Category Archives: Climbing

Watch and Learn: The Importance of Observation in Improving Climbing Technique

climbers_watching

When my wife Kristin started going regularly to the climbing gym by her office around eight months ago, she was a beginner in every sense: strength, technique, and confidence. Up until then, when we went bouldering together I’d use the following criteria to help her find a problem to work on: I had to be able to do the problem in my approach shoes or sandals, sans chalk, and without at any point showing signs of exertion.

This past weekend, Kristin nearly finished a powerful V4 in the gym, opting to back off the scary final move rather than risk an out-of-control fall. Around the new year, she climbed a two V3s outside, pushing through the dicey top-outs that would have been non-starters just months previous. I told Kristin how impressed I was with her progress, particularly her technique and footwork, which has developed at least as fast as her strength.

“Well, I’ve been watching you and your friends climb for years,” she said, as if just observing more experienced climbers could account for her progress. At first I dismissed the comment, but maybe there’s something to it.

When a beginner asks how to become a better climber, the most common answer is, “Just get out and climb.” This response seems glib at first, as if denying the value of specific training for climbing. In part it’s an attitude that harkens back to the adventurous roots of climbing, the focus on self-reliance and toughness, nature and soul. It wasn’t so long ago that climbers like Tony Yaniro were berated for training for specific routes or problems; to the old guard it seemed out of keeping with the spirit of things.

But I also think “Just climb” is an acknowledgment of the fact that climbing is a very complex activity, involving a limitless combination of body movements over a surface, from slab to vertical to overhanging. Different rock types and formations create a vast array of features and varying coefficients of friction. Climbers of different shapes, sizes, and strengths all must solve the puzzle of the rock differently. Strength is useful, yes, but there are many more important lessons to learn.

To be able to climb well and smoothly, according to the book Performance Rock Climbing, by Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann, climbers must build a library of “engrams”—scripts for movement etched in the brain through physical practice. “Even when climbing a route for the first time,” Goddard and Neumann write, “a vast library of engrams allows you to recognize the moves that a particular arrangement of holds requires.”

How better to add engrams to your library, then, than to climb as many different types of rock and experience as many different movements as possible? In light of this, “Just get out and climb” doesn’t seem so glib. It might actually be the fastest route to improvement!

Interestingly, studies suggest that physical practice isn’t the only way to learn. Watching activates very similar pathways in the brain as does doing, which is what Kristin must have been picking up on. A 2009 paper by Scott T. Grafton, M.D., showed that the same regions of the brain are activated while performing an action and watching someone else perform it. “When we watch a video of a dancer, motor areas of the brain might activate automatically and unconsciously—even though our bodies are not actually moving—to find familiar patterns that we can use to interpret what we are watching. In other words, some sort of resonance takes place between the circuits for observing and for doing.” The study also showed that experienced dancers’ brains lit up more when watching familiar dances, suggesting that the connection between observation and action strengthens with experience.

Watching and then doing and then watching and then doing—could it be a kind of feedback loop that allows for a more rapid development of body awareness, of mental and physical connections between the way a movement feels and looks, and the results it yields on the rock? In a video recording his climbs at the 2014 Hueco Rock Rodeo, Sean McColl explained that he selected certain problems because he had access to footage of himself sending them in the past. Being able to watch himself climb a problem successfully likely helped Sean refamiliarize himself with the movements faster, reactivating brain pathways that had lain dormant without requiring him to actually get on the problem.

What I take from all this is that climbing with climbers better than yourself is one way to improve, and not just because their sick skillz inspire you to try harder. Plus, now you don’t have to feel guilty about spending so much time watching climbing videos—you might actually be upping your game in the process.

 

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.

Room to Relax

A boulderer climbing hard.

Kenny Barker bouldering at the Hawk’s Nest Damn, New River Gorge, West Virginia.

Climbers often think of bouldering as a matter of pure power. There’s some truth to that, but even in a game that the boulderer Ivan Greene once likened to wrestling a Mack Truck, there is room to relax, to lessen the grip, to breathe. The room is admittedly tight, but it’s every bit as important to bouldering well as it is to climbing a long sport or trad route.

The first time you try the moves of a hard boulder problem, you might find yourself expending maximum effort. You might not be able to breathe or you might find yourself shaking as you reach for the next hold. Your heart will beat double-time to shuttle oxygen to and carbon dioxide from your depleted muscles.

But the next time you try the problem, and the time after that, you’ll probably find things becoming a little less taxing. As you get accustomed to the specific holds and movements, to the requisite friction, you’ll start to find the space to relax, the moments to draw a breath or shake out your hand to let fresh blood back in.

