Everyday Climbing

Jason Danforth on The Mercy Seat, New River Gorge, West Virginia. Photo: Teddy Au

The new fall air was just starting to settle into the Salt Lake Valley, so I took a quick solo trip up Little Cottonwood Canyon to boulder. After topping out a tall problem, I walked down the backside of the formation, taking precautions not to catch a toe. Even a minor slip up on that sloping surface could have been very unpleasant, likely funneling me down into a pit of angular blocks and ankle-snapping tree roots.

So I was very aware of my body as I moved, as aware as when I had been while climbing the problem itself, and it occurred to me that the walk-off was still a part of the climb. The climbing mindset of focused, unselfconscious awareness, fluid motion paired with steady breath, continued here.

Back on my bouldering pad, unlacing my shoes, the nerves of my fingertips hummed the chords of the rough rock. I straightened my spine and regarded the wind, visible in the wobble of the sun-lit leaves. This too, was a part of the climb.

All at once it was clear that the boundary between “life” and “climbing” is actually quite fuzzy, if not imaginary, and that we probably should resist the urge to divide the two. It made sense to me that we should climb as if eating breakfast — just an everyday thing. Also, we should live our everyday lives as if climbing in some wild place — it is an extraordinary thing.

A lot of accidents happen on the descent from or the approach to a climb, on some easy fourth-class scramble, on the drive to or from climbing, even around the house. I think this is because we let our awareness slacken and treat what we’re doing in the moment as an aside, thus becoming more vulnerable to the mundane catastrophes of the world.

With or without the distractions of the digital era, most of us are just barely aware of ourselves or our surroundings during the day. We run on autopilot, focused on fears and fantasies projected onto the screens of our minds.

One thing that most people mention when talking about climbing is the nowness they experience while doing it, the stilled thoughts and clarity of being. It’s not always like this, of course; we can be scared or bored while climbing, exhausted or preoccupied with problems from work or home. But climbing’s mental and physical challenges can help quiet the noise of what Shunryu Suzuki calls our “monkey mind.”

Where do you draw the line between the climb and your life? Do you write on your Facebook page things like, “In the office, dreaming of climbing”? You are saying that your time in the office is not really living, and that you will live your life at some future moment, and under some special circumstances. This doesn’t seem right to me. I think it’s much better to be in the office (or at a family reunion, or the DMV, or wherever) as if you were on a climb.

Don’t wait for the rock to fulfill you; the rock can only show you what is already there. Carry the stone inside your mind. Let it be part of your life at every moment.

Zen Story: A Flash of Enlightenment

A chalk bag with a piece of paper coming out of it that reads, "Answers."

In the Zen tradition, there are many stories describing students and masters who achieve sudden and profound insights during everyday activities. Much of this blog is inspired or informed by such stories, which I have found usefully collected in the book Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen WritingsThe following is a climbing version of the Zen story, based loosely on a true story my friend recounted to me.

An accomplished climber planned a trip to a beautiful limestone crag with the goal of flashing one of the area’s most intimidating and difficult routes, a 40-meter overhanging face that won the praise of all who attempted it.

To flash is to climb, on the first attempt, from the bottom to the top of a route without falling. One must not make any mistakes, or at least no mistakes that cannot be reversed and corrected, so the climber went to a local master who had completed the route and asked for advice.

“I do not think you need any help from me,” said the master of the man’s request.

“Maybe not, but the route is exceptional. Flashing it has been a goal of mine for many years, and it would mean a lot to me,” the climber pressed.

“If it means so much to you, I will help you — with one condition: you must promise not to look at my instruction unless you absolutely need them.”

“Fine,” conceded the climber, “I promise.” The master then turned and wrote something on a piece of paper. Folding it up, he handed it to the climber, who thanked him profusely.

The next day, when the climber arrived at his objective, he tucked the master’s note into his chalk bag and started up. He climbed slowly and purposefully through most of the route, but very near the top, he encountered a difficult section of climbing and stopped. Tired and worried about the climbing ahead, he dangled from a good rest hold and tried to figure out how  best to proceed.

His belayer, tending the rope from far below, observed the climber fussing with his chalk bag tied around his waist, pulling it around in front of him, then scooting it off to the side and shaking it vigorously.

“What are you doing?” shouted up the belayer.

“I don’t want to blow it; I’m going to see what advice the master gave me!” the climber called down.

