Good Luck and Bad Luck

Good Luck / Bad Luck illustration

This weekend, I enjoyed reading Andrew Bisharat’s blog post called “The Games We Play.” Among other things, it talks about risk—in climbing, in more mundane activities like driving, and in life.

Andrew’s perspective on luck resonated with me. “It’s sometimes hard to know whether it’s working against you or actually on your side,” he writes, and then gives a series of examples to make his point. One in particular, about his alpinist friend’s knee injury potentially keeping him from a dangerous season in the mountains, read like a contemporary version of the old Chinese folk tale about a farmer and his horse

One day, the horse escaped into the hills and when the farmer’s neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer replied, ‘Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?’ A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills, and the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, ‘Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?’

Then, when the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought that was bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was, ‘Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?’

Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found. When they saw the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they let him off…

Which of these events was lucky and which was unlucky? It’s impossible to tell at the time and a waste of psychic energy to worry about it much. We create our own burdens when we curse and celebrate every event through which we pass.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try hard. Work is critical—hard work doubly so—but there’s no need to see it as a burden. Instead it’s a privilege that we might try to perfect ourselves and work through the challenges life presents us.

Another example: In the late 90s, a dedicated climber named Josh was injured and had to sit out a season bouldering in the Gunks. It was an important moment for climbing in the area, relatively speaking, and Josh wouldn’t get to be a part of it. Bad luck, of course! But then Josh picked up a camera and made a video about his friends bouldering in the Gunks. The video was called Big UP, and it was the first step in what has become a very accomplished career behind the lens.

“One dream may hide another,” wrote the poet Kenneth Koch. When he was in full health, Josh’s dream of climbing might well have hidden the dream of telling climbing stories through video—a related but very different dream. His pain and injury uncovered this other dream, which perhaps was the more significant of the two.

It’s something to keep in mind the next time your project is chewing you up and spitting you off. Forego the wailing wobbler and instead consider falling as a sign that the climb still has something valuable to teach you. Therefore, the most appropriate response is to smile—because you have this chance to improve, because you’re climbing, because you’re alive at all, damnit!

Without fail, life will throw the kitchen sink at every one of us—how we see this and respond is what creates the “good” and the “bad” of it. On the one hand, this means we have much less control over our lives than we might think. On the other, we have much more control over ourselves than we care to admit.

Now is this good luck or bad luck?

Surviving A Honnold “Rest Day”

Photo of the Flatirons. Boulder, CO.

Perspective isn’t just a difference of opinion — it creates the very world we inhabit. Just as one man’s trash might literally be another man’s treasure, so is one guy’s rest-day activity another’s near-death experience. That’s what Alex Honnold is teaching me right now as he climbs away from me effortlessly, hundreds of feet up the steep slab of sandstone known as the Fifth Flatiron.

Or is it the Sixth? Are there even six Flatirons? I don’t know, and I don’t think Alex does either, but this is beside the point. The point is I’m stuck up here without a rope with a guy who free-solos 5.12 finger cracks for breakfast, I don’t trust a single hand or foothold on this whole godforsaken rock, and I’m kind of freaking out.

As I consider my next move like a chess player deep into a death-stakes match, Alex lifts his hands from the stone and deftly steps up the slab, waving his arms tightrope-walker style. I imagine he’s doing this because he wants to prove the climb is “no big deal” (Alex’s catch phrase), or maybe he’s just getting bored waiting for me, nearly paralyzed as I am by an internal voice whisper-screaming, “This was a terrible fucking idea!” I came up here hoping to glean some insights for a magazine article, but now I’m just hoping to survive.

Strangely, the sight of the world’s most accomplished free-soloist cavorting merrily on what might be the last route I ever climb does little to calm me. I settle into a stable stance on the blank stone and close my eyes. I draw breath with slow intention to slow my runaway heart rate. A cold sweat prickles my scalp and soaks my T-shirt. I chalk and re-chalk my hands with rhythmic compulsion. I hold this pose and wait for something to change inside of me.

When I finally look up, Alex is maybe 10 feet away, his eyes preternaturally round, unblinking, as dark as holes into another dimension. He’s pointing to a little flat spot to the right of my right hip.

“There, dude. That’s a pretty good foot.” It looks like a piece of shit to me, but I try to keep it cool.

“Is that what you used?” I ask, voice cracking.

“Uhm. I’m not really sure. But seriously, that’s a solid foot. No big deal.”

I size up the spot Alex has indicated. It’s the diameter of a half-dollar and only slightly less slick. I scan the surrounding rock and realize there’s no other way. I accept with sadness that this moment has become a fulcrum on which my existence rotates. If the friction holds, I will live. If it does not, or if my panic twitches me off the wall, I will go hurtling down.

“Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily,” it says in the samurai’s handbook Hagukare. “Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon … falling from thousand-foot cliffs. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.” Samurai used this tactic to dispel their fear of death, a hinderance in battle. I try to picture falling over and over, but it’s not helping. I guess it takes practice.

Suddenly, there’s a shift. Without my brain’s consent, my body moves. A quick step up onto that little spot and over. The friction holds and I’m through the simple crux and into the clear. The air in my lungs burns with limitless potential. I want to shout, but Alex makes no sign of acknowledging my momentous victory, so I tight lip it.

“C’mon, we should get down soon. Looks like there’s a storm rolling in,” he says friendly, relaxed, and then continues on. I follow him, humbled, relieved, grateful. We push to the summit and down a crumbling chimney of stone, a mini epic in its own right, to safety and a long slog to our vehicles.

It is common with the benefit of hindsight to feel as if things happened the only way they could have happened. So it is that, back on flat ground, it seems so obvious that Alex and I would have safely completed our climb. Why all the sweating? But this feeling is an illusion. Closely related to the illusion that causes certain types of people to fancy themselves invincible. Every sketchy encounter survived strengthens such beliefs. The really lucky ones live to old age having taken every risk in the book. Others experience a little face-time with death and come away with a new perspective. The unlucky never get a chance to understand how narrow the line between close call and direct hit really is.

I’ve always felt pretty well in tune with my mortality — as a kid, it kept me up many nights. A hypochondriac teenager, every time I went to the doctor’s office, I expected him to break it to me that I had cancer, AIDS, or Ebola. I once had a panic attack when I realized the sun would burn out several billion years down the line. Perhaps it’s why the fate-tempting act of free soloing never held much appeal. (The downside is all too present and the upside is nebulous at best.) Still, sitting in the front seat of my car, face smudged, fingertips raw, sweat drying to a fine layer of salt on my brow, I try something, just to see how it feels.

“No big deal,” I say to myself. With my little outing with Alex filed safely in the past, I almost believe it.

Climbing Yourself

A climber climber herself

I’ve long viewed climbing as a meditation of sorts. It’s my time to focus on perfecting perfectly non-utilitarian goals. It’s all about breath and balance and giving just the right effort to hold on, not more or less. My goal is always to move with as little distinction between mind and body as possible — with what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow.”

For insight into the relationship between physical action and meditation, I emailed my friend Thomas, a video game developer who lives in Vietnam. Thomas has practiced kung fu for 20 years, on and off, and engaged at various times in kendo, boxing, yoga, and Rinzai Zen practice. He’s climbed a bit, too. When I asked him about the use of martial arts as a way of moving towards higher states of consciousness, he recounted this anecdote:

In both [martial arts and climbing] you could perform strictly physically, or you could get in the zone and then you aren’t climbing. My Zen master had one kensho [an understanding of reality “as it is”] while fighting his kendo instructor. A clean hit stroke against his instructor, after which his instructor bowed to him. It is the only time his instructor ever acknowledged his ability. He describes the experience as ‘It hit.’

To this day in Japan, various physical arts are used as moving forms of mediation. Flower arrangement and tea ceremonies are two good examples. In such practices, the ultimate, selfless expression is described as the “artless art.”

Archery is another classic example. Zen in the Art of Archery, by the German philosopher Eugen Herrigel, is an interesting book on the topic. In the introduction, D.T. Suzuki writes that the practice of archery in Japan is “meant to train the mind … to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.” When archery is practiced in this way, Suzuki writes, “the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but are one reality.

Herrigel’s book documents his six years spent in Japan studying with a master archer named Kenzo Awa. Herrigel describes the long process of learning simply to draw the bamboo bow with proper form. Still more time went toward learning to release the arrow with the same mindlessness as a leaf in a rain shower tipping to release its water. One day, after years of practice, he succeeded in loosing the arrow such a way. Awa stopped and exclaimed:

“Just then ‘It’ shot.”

In such instances, a simple motion, the result of years of constant practice, becomes the physical expression of a higher understanding. Herrigel had released hundreds, if not thousands, of arrows up to that point, but never without self-consciously doing so. To a master like Awa, the difference was instantly recognizable. Likewise, it is entirely possible that my friend Thomas’ master had hit his instructor in the past, but never before had “It” hit. From the outside, the experience might seem similar, but internally there is a profound difference.

It is very common for climbers to recount such experiences. When working to piece together a climb that rides the edge of our ability, we often enter a state where the movements seem to execute themselves. Holds that once were too far or too small feel closer, larger, right beneath our fingers and toes when we need them most. We flow through the climb acutely aware yet without consciously planning our actions. The climber and the climb, like the archer and his target, finally become one reality.

“Both martial arts and rock climbing require the practitioner to push body and mind … to work as a single entity in the moment,” Thomas wrote in his email. “And any time you do that, you’re scratching at the surface of existence.”

To me, there is no greater experience on a climb.

What about you? Have you scratched the surface? Have you felt “It” climb?

10 Tips for Climbing on Opposite Day

Illustration of person climbing perfectly... on opposite day

Remember Opposite Day? That special time when we were kids where everything we said was magically inverted to mean the contrary? Such power we wielded! I recently discovered that January 25th is the pseudo-official date of this imaginary “holiday.” But in my opinion, the best thing about Opposite Day is that it can be invoked at any time — a sort of floating Shangri-La of sarcasm that materializes when called.

With that in mind, I have compiled the following 10 tips for how to climb on Opposite Day, for total beginners and experienced rock wrastlers alike. Follow these tips carefully to become a great climber… Not!

1. Hold your breath – Science has shown that only through holding your breath can you create the proper body tension required to climb. To prepare for vertical voluntary apnea, practice not breathing in a safe place close to the ground. That way, when you pass out, you won’t have far to fall. Recommended breath-holding practice locations include a sofa, bed, or crashpad. To be avoided: hot tubs, the high limbs of trees, a closed room containing a pack of hungry pugs.

2. Care about looking cool – Few things are more important to a real climber than appearance. Favorite skinny jeans and striped tank top in the washer? Better to stay home than to head to the crag. Feeling a little bland at the gym? Try getting an arm-sleeve tattoo, capping your matted crop of dreadlocks with an ill-fitting trucker hat, or growing an ironic mustache. The self-confidence you gain from your new appearance will be all you need to power you up the wall.

3. Carry as little water and food as possible – The only edible thing Clint Eastwood brought up the Totem Pole in the cult classic The Eiger Sanction was beer. And he didn’t even mean to bring that — his good-for-nothin’ partner slipped it in his pack. The takeaway here is that hydration and nutrition are for sissies. A good rule of thumb before a long multi-pitch day in the desert is: one tall glass of water before you leave in the morning and, if you feel you need it, another when you get back to your van. As for that gobbledygook about “bonking”? Go sit in an empty chair — Clint will tell you what you can do with your Camelbak and Clif Bars.

4. Use you arms – Can you do 10 pull-ups? Then you can do at least 10 climbing moves. It is commonly known that the best rock climbers have spindly little legs, and that’s because their lower limbs, like the human appendix, are borderline vestigial, used only for transporting their powerful upper bodies to the base of the climb.

5. Wing it – As it’s Opposite Day, I won’t hesitate to let you in on a little secret: belaying requires neither information nor practice. I mean, you pull the rope through the doohickey and then when your climber falls, you grab tight and hold on for the ride. It doesn’t matter how far the climber falls as long as he stops short of the ground. Or at least slows significantly before impact. And to answer your question: Yes, those rope burns on your palms are normal.

6. Throw your helmet in the trash – You probably have one of those friends who swears that it’s safer to drive without a seatbelt because, in the event of an accident, he’s likely to be thrown from the car and safely into a soft pile of dried leaves. Turns out your friend is right. And a similar logic applies to helmets. For example, if you’re struck by lightning, today’s modern foam-and-plastic brain buckets would almost certainly be fused to your head. Not worth the risk!

7. If you can’t climb it, chip it – There is more than enough rock in the world for everyone to climb. Therefore, if you’re trying to do something that’s just too hard, or maybe tweaks your shoulder a little bit, grab a hammer and a chisel and make like Michelangelo. No one will notice, and even if they do, they’ll probably thank you for transforming nature’s half-assed rocks into king lines. Boom goes the dynamite!

8. Freak out – No one ever climbed anything worthwhile with a level head. When you realize that you don’t have enough cams to protect the rest of the crack you’re trying to tackle, do the following very important steps: 1) contract all the muscles in your body. 2) Start hyperventilating. 3) Babble hysterically to yourself, the wall, and your belayer. 4) Start unclipping the remaining gear from your harness and flinging it into space. 5) Disrobe as much as possible. 6) Give up on life and climb as high as you can above your last piece of gear. Good luck!

9. Pump up the volume – Birds singing, a babbling brook, the whistling whisper of wind between the trees and boulders… Eff that ish! Time to bust out the iPod and portable speakers and blast some dubstep. How else are you going to get psyched?! Of course, once you’re up on the rock, breaking the rad barrier to the unrelenting, grinding pulse of Deadmau5, you’re also going to want to cut loose with some Ondra roars and unedited expletive explosions. How else will people know you’re not just out climbing some rock like all these other n00bs?

10. ABC (Always Be Climbing) – Any fast food chain owner will tell you: success isn’t about quality, it’s a matter of sheer volume. Climbing every day or even multiple times per day, is the quickest way to get stupid strong. Tendon pain? Partially dislocated shoulder? Exhaustion-induced illness? Meer bumps in the road to glory. Now get back on that wall and give me 20 laps.