Bouldering is about trying very hard, usually for very short periods of time. It is between those moments that you find the space to relax. The longer you climb, the better you get at exploring and inhabiting those spaces. It’s the yin and yang of bouldering: the exertion and the relaxation. Both are required. If you only breathe in or only breathe out, you won’t survive very long. If you never pulled hard, you wouldn’t make much progress on a hard boulder problem; but if you only pulled hard and never loosened your grip, you’d be just as stuck.

Most climbers focus only on increasing grip, forgetting to the importance of holding less tightly. At any given point on the climb, there’s probably a way to give your fingers a break — to put more pressure on your toe or a little more twist to your hips, for example. Maybe you’re just crimping harder than you need to—find that point between holding on and letting go and ride it as closely as possible. Every moment you can cut your effort is a moment you’ll be able to hold better at the crux, or at the top of the problem, when you’re tired and the pads and spotters seem far away.

Even in the heart of the most stressful times in our lives, there is likewise room to relax. It reminds me of the metaphor of the glass jar:

A professor fills a jar to the brim with rocks and asks his class, “Is this jar full?” The students nod in the affirmative, and so the professor pours small pebbles into the jar, filling in the uneven spaces between the rocks. “What about now, is the jar full?” he asks. The students nod more vigorously this time. Then the professor empties a bag of sand into the jar, shaking it to fill the gaps between even the pebbles. “Ah, now the jar is full!” he said. “Right?” A little dubious at this point, the students admit Yes, the jar is finally full. Picking up his mug as if to take a drink, the professor proceeds to pour coffee into the jar, filling the remaining space with liquid.

The point being, even if you feel at the edge of your ability on a climb, there’s almost always some extra space in which you can relax your muscles, draw a deeper breath, or unclench the fist of your mind. But you have to look for it…

Climbing the Stepladder

A climber topping out a sandtone boulder

Soon you’ll find yourself at the top of the climb. But really, you were always there.

I have been climbing nearly a quarter of a century, and sometimes I wonder if I will climb my whole life. Maybe someday I won’t, which seems sad in the way that having a friend move away is sad. Right now, climbing is a tool that fulfills certain needs in my life: the need for an engagement that’s both physical and intellectual, the need to spend time in nature, the need for a routine that’s all my own…

But maybe the time will come when I no longer have these needs, or when climbing no longer fulfills them, or when I have otherwise arrived at a state in which climbing doesn’t make sense for me. In this case it would be only natural to stop climbing, like putting aside a crutch after an injury has healed.

“Delusion is like a stepladder,” writes Shunryu Suzuki in Not Always So, “Without it you can’t climb up, but you don’t stay on the stepladder.” For Suzuki and most Buddhists, this life that we’re so attached to, full of desires, aspirations, doubts, and fears, is the delusion. But these are useful delusions, as it were, which can be used to move us towards enlightenment. When enlightenment is reached, we see the delusions for what they are and cast them aside, push the ladder away. As the poet and essayist Gary Snyder writes, “You must first be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.”

Climbing is my favorite stepladder. When everything happens just right, I don’t think about it or worry about it; I just do it. I feel myself approaching a different state of being, where the day-to-day starts to break down. But when I try to bring this state with me after the climb, it quickly fades, like a dream after waking. The more years I climb, the better I become at holding on to the dream, or so I tell myself. I imagine this is what the Zen student does when she meditates—she stills the mind day after day, for months and years, until she can bring that stillness into the world outside of meditation and, eventually, see meditation for the ladder it is.

A koan is a Zen language puzzle designed to confound logic. Some koan-like Buddhist sayings address the act of climbing directly: “If you want to climb a mountain, begin at the top,” says one. “When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing,” suggests another. These puzzles ask us to reconsider the ideas of challenge and success, internal and external, climber and climbed.

When I can begin a climb at the top, and keep climbing once I’ve arrived there, I think it will be time to give up this old stepladder.

Six Steps for that Sexy Climber Hair

That climber hair. SHRN. Photo courtesy of Arthur Debowski

That climber hair. So hot right now. Photo courtesy of Arthur Debowski.

In the world of fashion, hair that looks artfully “mussed” is so hot right now. Consider the many “sexy bed hair” tutorials uncovered with a simple Google search, or the popular line of Bed Head haircare products available at pharmacies near you. The sort of windswept, salt-sprayed hairdos one finds perched atop the têtes of surfers and other beachgoers is also very much á la mode, enough to warrant a write-up in the New York Times.

