into the “climb, rest, repeat” cycle that is the mark of any good adventure.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

It was in the mid-fifties all week, and if you have just come from New England in February, it feels like stepping into the dead of summer.

When the 14th eventually rolled around, we were too focused on the climbs we wanted to do and our limited time left at Horse Pens to let Valentine’s Day interfere with our established pattern. We slept in—that is to say we slept in a tent and awakened early to take advantage of the good friction commonly found in the morning, before heading out like many couples do for brunch.

The closest thing we could find was Huddle House. Without disparaging the hot spot (it’s become a requisite stop for any Horse Pens trip my wife and I take together), imagine it as a less-prestigious version of Waffle House. But, after a cold night in the tent and a couple hours of climbing, there is something truly magical about their sausage and gravy. I am sure in the moment she was as wooed as she would’ve been if we were drinking mimosas in a fancy restaurant.

After brunch, we relaxed and digested in the soothing Southern February sun, laughing as the locals moving between the boulders layered up as if the weather were actually cold. We then returned for an afternoon session, where we attempted to burn off our heavy Southern breakfasts. It was in the mid-fifties all week, and if you have just come from New England in February, it feels like stepping into the dead of summer. Sure, it wasn’t laying in the sand on a tropical beach or deck chairs on a cruise, but it worked for us.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

When the 14th eventually rolled around, we were too focused on the climbs we wanted to do and our limited time left at Horse Pens to let Valentine’s Day interfere with our established climbing pattern.

For dinner, we cooked together, making ding-and-dent Chef Boyardee beef ravioli from the Dollar General on the Whisperlite stove while sipping our favorite offerings from SweetWater Brewing next to a roaring campfire. Essentially, it was the budget-conscious climber’s equivalent to that candlelit dinner. I can’t remember if I offered to take her out to dinner, and she declined, not wanting to eat at Huddle House twice in a day, or we just decided to “cook.” Either way, I felt like this was more memorable. Eventually, we ended the night by retiring to our tent and the warmth of our sleeping bags.

Although our first Valentine’s Day veered from the traditional, my now-wife loved every moment of our time in Horse Pens 40. This trip, too, was a precursor to numerous other off-the-beaten adventures.

In the six years since, we have made several trips back to Horse Pens to tackle unfinished projects, take a break from winter, relive our first Valentine’s Day together, eat at Huddle House, and bask in the romantic atmosphere of Horse Pens 40 (okay, maybe that last one’s a stretch). I even suggested Horse Pens 40 as a wedding location, but we couldn’t quite convince the parents to get on board.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck