What I Know Now: Collected Insights on Climbing and Life

The Thinker statue

At the turn of midnight, as 2013 gave way to 2014, my wife and I queued up and played our “song of the year” through my iPhone’s wimpy speakers in a little hotel room in St. George, Utah. For this year’s song we picked “Ooh la la,” by the Faces. The refrain goes: “I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger. I wish that I knew what I know now when I was stronger.”

Inspired by “Ooh la la,” I started thinking of all the insights I would have wanted access to 20 years ago, as a beginning climber. To get a broader perspective than I could offer myself, I decided to reach out to a few of the many climbers I’ve met over the years with loads of experience and whose opinions I respect a great deal. I gave them the prompt: What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?

I was touched that so many busy folks took time to write back. Here, they offer nuggets of wisdom unearthed over the course of a combined 363 years of climbing experience (give or take). Some of them even raised the same doubts I had about the prompt for this post. “I think a lot of the stuff that I’ve had to learn has helped me develop into the person I am,” writer and Rock and Ice editor-at-large Andrew Bisharat responded. “I’m not sure I would wish that I didn’t have to go through those experiences.” I’m not sure about that, either. Still, I think that wisdom and insight is worth sharing, even if, as Kelly Cordes’ story illustrates below, it doesn’t necessarily stop you from making mistakes.

At the end of “Ooh la la,” there’s a lyric that sums things up nicely: “There’s nothing I can say; you’ll have to learn just like me, and that’s the hardest way.” Sounds like a challenge. With that, I wish you the best of luck. May your every misstep, mistake, or epic fail be a building block for a better life, in 2014 and beyond.

Dougald MacDonaldDougald MacDonald. Editor, American Alpine Journal. Climbing 35 years.

I wish I’d had more patience on big mountains when I was younger, because then I might have gotten up more of them. I have a tendency to rush toward the top, starting too soon or too low, and often I fail to eat and drink enough, or just run out of gas. For all that we celebrate speed climbs, the successful mountaineers tend to be those that take the time to do things right: acclimatize well, pack the right gear, wait for the best weather or snow conditions, consume enough calories and liquids, keep hands, feet, and face warm and dry, etc., etc. Now that I’m older, I move slower but get to the top more often.

Beth RoddenBeth Rodden. Professional climber. Climbing 19 years.

I wish I would have known to savor or really appreciate the simplicities of my 20s and my climbing career at that point. Living out of a van, waking up crushing each day, eating a can of soup, and repeating the next day. There’s something about that simple life that, at the time, seems so given, so right, so normal. Before the complexities of other desires really set in: a house, a family, stability—all, of course, things that I want, but that add to the difficulty of maintaining that carefree lifestyle. I definitely enjoyed myself back then and loved what I was doing, but never saw it changing, never thought that maybe it wouldn’t be an every day/season occurrence to sleep on the side of El Cap and establish a new free route.

Fitz CahallFitz Cahall. Creator, The Dirtbag Diaries.
Climbing 16 years.

I wish had understood that failure is a pivotal part of the process. When I’m saying failure, I’m not talking about blowing onsights and sending a sport climb second go. I’m talking about wretched, abject butt kickings, the kind of thing that would have been embarrassing to report upon return to Camp 4. I had a few of those and that led me to approach climbing with a very steady progression in mind. I had to be near flawless. Often that’s how climbing felt to me—perfect. I believed that when I did El Cap in a day for the first time, I should be able to make it down in time to the pizza deck. I got to that stage, but it required fuck-ups. I just wished I’d gone for it more at 23. Later, after my physical skills had diminished, I realized that had been holding me back. I should have bitten off more than I could chew on a regular basis, because the steady progression, well, I felt like I sort of ended up running out of time before my body wore down and I became consumed by other things. I still love climbing. I’ve just learned to hurl myself at the routes I want to do and see how it goes—more often than not, I end up surprising myself. Plus, the pizza deck is overrated.

Alex HonnoldAlex Honnold. Professional climber. Climbing 18 years.

I guess two things that go together: to make every effort count and to take rest days. Basically, they both sort of mean that quality is more important than quantity. It’s better to try really, really hard once than half-ass something over and over. Which is where resting comes in, because it allows you to try things with max effort.

Kelly CordesKelly Cordes. Alpinist, writer, margarita expert.
Climbing 20 years.

My biggest mistakes have been obvious things, things I knew but simply neglected to do. Fuck-ups. The single biggest one was really a moment of complacency. I wish I hadn’t had that moment of inattentiveness, when instead of ensuring that the rope was tight before I lowered, with my belayer unable to see me, I just leaned back. That was four years ago almost exactly, and suddenly my leg was flopping off to the side. In an instant everything changed for me, and it’s been a huge challenge ever since. But I already knew well the dangers of complacency. And still I blew it. Four surgeries later, I limp, deal with pain every day as a constant in my life—usually low-level, but enough to prevent me from doing (at least at the same level and frequency) the thing I love most: climbing in the mountains. I got great medical care, but it was a devastating type of fracture. It’s just the way shit goes sometimes. Dammit.

Whitney BolandWhitney Boland. Writer, climber. Climbing 12 years.

I wish I knew how important it was to mix it up and not get too sucked into one thing. I’m a little obsessive, which is why redpoint climbing appealed to me when I started climbing 12 years ago. I could throw myself at something over and over again, fueled by my blinding, single-minded obsession. It largely appealed to my background—14 years of competitive gymnastics training, in which you train single moves or routines to perfection—but also to the way I approach life. But over the years, as I work backwards sometimes to break my habits, I’ve found more enjoyment in all types of climbing and exposing myself to new climbs, experiences and techniques. It’s made me a better climber and more appreciative of how impressively satisfying climbing can truly be.