But for those committed to the cutting edge, few groups sport wilder coiffures than road tripping climbers, confined as they are to tents or vans for months at a time with infrequent access to soap, combs, or running water. Luckily, there’s no need to be a dirtbag to have hair like one. Follow these six easy steps for a hairstyle equally at home at the crags or on the runway:

1. Stop showering - A key component to climber hair is the accumulation of sebum, a natural fatty acid produced in the scalp’s sebaceous glands. Washing hair regularly strips away sebum and leaves hair dry and boring. Therefore, the first step to cultivating that dirtbag climber look is to stop washing your hair with soap. Rinsing in the shower is OK, but if you want to go the authentic route (and I know you do), squeeze your head under the faucet of a gas station bathroom and then dry off with the provided paper towels. Your hair might feel a little too greasy at first, but give it some time. As my friend Nate used to say, “It’s like your hair starts cleaning itself after a while.”

2. Chalk up - The chalk we climbers use on our hands to increase friction ultimately ends up clinging to our oily, unwashed hair and providing texture and body. If you’re not planning on getting out on the rock any time soon, you can still buy a bag of powdered chalk at your local outdoor outfitter and sprinkle it over your head once or twice a day. As tempting as it may seem, avoid using liquid chalk in your hair—this alcohol and calcium carbonate blend, sometimes spiked with powdered pine resin, is smelly, overly drying, and probably flammable.

3. Sweat it out - A key component of beach hair is sea salt. Luckily, salt is also readily available in a substance that your body produces for you: sweat! For climbers, it’s easy to get sweaty. Just slog up a steep mountainside with a pack full of ropes and biners, then climb a few pitches of steep rock in the direct sun. A few hours of this, and your hair (and face and clothes) will be coated with a fine, salty film. If you’re not a climber, don’t worry: you can still sweat. Probably the easiest way would be to stand in your living room, put on all of your jackets at once, and turn on Braveheart. Every time someone gets killed, do one burpee.

4. Get some sun - The bleaching and drying effects of the sun are a perfect finisher for climber hair. If for some reason you don’t have regular access to the rays thrown off by this massive sphere of fusing hydrogen, consider picking up a sun lamp at your nearest health and beauty supplier. After getting good and sweaty, as mentioned above, pop your head under the lamp for an hour or two. Tanning salons are another alternative for this step (don’t forget your little goggle things!).

5. Wrap it up - For unknown reasons, many climbers wear knit beanies all the time, even if it’s not cold out. This turns that sebum, chalk, and sweat salt into a pungent hair tonic. Probably the most important time to wear your beanie is when you’re sleeping. As you roll around in your bed or back of your van or whatever, the hat will twist and shift, creating just the right amount of Derelicte messiness.

6. Let it loose - When you’re ready to go out, whip off your beanie and give your hair a good tousle. Run your fingers through it, shuffle it around, pull it down into goth spikes or up for that finger-in-a-light socket look—whatever. Just be sure to wash your hands and face to remove all the loose hairs, dirt, chalk, and oils that have accumulated. You’re good to go.

Post Picks from 2013

Image from top posts 2013

As Seth Godin wrote recently, “My most popular blog posts this year weren’t my best ones. … ‘best’ is rarely the same as ‘popular.’” It’s a worthwhile reminder, even though most of us intuitively sense the disconnect between popularity and quality. The problem is, the fast-flowing social Internet buoys up catchy, controversial, or otherwise, “sharable” content, while everything else sifts to the murky bottom. On the other hand, this means that for those hardy souls willing to dive for it, there is a fortune in buried treasure to be had.

For this reason, today I’m sharing not only The Stone Mind’s 10 most-viewed posts of 2013, but also a more personal list, comprised of posts that I’m particularly fond of. In keeping with Godin’s quote, only a few of the posts on the first list would have made the second.

If your favorite post didn’t make either list, consider posting a link in the comments. I’d love to hear what you enjoy reading (and why) and to make this post more valuable to others.

See you next year!

