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Free falling

Globetrotter and bouldering aficionado Sam Beardsell says that to get ahead, you have to prepare to fall.

In the world of rock climbing, falling is par for the pitch. If you’re not falling, you’re not advancing.

“It’s always going to happen — you can’t hold on any longer and just have to let go,” says Sam Beardsell, a member of Winnipeg’s Crosstown Civic Credit Union (30,500 members, $2.4 billion in assets). Beardsell estimates that he has taken hundreds of falls since becoming hooked on the sport two years ago, travelling the world to ascend — and tumble from — increasingly challenging grades.

Beardsell recalls a particularly harrowing fall earlier this year. He was in El Potrero Chico, Mexico, a sport-climbing paradise in the northern state of Nuevo León. About 300 metres up a sheer vertical face, his foot jammed in a crack. “I knew I was going to fall. All I could do was minimize the damage.” A climbing rope stopped his plummet downward.

Great heights have called to Beardsell ever since he was a child, when his parents would take him on month-long summer road trips. They visited British Columbia and travelled down the coast to California. “Squamish, Whistler, Yosemite, Big Sur — we visited all those magnificent places. To stand on top of a mountain makes you feel like you’ve conquered something.”

Beardsell was also an avid team player, excelling, up until recently, at water polo. He was competing at the provincial level when he dropped out a few years ago. Even as a serious CrossFit enthusiast (he is now a CrossFit instructor), he had trouble putting on the body weight needed to advance in water polo. And it was also getting expensive, about $10,000 a year.

Ultimate frisbee became his next challenge. Then, a teammate introduced him to bouldering, a form of rock climbing performed on small rock formations and artificial walls. “What appealed to me most was that, after all those years of playing team sports, I didn’t have to rely on anybody else. It’s very meditative. You can focus on the rock and be in nature.”

It also provided opportunities for travel to places that are a lot more interesting than water polo’s indoor aquatic centres. In the past two years, Beardsell has travelled to Turkey, Thailand and Mexico for rock climbing and camping trips. He has also visited Honduras (for scuba diving), Costa Rica (with his family) and spent a month backpacking around Peru. To say he has the travelling bug is putting it mildly. Ironically, he says his passion for international rock climbing is less expensive than provincial water polo. The upfront costs of safety gear: shoes, harness, rope and crash pads, ran about $1,500. Some of that he split with a buddy and his girlfriend. When he travels, the costs: camping spots, food and park-access fees, are minimal.

Then there are the airplane flights. To afford those on the limited earnings of a café server and CrossFit instructor, he’s had to adopt what he calls a very “lean lifestyle,” which, for a 22-year-old, sounds almost as gruelling as his training at the gym.

Beardsell and his girlfriend split a $200 room in a shared house. They don’t have a car. They do big monthly shops for groceries at Costco, which allows them to plan their meals so they don’t cave when hungry and order a pizza. They limit their consumption of meat to two times a week. “My social life takes a hit, sure, but I still go to house parties and out with my friends once in a while. Just not all the time because that would cut into how much I can climb later on.”

This spring, Beardsell is planning a trip to Red Rock Canyon in Nevada, then back to Mexico at the end of the year. Eventually, he would like to go to Yosemite National Park and to Spain. Crosstown Civic — he’s been a member since he was 15 and his parents opened a Fat Cat savings account for him — is helping him reach these goals.

“I like that it’s small and local. When I go into my branch, I know everybody who works there and they all know when I’ve been on a trip. They’re always willing to help me do the right things so I’m not just blowing my cash. And they were very supportive in helping me set up my Tax-Free Savings Account and a Registered Retirement Savings Plan.”

As for retirement, Beardsell isn’t thinking about it too seriously, or at least not in the same way as some of his friends, who plan to do their travelling when they’re older. “You’re only young once. I don’t want to sit on my hands and wait until I have enough money to go on a cruise ship. I love being active and outdoors.”

Fortunately, he has the financial savvy to help lift him up those challenging rock faces and cushion the impact of those inevitable falls. ◊