Rob PizemRob Pizem. Husband, father, rock climber.
Climbing 20 years.

I wish that I knew that just trying hard would not get you to reach your potential without learning and using good climbing technique. Also that you never know who you will influence, so don’t be a jerk!

Chuck OdetteChuck Odette. Climber, event and athlete coordinator. Climbing 35 years.

Understanding the concept of “climbing means nothing” was a huge breakthrough for my performance. In the scheme of the universe, what we do means very little. Once this concept is grasped, it’s easy to “let go” of ego. Performance anxiety is no longer present. The desire to succeed is no longer the primary motivator. Instead, it’s replaced with a state of empty mind, which opens the flow for neural pathways. This allows the body to react more quickly and naturally. Climbing is movement and movement is natural. It should always be enjoyable. Quit trying and just do…

Michael KennedyMichael Kennedy. Recovering alpinist, former editor/pundit. Climbing 43 years.

The one thing I wish I’d known when I was younger is the importance of balance: keeping family, friends, work, and climbing in harmony—not overdoing any one at the expense of the others. Focus is good, but you have to value and nurture your relationships and really pay attention to all aspects of life.

Alex LowtherAlex Lowther. Producer, Big UP Productions.
Climbing 14 years.

I wish I’d realized earlier how simple the physical act of rock climbing is. Rock climbing is: positioning the feet to best use the current handholds to go up. Within this simple explanation are numerous variables. Hip position, exactly how you’re grabbing a hold, efficiency, where your chest is, what you’re looking at, what you’re thinking about, temps, fuck, the humidity! But it all boils down to your hands and your feet. But really mostly your feet. And your hands. Repeat. Plus: Crag beer. Bring one for your partner, too. Even warm, at that moment it’s still the greatest beer on earth.

Brendan LeonardBrendan Leonard. Writer, semi-rad adventurer.
Climbing 9 years.

I wish I had found more people who climb harder than me to partner with, or focused on learning more than doing. I’ve been climbing for almost nine years now, and finally said yes to a friend who wanted to take me up a wall and teach me how to lead some aid pitches—and all I can think is, “What if I really like it? That’s going to open up so many possibilities…”

BJ SbarraBJ Sbarra. Climber, developer, purveyor of stoke. Climbing 20 years.

Working on your strengths is fun, and it’s easy to stay inside your comfort zone, but if you really want to progress, you are going to have to step outside that bubble and put yourself in situations you find uncomfortable. If you are afraid of taking falls, take lots of falls. If you have a hard time on crimps, go find a bunch of crimpy routes and relentlessly pursue perfection while climbing them. If you are afraid of climbing in front of other people, go do it anyway, because the sooner you get rid of that weight hanging around your neck, the sooner you’ll feel free and your climbing, and your enjoyment of it will rise to a whole new level. Don’t forget one of the main reasons why we climb in the first place: to wrestle with chaos and learn something from the experience. Let go of control and trust the process, it’ll get you where you need to be.

Peter BealPeter Beal. Teacher, coach, boulderer, writer.
Climbing 38 years.

I learned to climb in a time when the sport was developing and was painfully aware of “rules” and an often-punishing community consensus that ostracized independent thinkers. As I progressed I realized that the innovations and achievements that I valued in the sport came not from the rule-enforcers but from the rule-breakers. Now after almost 40 years in the sport, I am pleased to see that the naysayers mostly no longer climb and the practices that I received grief for when I was younger are now standard practice for young and old alike. Regardless of what you climb and how long you have been at it, follow your own vision. You may live long enough to see it become normal!

Mike DoyleMike Doyle. “Just a climber.” Climbing 22 years.

Honestly I wish that I knew the benefit of getting stronger at a younger age. I used to think that getting pumped meant I was just not fit enough so I trained endurance all the time. What I didn’t understand was that if you became stronger you could hold on with less effort, thus not getting as pumped, while still being able to pull hard moves. As it stands now I can pretty easily still climb ‘fitness’ routes but I can’t pull a hard move.

Timmy ONeillTimmy O’Neill. Climber; actor; Executive Director, Paradox Sports. Climbing 25 years.

Since I discovered my adventured lifestyle I have incrementally changed over the decades of dirt naps and fast friendships. Similar to a sapling which develops deeper roots and greater heights my first climbing experience climbing germinated the devotion and joy that is my growing sequoia of voluntary risk and decisive ownership. In light of my limbs I remain the seed. Even though I am more aware of the location of the ground and the rope in relation to my body, the summit remains elusive. The continuum of struggle, wind, rain, failure and fear provide meaning and context to the audacity of being—I feel so I exist.

Emily HarringtonEmily Harrington. Professional climber.
Climbing 17 years.

I feel incredibly lucky to have grown up in the active and passionate climbing-focused community of Boulder, with amazing mentors and influences who guided me along the way. But I do wish I had realized exactly how lucky I was back then, and taken more advantage of it. I never tried to step outside my small sport climbing/competition world until recently, even though I probably had a better chance than most to embrace a more all-encompassing perspective on the sport I was so passionate about. I don’t necessarily regret my path in climbing, I just wish I’d known how much more climbing had to offer a little bit earlier in my career.

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