The other day I felt like turds. Lethargic, with a headache, and just mentally and physically unmotivated to do anything. A symptom of too much work, maybe, and not enough rest and play. Still, my wife wanted to go to the gym and do a little bouldering and, it being her birthday weekend, who was I to deprive her?
The first couple of climbs went as expected: lousy. I felt like a damp bag of mashed potatoes. Every warm-up problem required an act of will to overcome. A little balloon of pain expanded and contracted rhythmically above each eyeball. After a rough warm-up lap, I lay back on the dirty pads beneath the bouldering wall and tried to focus on my breath.
About a half hour in, the tendons in my neck started to loosen, and I reconnected with the rhythm of the climbs. I started to finish some more tricky problems, coordinating funky body movements on steep walls. By the time we exited into the swelter of the mid-summer afternoon, I was transformed—a different man, if you will. It was a great reminder.
Often, we choose to do things based on how we feel at the moment. Thirsty? Take a drink. Tired? Take a nap. Overflowing with stoke and energy? Go climb. The problem is, we’re not always in tune with our own needs. Personally, my body tells me it’s always a good time for bad Chinese food, despite having learned repeatedly from experience that this is not the case.
Similarly, few of us grasp that when we walk out of the office or wrap up a marathon study session, despite what our exhausted brains are trying to tell us, we will actually feel better if we go for a climb or run or a bike ride up a steep hill. It’s counterintuitive, but by exercising, we can often feel less tired instead of more*. Climbing has taught me this lesson repeatedly over the years, but studies like this one bear it out, too. Sometimes, like one of those little hand-cranked radios, we have to move to generate energy.
It could be that this modern age—where we live in climate-controlled boxes, obsessively stare into screens, and eat food grown and processed in far away lands—has many of us out of touch with our bodies and our natural rhythms. When I went to the gym with Kristin, I was almost certain I’d climb poorly and feel worse. In reality, getting out and moving was the perfect remedy for my generalized malaise. Remembering that for next time won’t be too hard—but believing it enough to overcome the inertia of feeling like turds? That’s another story.
*Of course, there are times when we’re so wiped, so sleep-deprived or physically over extended that rest is the only answer—but that’s another story…
I have some bad news for you: you’re probably not a great belayer. In fact, you might not even be a good one. How do I know? It’s a matter of odds. Everyone thinks they’re better than average. That’s normal, but, of course, it’s wrong. Most of us are just average, as per the definition of average. And in belaying, as in working at Chachkies, doing the bare minimum just isn’t good enough. Basically, we should all be angling towards better pretty much all the time.
The Good, the Bad, and the Oblivious
Just consider: how many times have you visited a crag and seen bad belaying, and lots of it? Giant loops of slack, untended brake-ends, unlocked biners, chronic short-roping, belayers chattering obliviously on the ground while their climbers crux out high above sketchy pro? Visit the Internet and search the forums for tales of such belaying incompetence—they are numerous. Climbing Magazine has been running a weekly series on bad belaying practices and Rock and Ice has some interesting examples of bad belaying in their Weekend Whipper series. Petzl (my employer) created a video called “The World’s Worst Belayer” (see below) which exaggerates for comedic effect some of the many very real epic belaying fails occurring all across the globe at any given moment.
If you’re like me, you like to think you never do stuff like this. But if you’re like me when I’m feeling honest, you can probably recall moments when you’ve perpetrated the same sketchy acts of belaying yourself. Maybe it was only for a moment, and maybe it doesn’t happen often (or so you like to tell yourself), but that’s the thing about belaying: most days out we’ll be fine, but when those fateful moments arise and bad habits intersect with bad luck, bad things are gonna happen. Sure, we feel competent, but the hard truth is, as a species, humans are pretty poor at evaluating our own ability level at most tasks.
Consider a study conducted by the insurance agency Allstate: two-thirds of respondents ID’ed themselves as excellent or very good drivers… and then went on to admit to doing things bad drivers do, like texting, excessive speeding, and even drinking and driving or falling asleep at the wheel. Another example would be the 68% of University of Nebraska faculty who rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability. Something just doesn’t add up… .
