Like the probing face of a star-nosed mole, my fingers rummage the powdery contents of the little cloth bag: magnesium carbonate, MgCO3, “an inorganic salt that is a white solid,” occasionally used as a laxative, it’s a taxidermist’s trick to mix the stuff with hydrogen peroxide when bleaching skulls. I switch hands back and forth into the bag while I consider my course of action. This is the ritual of chalk.
Sixty years ago, Gill imported its use from gymnastics, where it served as a grip aid on the various apparatuses. “When I demonstrated the efficacy of chalk—which I had bought at the Jackson Pharmacy—most climbers were instantly seduced,” he wrote, “although some purists initially rejected it as unethical (Chouinard had qualms).”
The western rim of the canyon cleaves a long, straight sliver off the edge of the setting sun, sends it beaming down through the bare tree branch lattice and straight into the shadowy space between me the granite monolith. The climb is tall—taller than I’d like, given my single sketch pad slumped over roots and rocks at the base.
Smooth-cornered chalk clumps tumble lightly under the motion of my fingers. I pore over the rock for ghostly traces, signs of previous passage. For every stab of anxiety, I compress a clump, feel it fracture and disintegrate into tiny fragments and dust. I rub it between my thumb and forefinger and it fills the contours of my fingerprints, absorbing the fine moisture.
I withdraw my hand and a pale cloud expands into space. The golden sunbeam catches it and throws each meandering particle into high-definition relief against the dark hillside. I press two columns of breath through my nose, blasting the dust into turbulent whorls.
Finally, I put the bag down and clap once. The report echoes off the cottonwood trees and into the shadows. The chalk is everywhere now, filling the air around me. I can feel it dancing in my lungs, taste it in the back of my throat. It tastes as close to nothing as anything.
I make contact with the monolith—skin, chalk, stone. I move up, away from the ground, buoyed on invisible currents, lit by the winnowing sunlight for a moment, just before the canyon drops fully into shadow, leaving me and the chalk dusk in the cold blue space, doing our little dance for no special reason.
“The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one and the further the other will recede.”
—Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel
We all have goals. We want to improve, be better, have more, do more… This is the natural state of affairs, especially here in the West. The opportunity strive, to rise above, to achieve greatness of stature and wealth—it’s the American dream, isn’t it? The reason so many immigrants have sought a life here…
At the same time, this goal-focused mind is also the source of a lot of problems. For many, having enough isn’t satisfactory. There is an excess of greed and thoughtless waste. On average, we’re wealthier than many other nations, but not necessarily happier with ourselves and our lives.
I think what’s happening is that many of us focus only on the next goal, the next want or need, without considering the foundational goals that are lifelong and fulfilling, that give lasting happiness instead of just a temporary fix. Constantly focusing our energy on small goals and their transient rewards, I’ve noticed, can lead us farther away from where we really want to be.
As a long-time rock climber, I’ve been striving to improve for over 20 years, always chasing some goal or other: a new grade, a particularly proud route, a powerful boulder problem… . When I’m not in shape, I feel a little frustrated and want to climb at least as I did when I was fitter. When I’m fit, I want to climb harder than ever before. Of course, at a certain point, I will climb the hardest route I’m ever going to climb. I’m not sure if I’ve reached that point yet, but I might have and don’t even know it. It would be hard to accept, but accept it I must—we all will peak and, in keeping with the basic rules of living, decline. What then? Will climbing no longer bring me happiness?
I don’t think people want to ask this question, or they’re come up with a funny answer to deflect the unpleasantness of it. But it’s worth asking, because it can put our motivations in a different context. Just as the man on his deathbed isn’t likely to say, “I only wish I could have bought more stuff,” so will we find few climbers facing their final hours saying, “If only I could have climbed one grade harder.”
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the desire to improve. There are many valuable lessons to be learned in the perfection of one’s craft. But it’s the fixation on the improvement, the numbers and personal bests, that can muddy our vision. It’s the gaining mindset, an addiction to the rush of accomplishment or accolades rather than a steady seeking of a deeper sense of fulfillment that a well-centered, lifelong practice can bring.
Sometimes I’m happy with my climbing performance, and some days I’m not as happy, but I always try to let those feeling pass through me and not hold on to them. Instead of seeking my satisfaction in the latest challenge, I try to let myself enjoy each day as it comes; to be comfortable with myself, my thoughts, and my mortality; to act in accordance with my beliefs and values. Like distant peaks, goals like these can seem impossibly large and far away, but when taken one moment at a time and one step at a time, the become more manageable.
In the end, climbing can lend itself to the goal-seeking mindset, but I think it can also can show us the way to larger understandings, to spiritual fulfillment, if you want to think of it in those terms. In his introduction to Zen in the Art of Archery, Daisetz T. Suzuki explains that the practice of archery in Japan and other Eastern cultures is “not intended for utilitarian purposes only or for purely aesthetic enjoyments, but [is] meant to train the mind; indeed, to bring it into contact with the ultimate reality.”