Finally, the climber succeeded in extracting the note. With one hand he clung to the rock, unfolding the paper with the other. There before him was a detailed description of all the moves he had already completed on his own, but of the final moves above, the sheet said only:

“Enjoy the good rest and contemplate not blowing it at the final crux.”

With that, he was enlightened.

Karl Says: Don’t Text and Drive

driving_the_wadi
Still safer than texting while driving? Karl pilots the Humvee through the wadi and manages not to spill his coffee.

Karl has the Hummer’s accelerator pinned. The engine growls and hammers, propelling the seven-foot wide metal beast through the channels of the wadi, Arabic for dry river bed. The fat rubber tires munch up a steep sand hillside, sending us into a moment of zero G as we hit the crest. In the rear of the vehicle, two of my colleagues struggle to stand like drunk water skiers, their hands clutching the roll bar, feet straddling the open bed for stability, while Karl wrenches the wheel sideways and sends us skidding into a tight turn.

Relatively at ease, Karl holds the steering wheel with one hand; in the other, he has an unnecessarily large cup of coffee from the mess hall. There’s no lid on the half-full container, so he is holding it aloft, tilting it this way and that to keep it level as the Hummer rises and falls around us like a boat on a wild sea.

Far from the region where the term originated, this wadi is in rural Arkansas, on the grounds of a 777-acre military and law-enforcement training center called T1G (a “one-stop solution for multi-echelon training in weapons & tactics, operational medicine, breaching, and on/off-road driving,” according to the website). Karl, a retired Green Beret and T1G instructor who’s helping me and a film crew produce a video here, steps out with his coffee cup still half-full, minus the couple of sips he snuck along the way.

“And that, gentleman, concludes our tour of the wadi,” he says.

Karl is tall, broad-shouldered, and barrel chested. He has a wide, white-toothed smile, and a neat coif of dark brown hair atop a high forehead. He reminds me of Buzz Lightyear, minus the space suit and plus a sadistic sense of humor. He throws around phrases like “Mixing metal with meat” and “Opening the bad guys’ minds to new worlds of opportunity,” the latter accompanied by a hand gesture mimicking an exploding head.

“Come to think of it, I’ve never killed anyone with a spear, either,” he says at one point, àpropos of I’m not sure what. It is impossible to determine his level of seriousness.

That evening, as we tear down an empty stretch of dirt road on the way out of the training grounds, Karl does something kind of funny: he pulls his Jeep over and starts plugging away at his BlackBerry’s doll-sized keyboard.

“I never text while driving,” he explains. “It’s a pet peeve of mine.”

As he says this, I notice Karl is wearing two hearing aids. Over dinner I learn these are the result of a rocket attack that blew out his eardrums. This guy who’s been in scores of firefights, who chooses his seat in public places with a strategic view of the ingress and egress points, who teaches special forces guys how to shoot, drive, and think like warriors… the thing this guy doesn’t mess around with is the same thing your mom hounds you about.

I understand that pet peeves aren’t usually rational. They’re just little things that get under your skin for some idiosyncratic reason. Still, Karl’s passing statement forced me to reassess my cavalier use of a smartphone while piloting a motor vehicle. And once you start thinking about it, it’s hard not to feel like a douchebag for putting lives in jeopardy simply to tell someone “sup 2nite lol.” I mean, whiskey tango foxtrot?

I recently read an interesting article by Jared Diamond about something he calls “constructive paranoia,” or the idea that we should pay heed to “hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently.” Driving is precisely such a hazard. On any given day, your likelihood of getting into an accident is relatively low, but since most of us drive every day, and multiple times a day, the odds… well, things start to add up.

I try remind myself of this every time I start to reach, zombie-like, for my phone buzzing on the dashboard. It’s not as if someone just sent me a message: “Reply in 30 secs to abort nuclear launch.” Or even, “Reply in 30 secs to claim your free latte.” It doesn’t happen. Hands at 10 and 2, people. For Chrissakes, just let it wait.

That’s not to say that by not texting, you’ll be safe. Not at all.

Driving — along with smoking and the fast-food-and-TV lifestyle — is still one of the riskiest things we civilians do on a daily basis. All the more reason to practice “constructive paranoia.” And look at it this way: at least checking replies on your most recent Facebook status won’t be the thing that turns your innocent trip to the grocery store into a case of metal mixing, painfully and bloodily, with meat.

The Joy of Suffering

Like fun… only difference. Rick descending Mt. Huntington in a storm.
Like fun… only different. Rick descending Mt. Huntington in a storm.