At the crags, I’ve seen folks lying down to belay. I once watched a girl clip herself with a daisy chain to a pack full of softball-sized rocks in an effort to add ballast against her much-heavier partner (when he fell, he pulled her and the pack up, sending the whole unfortunate situation sailing over the edge of a small drop-off). At a gym I saw a woman’s rope slide from her harness loop and swing away when she was 20 feet up the wall—she’d failed to finish her knot and her belayer had failed to do a simple check before telling her she could “climb on.” I bet every one of these folks would, given a survey on the topic, rate themselves “good” belayers.
The Problem with N00bs
Cornell University psychology professors David Dunning and Justin Kruger conducted a study to explore how people perceive their own ability level in a given activity. Throughout the study, they observed that incompetent people have some common traits; they:
1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy…
As Dunning put it, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent. … the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”
Consider this in light of the fact that, according to an Outdoor Industry Association survey, more than a quarter of the three-million-plus people climbing in 2012 were first timers. (One can only guess how many more than a quarter could safety be classified as n00bs.) And most of these have learned to belay via quick lessons from their friends (who are probably only slightly more experienced themselves) or from gym instructors, who vary widely in teaching ability and even in belaying ability. Many new belayers, by dint of their newness, lack the skills to properly evaluate their own skill level. They don’t even know what they don’t know.
Have You Ever Been Experienced?
But surely you’ve noticed plenty of long-time climbers who give blood-curdling belays, too? Their inability to follow proper protocol can’t be attributed to lack of experience. Such cases most likely stem from a combination of hubris and lack of feedback.
Dunning has suggested that one of the culprits behind people’s poor ability to self-assess is that most folks shy away from giving negative feedback. That’s understandable—critical interaction is uncomfortable, especially with a stranger. But if accurate feedback is critical for improvement, it might be worth braving the awkward social moment when you feel the urge to step up to a guy or gal who’s totally blowing it on the belay and say:
“Hey, friend, I’m super psyched to see you’re having a great time at the crag with your buddies, but I’d just like to point out the fact that the way you’re belaying is wildly unsafe and, even if you and your unsuspecting partner walk away from this whole affair unharmed, which is unlikely, I still might die of a heart attack from having to watch you. Allow me to offer some pointers…”
It might not always go over well. Heck, you might get yelled at. But at least Droppy McBelaypants won’t be able to say no one ever warned him or her. In my experience, though, most folks of all ability levels are pretty open to a friendly pointer, when delivered in a non-confrontational manner.
Of course, if an experienced climber with entrenched bad habits refuses to accept feedback, unless they’re at a gym and you’re an instructor, there’s probably not much you can do about. As one mountainproject.com commenter put it, “I’ve left a few crags before just because I’ve seen terrible belays and I wasn’t in the mood to see somebody deck.” In the end, each climber/belayer must be responsible for him or herself.
The Good News
Let’s face it: belaying, like a lot of climbing safety know-how, is fairly complicated, with an array of non-obvious cause-and-effect calculations that can only be learned through training, practice, and real-world experience. Even with modern assisted-braking devices, there is narrow margin for error, and a moment’s inattention or a seemingly small misstep can lead to injuries ranging in severity from rope burn and twisted ankles to compound fractures and graphic brainspills.
The good news is, we can all be better. No matter how long you’ve been climbing and belaying, and no matter how we’ll you think you belay, there’s room to improve. Step one is admitting you might have a problem… or at least that you’re not perfect. Once you do that, you can work towards higher levels of competence and even someday mastery.
Dunning and Kruger identified a fourth trait among those who grossly overestimate their own abilities, which is that they: “recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill.”
Simply put, most of us should probably take the time to bone up on our belay technique, learn, discuss, and observe. Check out online resources, sign up for more in-depth courses at the gym or with a guiding service, pick the brain of experienced and trusted sources, etc. Basically, ruthlessly hunt down and exterminate bad habits that could get your climber hurt. (Heck, if everyone just did the hard work of paying better attention to his system and his climber, all manner of lousy things could be avoided!)
Be open and work to improve, just like you work to improve your technique or endurance whenever you climb, and soon you can say with a much greater level of statistical accuracy that you are, indeed, a great belayer.
Years ago, a friend of the familyand a very smartfellow gave me a book of short stories called Winesburg, Ohio. He handed the faded little Penguin paperback to me with a sense of reverence.
“I’ve been really into Sherwood Anderson lately. His prose is just amazing. I think you’ll really like it—the way it captures the lives of the people in this little Ohio town.”