Big, right? But by working tirelessly and in earnest for mastery for its own sake, without the desire to hit some specific target (or tick some grade), art forms like archery or climbing can afford us such contact.
If only we can learn to let go of the little goals that obscure the big ones.
“No, I can’t do it!” she said, “I”m coming down.”
“C’mon now, just try the move; I’m right here,” I said.
We were bouldering in the climbing gym, and my wife Kristin was about eight feet off the ground, hanging from a sizable jug and eyeing down a long move to another jug. To me it was clear that she could make the reach with some momentum and a fat slice of commitment, but to her it seemed beyond reach.
“Nope,” she said, and let her feet dangle, a sure sign she was ready to drop. Back safely on the ground, she explained that she maybe wasn’t tall enough to make the move. “Well, what’s wrong with trying?” I asked; the worst that would happen would be a fall onto a squishy expanse of mats, nothing she hadn’t experienced a hundred times before. She just shrugged.
“Let’s go upstairs,” she urged. Instead of engaging with the uncomfortable, my wife was redirecting her energy towards something less threatening. Upstairs was a steep plywood training wall, packed from end to end with holds on a grid—it was about half as high as the one we were standing beneath. “Upstairs it is,” I agreed. I might be an old dog, but I’ve learned not to force such issues.
Up on the training woody, we tried a game I used to play with my climbing buddies back in New York, each making up problems for the other on the fly. “Now the blue pinch!” I said, stretching to point out a hold while she clung to the wall, awaiting the next move. I was quickly surprised by some of the moves she was pulling—much harder than the one that had stumped her on the taller wall downstairs. I indicated a long lateral pull to a small edge, expecting she wouldn’t quite be able to stick it. But she did… and several more like it before she ran out of steam.
Back at home, we talked about our trip to the gym. I pointed out that she’d done much harder moves on the training woody than on the taller bouldering wall downstairs.
“Yeah, because I wasn’t scared,” she said with a sheepish grin.
The problem was deceptively simple. Fear (mostly irrational) of falling and injury was clearly the cause of my wife’s hesitation on the wall, but how could she change the way she felt?
I think there were several factors that played into Kristin’s fear. One was the fact that she didn’t trust her own ability. She’s still relatively new to climbing, and isn’t used to slipping into the climbing mindset. When she’s on the wall, she brings her analytic mind with her, holding a conversation in her head about the consequences of each move. The makes it hard to just climb, without hesitation and inhibitions.
An idea for addressing this came from my friend Nick. He suggested that whenever Kristin starts to feel scared on a boulder problem, she should look down and, assuming a safe landing zone, drop. This helps her realize that a fall from the spot that was causing anxiety really wouldn’t be so bad, after all. Similarly, I used to take controlled lead falls with a trusted belayer until I was thoroughly accustomed to the sensation. Such techniques can help build a foundation of experiences in which falls don’t result in anything negative. With that in place, letting go of fear becomes easier and easier, freeing us to climb with mind in body in synch, instead of at odds.
Improving strength through specific training—like our little game on the woody, hangboarding, pull-ups, etc.—is also a good way to build a sense of confidence. When you grab a small crimp high above your last piece of pro, doubting your ability to hold on creates stress. Feeling strong and in control can ease the sense of risk and allow you to move up without fear and even use your strength more efficiently. Likewise, playing around with balance drills and footwork exercises will improve one’s sense of security. These are just a few of the many ways in which mind and body are intertwined in climbing.
In the book Performance Rock Climbing, authors Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann talk about the idea of “engrams,” which are complex body movements coded into our neural networks. There’s an engram for doing a backstep on a steep wall, comprising the many muscle actions that need to happen to execute the motion. Same for a big dyno or a campus move. Solving new problems is usually a matter of applying engrams from our libraries to the challenges at hand. That’s why experienced climbers can often perform well even when out of shape or advanced in years—their engram libraries are stocked with high-quality tools, applicable to nearly limitless situations.
If the theory is correct, engrams are another example of the fuzzy boundary between mind and body in climbing. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki says, “Our body and mind are not two and not one. If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think that they are one, that is also wrong. Our body and mind are both two and one.” I think this is an important thing to remember when we are working on improving our climbing. We can work on our physical strengths and our mental strengths independently, but in the end we can’t separate them entirely. When we climb, we must use both and work to find ways that the one can reinforce the other in a positive feedback loop.
Kristin seemed excited by our session on the training wall because it allowed her to push her limits without worrying so much about safety. She plans to go back and continue to strengthen the mental as well as the physical. After that, I have no doubt she’ll be able to apply what she’s learned to the taller boulders downstairs at the gym and outside, too. But the most important thing is that she does it because it continues to be fun. As long as that’s the case, nothing is unpossible.
The missus and I headed down for some bouldering in Moe’s Valley this Thanksgiving weekend. The mornings were cold and the middays and afternoons just right, bordering on too warm. For much of the day, the naked sun created a sharp contrast in the scrubby desert landscape that lent itself nicely to black-and-white imagery. Here, a little gallery following Kristin (and our dog Pebble) through a day at the boulders. Did you get out this Thanksgiving weekend?