Top 10 Posts of 2013

  1. Thanks, Climbing… 
  2. Surviving A Honnold “Rest Day” 
  3. 10 Tips for Climbing on Opposite Day
  4. Everyday Climbing
  5. Put A Lid On It: Some Thoughts On Helmets In Sport Climbing
  6. 10 Rad Valentine’s Day Gifts for Climbers
  7. Fear, Fun, and Trying One More Time
  8. How to Make a Climbing Movie
  9. “The Sensei”
  10. The Professionals

10 Picks from the Author

  1. On Balance 
  2. Memento Mori
  3. The Art of (Almost) Letting Go
  4. Hueco Lessons
  5. The Importance of Respect
  6. Climbing Yourself
  7. Good Luck and Bad Luck
  8. Bouldering Alone 
  9. Running It Out
  10. The Mind/Body Problem

Just This Move

The Billboard crag

The Billboard, American Fork Canyon.

I had been working a route up at a limestone crag called the Billboard, in American Fork Canyon, about thirty miles south of Salt Lake City. Beeline, the route is called, an old Boone Speed classic that feels pumpier than its eighty-foot height on account of the meandering course it charts through rasping pockets and slots. Slightly overhung with mostly positive holds, an endurance climber might call it soft. But for a convenience boulderer like me, trained on forty-five minute lunch sessions in the gym and weekend projects of eight moves or fewer, it might as well have been El Capitan.

A few weeks ago, I reached a tricky section less than half way up Beeline and asked my belayer to take. I didn’t have an ounce of extra juice to get me through the uncertain sequence. I decided I would have to pick apart the most efficient way to do each move, so that I could eventually race from bottom to top without thinking. If I didn’t make any mistakes, I reasoned, I’d have just enough gas for the trip to the anchors. I dangled from the rope and scrutinized each possible foot hold (there were a lot) and rehearsed the section of climbing until it felt pretty good. Then I climbed on, falling several more times along the way.

My next two attempts were only marginally better. It was hard not to compare myself with my self of eight or nine years earlier, when I warmed up on routes not much easier than this one—it’s a tricky mental trap. At the same time, it was because of past events that I had some strange faith that I could do the climb next try, if only I came at it from the right angle. But what was the angle?

Seven days later, my partner and I returned to the Billboard and warmed up on two of the only quality moderate lines there. It wasn’t long before I stood below Beeline again, wondering if I could beat my highpoint from last time.

I quickly passed through the familiar opening section of the route and through a low crux. At the first good rest hold, I was only a little pumped, but because I had done well up to that point, anxious words began to spin around and around in my head. “Don’t blow it now. You don’t want to have to do this thing again.” Tension locked my muscles, made my breathing shallow and rapid. “You should have done it by now. Don’t mess up this time…”

I was caught in the cycle of worry, but I worked to stop it. “You have nothing in the world to do but this next move,” came the counter to the nervous voice. I started to relax again. With deep breaths, the pumped feeling receded. As I moved on the tension crept back, but I returned to my mantra: “Just this move… Just this move…”

I had to extinguish the sparks of anxiety repeatedly along the route. As I neared the top, I was surprised to find I had energy left. The final redpoint crux, for the first time, felt like no big deal. I pulled through to the anchors, sat back, and called for my belayer to lower me, a little surprised at how the climb had gone.

I knew the route well enough, but hadn’t memorized it move for move. Nor had I gained any significant amount of endurance since the previous week’s session. All I had really done was not fight myself.

You’ve probably heard the saying, attributed to Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Or the one about the best way to eat an elephant (one bite at a time). Like many adages, they fall on our ears as platitudes until, often all at once, we grok their inner meaning.

A route is composed entirely of individual movements, a life of individual moments, and we really can only deal with each as it comes. It’s so obvious, yet it’s not so simple to climb or to live that way; a constant remembering is required.

Hiker’s Zen

We don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian Pipe plants along the trail and say, “that’s not good enough.”

I don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian pipe plant along the trail and say, “That’s not good enough.”

I like to mediate in the morning. I don’t have a shrine or even a particular belief system that I’m meditating for. I just get up early, sit down on a pillow on the floor of my dimly lit living room, pull my legs into a half-lotus position, and focus on breathing. I focus more on breathing out fully, as the inhale seems to take care of itself. I try to keep good posture, as if my body was suspended from a string affixed to the top of my skull (I read somewhere this is a good way to think of it). Sometimes it’s hard: my legs ache, my back aches. But I try to come to the meditation as if I’m going hiking on some new trail. Maybe this sounds strange; let me explain.

When I go for a hike, especially on a new trail, I don’t expect things to look a particular way. I set out walking to see what is there. Sometimes the trail will be flat and easy, sometimes rocky and full of ups and downs. Sometimes there will be water, other times I’ll see a moose. I don’t look at the ferns or aspens or ghostly white Indian pipe plant along the trail and say, “That’s not good enough.” I say, “Oh, look, an Indian Pipe!” When I come to a bridge over a babbling stream, I don’t think, “I wish this stream were deeper and those rocks were more angular!” The stream has a natural beauty however it is. The trees are in just the right places. The grass is just the right color.