That night, I read the first few pages and fell straight asleep. Nothing about the writing or the subject matter engaged me. I should have given the book back, but it slipped my mind and it ended up following me from state to state as I moved across the country. It’s been riding the pine on my bookshelf for some seven years now.
Last week, I picked up Winesburg, Ohio again for no particular reason. I’m not sure what changed since my first attempt, but now I was fascinated by the observations that Anderson put on the page. In the very first story, “The Book of the Grotesque,” I found this passage:
“It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque, and the truth became a falsehood.”
There was something going on here—something vague and barely graspable, yet deeply important—that was pushing through the surface of his words, and it immediately resonated with me. I felt I understood why my friend had given the book to me. But why hadn’t I seen it before, the first time I read the story?
I ran into an old friend at a partya few weeks ago and we started talking about climbing. No big surprise. As a Salt Lake climber who has worked in the outdoor industry for more than 10 years, that’s what most of the people at most of the parties I go to want to talk about.
“Yeah man, I’m just really psyched about climbing right now!” my old friend said. “I’m focused on climbing a lot and building a base and just ticking all the classics in the area.”
My friend’s sentiment stood out to me because not a week earlier, another acquaintance had, nearly verbatim, expressed the same thing: Focused. Stoked. Climbing.
I remember that feeling, when climbing was all I wanted to do. It was a good feeling. Pretty simple. Scaling rocks was the focus of my life, and I built my schedule and my budget around it. But these days, I’ve had a lot of other goals and interests (writing this blog, which is surprisingly time-consuming, being just one of them), and climbing is no longer the main character in my life; it plays a supporting, yet enduring, role.
There’s a verse in Ecclesiastes that goes something like, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” Beyond skiing season, mountain biking season, or climbing season, I take this to mean that the interests and the goals in our life are bound to change, and this is natural. We might look back and the things we can’t image living without don’t mean as much, while the things that floated in the background, uninspiring, can suddenly rise to the surface and become significant.
Things change. Interests change, contexts change, relationships, passions, perspectives… . To those who close themselves off to new discoveries and cling too tightly to old beliefs, there’s a danger of becoming one of Anderson’s “grotesques.”
In a recent blog post, the writer Andrew Bisharat said, “I think it is OK to be open to changing up your interests. What is important is that you still find a way to have goals that remain relevant and interesting to your life. We are human beings first and our goals are simply supplements to our own weird journeys.”
I feel this sums it up nicely. The key to navigating the shifting landscape of life, as far as I can tell, is be open to the inevitable changes. It’s up to each of us to either reject and lament change, or to accept change as the wellspring it is—a constant source of energy and surprise.
Climbing tends to attract some pretty die-hard personality types. Once people get the climbing bug, it can expand until it crowds out many of the once-important components of a healthy, well-balanced life, such as relationships, eduction, jobs, even hygiene. But sometimes, just sometimes, life circumstances are such that climbing becomes impossible for a period of time. When this happens, whether due to workload, family vacation, or injury, climbers exhibit telltale behaviors that can ultimately only be remedied by the sweet caress of stone. Following are eight of these symptoms of climbing deprivation. Any others I’m forgetting? Add ’em in the comments.
1. Generalized anger
When I was a kid, I would get upset whenever I was hungry—I could barely enjoy anything and basically felt like crying all the time. Back then, it was just called being a baby, but now this state of hunger-induced grumpiness is referred to as being “hangry.” Similarly, climbers deprived of their Precious have been known to exhibit snarkiness, impatience, and outright rudeness. You might call such a person “clangry.” One afternoon of climbing can temporarily alleviate clangriness for several days, as many climbers’ significant others are well aware.
2. Fitness dysmorphic disorder
In as little as three days without some serious pullin’ down, a climber can develop a warped self-image. Perceived physiological changes include: fatness, smaller forearm and shoulder muscles, total loss of both power and endurance, and a sloughing off of hard-earned finger calluses.
3. Restless finger syndrome
In cases where there is no damage to the digits, climbers who can’t climb have been observed to direct undue amounts of attention towards their fingers, stretching, cracking, and picking at them with as much as 73% greater frequency. Perhaps in response to the perceived decline in fitness as described above, it is also common to attempt to pinch, crimp, or hang from any load-bearing (or, with hilarious/dramatic effects, non-load-bearing) structure within eyeshot. The compulsive use of foam stress balls and other grip-builders is a surefire sign of RFS.