My friend Rick and his climbing partner Adam had just finished some mixed ice and rock climbs in Alaska. While on the route Shaken Not Stirred, on the Moose’s Tooth, Rick’s arm had been buzz-sawed by a falling dinner plate of ice, leaving it bruised and numb, and Adam tore his lips open while trying to blow snow out of a frozen ice screw. They climbed another route, Ham and Eggs, and then settled in at basecamp, ready to head home. Unfortunately, some bad weather kept the air taxi from its scheduled pick-up and, after a few days socked in, the pair found themselves nearly out of food, swapping gel packets with another party stuck on the glacier in an effort to keep a modicum of variety in their calorie-poor diets.

During their unplanned stay, Rick and Adam were mostly confined to a small bivvy tent. The snow was falling so fast and heavy that they could hear it cascading over the waterproof shell. So they sat and sipped melted snow, read, listened to music, watched Chappelle’s Show on Rick’s tablet — whatever they could do to ward off terminal boredom and hunger pangs. Every so often, the sound of the wind and snowfall would stop.

“That’s when we played a little game,” explains Rick. “We called it ‘Stopped Snowing, or Buried?'” At some point the storm would pass and their ride would buzz in from Talkeetna — that would be the “stopped snowing” option. But mostly when it went quiet it was because the snow had accumulated enough to cover the tent, burying them. When this happened, it was time to get out and dig.

Eventually the skies cleared, the plane landed, and everyone got home safely. But on the way back, Rick, already a tall and skinny dude, had to walk around Anchorage with one hand dedicated to keeping his pants up, now several sizes too big thanks to the alpine weight loss program.

Of course, none of this stopped Rick from going back into the mountains. He just returned from a trip to the Bugaboos with his wife, and he’s probably already plotting something big for next year — a trip to Patagonia or the like — with his sufferbuddy, Chris.

There’s a bumper sticker that reads, “Your worst nightmare is my dream vacation.” Typically attributed to alpine pursuits, it could just as well apply for folks who run ultra marathons, wriggle through shoulder-width, lightless caves deep underground, or plummet down rock-strewn, high-angle chutes on skis. Writing a book or a PhD dissertation could be seen as similarly nightmarish scenarios for the average person.

The truth is, while undertaking any grand quest, you will find yourself at varying points exhausted, frustrated, scared, in physical pain, or just praying for it all to be over. But when it is over, there is almost always a magical moment when the suffering that seemed so present and oppressive in the moment evaporates and you find yourself suffused with a profound joy. Soon, you’ll seek out the same kind of challenge again. Why? Alpinist and writer Kelly Cordes offers the old adage that an alpinist’s finest asset is a short memory. But maybe there’s something more to it…

Both Rick and Kelly admit that, on some level, suffering isn’t just something we put out of our minds to make room for a sense of fulfillment; it’s also an active part of that fulfillment.

“We place a higher value on things we have to work for,” Rick said. “And fear, pain, and exhaustion are very poignant, universally recognizable forms of work.”

Likewise, Kelly lists suffering as an ingredient in a powerful emotional stew: “Only the laziest slob would argue that putting forth effort in something is never rewarding, and so you magnify that effort, require something huge of yourself that includes some suffering, put yourself in the most beautiful places on the planet, rely completely on yourself and your partner and nobody else, no societal bullshit, no people drama, no petty daily toils, and no excuses, and it creates the most lasting memories of your life.”

In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes, “We should find the truth in this world, through our difficulties, through our suffering. This is the basic teaching of Buddhism. Pleasure is not different from difficulty.” I think this is exactly the strange contradiction that people like Kelly or Rick, or Rick’s wife who is a diehard cross fit practitioner, or my friend who runs 100 mile races through the mountains, understand intuitively, almost compulsively. Seeking to strain out the difficulties of life and leave only the pleasurable and agreeable will leave nothing but a meagre broth behind.

The challenges in life, like the successes, are just a part of an endlessly swirling tableaux of ends and beginnings, discovering and forgetting, creating and destroying. Along the way, hopefully, we use them to learn who we are and what we believe. Without failure and struggle, what joy could we take from any endeavor? What would inspire us? These experiences — the ones my friend Roody calls, “Like fun, only different” — offer a kind of freedom that’s hard to get at in any other way. As Kelly puts it, “Nothing makes me feel so alive as climbing in the mountains.”