This is how I think about meditation, only instead of a trail, I’m moving through my internal landscape. It’s full of strange thoughts, old memories that rise to the surface like water from a spring. I encounter fears and aspirations, feelings of pride and embarrassment, high-priority items on my to-do list. Meditation is my time to let go of the attachments I bring to all these things. I see them, but I don’t assign them a particular value and don’t let them create anxiety inside me.

Some days I get stuck on an idea, and I don’t feel my meditation went very well, but then I remember that I’m just taking a hike. Some days on a hike, it’s cold and snowy, but who could deny that a snowy hike is as wonderful as a sunny one? Some days it rains, turning the lichen on the rocks a brighter green and making the leaves glisten like jewels. You wouldn’t think, “I wish these leaves would shine brighter and the rain make a sweeter music.” It doesn’t make sense. The mountain peaks we see on our hikes are rough and asymmetrical, but they are perfect. There is no argument against their form.

In life, every day we judge our actions and the actions of those around us. It’s very hard not to. But the idea of the hike can be useful here, too. On a hike you might twist an ankle far from shelter. You might get lost, or a big storm might make it hard to find the way. You could call this bad luck. Still, when you’re alone in nature, there is nothing to do but face the difficulty. You can get angry or scared, but for what? You have a challenge, and how you feel about it won’t change that. In fact, your strong feelings about things can be harmful, as panic tricks you into working against your own best interests.

Climbing a mountain is a big challenge, but we don’t resent the mountain. We look inside ourselves for the right mindset to go up, to deal with the difficulties we meet along the way. The challenge is actually what we love. Why should we see the other challenges in our life so differently?

The Mind/Body Problem

A climber focused entirely on grabbing a hold

Have you ever had the experience of pulling into your driveway at home and feeling unsure of how you got there? The repetitive action of your commute was so ingrained that your body could drive you to and from work, only occasionally calling on your conscious mind for guidance—at a tricky intersection or when approaching the flashing lights of an emergency vehicle, for example. Yes, indeed, these days it’s common for body and mind to lead very separate lives.

This division isn’t particularly heathy. It’s often the result of a mental pre-occupation with problems or desires, perceived or imagined. This mind/body disconnect is a big source of stress and, in the case of driving, can cause missed exits, blown red lights, even collisions. When the road is straight and the traffic moves smoothly, our autopilot is sufficient. But without a more complete awareness, it’s easy to make mistakes.

One of the greatest pleasures of climbing is the way it can bring the body and mind back into alignment. When we encounter a challenging climb, because of the complexity, physical difficultly, and the possible risk, we are forced to reconnect with ourselves, with the moment. To solve a problem with one’s entire being rather than just one’s brain is satisfying on the deepest of levels.

Beginner climbers have to learn how to move, forging new connections between concept, movement, and result. Experienced climbers can quickly discern the movements, clipping stances, and gear placements of a route. But in either case, there is a very clear mental and physical engagement throughout the process of a climb that tends to rein in our wandering minds.

Of course, there can be value to daydreaming. For me, walking the dog or the hanging out at the crag between climbs are fertile periods for connecting and refining the recent mishmash of life’s experiences into cohesive perspectives, for blog posts and the like. But most of the time my wandering mind is up to no good, generating negative worlds ex nihilo.

Zen is concerned with ideas of oneness—mind and body, internal and external, self and other—and of immediacy—everything is perfect and complete, as it is and in the moment. Climbing, like many other mentally and physically engaging practices (yoga, dance, martial arts, etc.), is an excellent tool for experiencing and cultivating this oneness. Beyond words, each climb exists in the ever-shifting moment, at the intersection of climber and climbed, where mind and body, body and stone, and stone and time lose their distinction.

Start here, and expand outward.

Thanks, Climbing…

Thanks!

A bunch of my friends are heading south for Creeksgiving. If you haven’t heard of Creeksgiving, it’s a Thanksgiving spent in the desert-crack-climbing capital of the world, Indian Creek. My friends didn’t make up the term—climbers have apparently been celebrating Creeksgiving for years. From across the country they come. Some dig a pit in the ground and slow-cook their food all day while they’re out dangling from fist jams. Others drive into town and pick up rotisserie chickens and the like. My friend Rick recounts using an Orion Cooker to convection-roast a turkey one year.

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