4. Climbing vicariously
Thanks to the Internet, climbing-deprived climbers can access limitless flows of videos, blogs, trip reports, Instagrams, Facebook photo galleries, and even tweets from fellow climbers who have been lucky enough to get out and sample some of the good stuff. While this behavior can temporarily reduce vertical cravings in some, it can actually exacerbate them in others, leading to feelings of resentment and exclusion.
In extreme cases, there have been reports of out-of-body experiences. One climber recalled being overwhelmed by a vision of himself floating face up, hovering across a field of talus under the shadow of Half Dome, “like Maximus in that movie The Gladiator.” Other times the hallucinations are purely auditory, as was the case with one Colorado-based climber left unable to climb after breaking his collarbone in a snowboarding accident. For several weeks, he was surprised by a disembodied voice shouting, “Stick it!” and “Allez!” while he performed even the most mundane tasks, such as moving the laundry from the washer to the dryer, or picking up milk at the store.
Depending on the reason for restricted access to climbing, the obsessive climber personality type can sometimes seek out another, similarly addictive activity such a surfing, mountain biking, or crossfit (aka “jumparound”). Once a sufficient skill level and social network has been established, the new activity can actually supplant climbing as the prime motivator.
7. Compulsive gear fiddling
In lieu of actual climbing, the deprived often turn to the organization and maintenance of the equipment used for climbing. Time to wash that rope, oil those cams, clean the dirt and chalk of those stinky old rock shoes with a damp towel… . Studies have shown that mere exposure to powdered chalk can stimulate brain regions associated with climbing.
Desperate climbers attempting to reconnect with their preferred lifestyle have been known to sleep in the yard, live primarily off of tinned sardines and power bars, and forgo showering for long periods of time. Likewise, alpinists stranded in warm, flat environments have been seen running up and down stairs with packs full of household items, or even sticking their faces in the freezer, in an attempt to simulate that brisk feeling of near-frostbite typical of high-alpine environments.
It’s hard to pin a value on climbing. Like art, it has no clear purpose. Like a poem, a route is open for interpretation. How much would you pay for a perfect fall weekend in the Gunks? I’m not talking about the cost of a plane ticket or campsite or day pass, but the actual worth of the experience. How would you even express it?
Consider the first climber to push a new line up a peak. Like an artist laboring over a painting, he undertakes the act for mostly self-serving reasons: to explore and expand the limits of his ability, understanding, and conviction. He seeks the personal rewards of success or, as a consolation prize, the lessons of failure.
The artist and the first-ascensionist alike learn as they work, surprising themselves, discovering that the path they plotted in their minds might not be the path that works in the end. This discovery is part of the excitement and the value of the creative act.
And at the same time, this act can create value for others, too. Transmitted verbally or through a topographical map, a guidebook, an article, or a blog, it becomes a conceptual blueprint for a powerful experience.
Like a story, a route is inexhaustible. Every person who repeats a route or reads a book can have his own journey of discovery, much like the original creator had. Every one of us can grasp the same holds and enjoy much the same view as Royal Robbins and Pat Ament experienced on the first free ascent of Yellow Spur, in Eldo, fifty years ago.
“A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist,” wrote the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. By extension, when many people experience a work of art, the separation between one receiver and the next can be broken down just a little, too—a shared experience is created, and from this a culture, a community.
Spend any time around a campfire with climbers, and you’ll witness the bonds formed by the shared experiences of icy couloirs and lichen-encrusted rock walls, of headlamp-lit rappels and stomach-flipping whippers. Politics and educations and upbringings may differ, but something found in those high places unites.
The essential value of a climb cannot be measured in dollars nor, as is more commonly thought, difficulty ratings or even guidebook stars. Nearest I can tell, it is measured in the transformations it enables and the communities created by those transformations.
Transformation cannot be sold, bought, or processed. The value of a climbing is as intangible as the value of reading Moby Dick or seeing the Mona Lisa, yet no less profound. The more it resists codification, the greater climbing’s value becomes… or maybe it’s just that the idea of value grows a little fuzzier around the edges.
If you’ve climbed much outside, you have someone to thank. A bunch of someones, really. The someones who own or manage the land, for example. Also the someones who make sure that climbing is recognized as a legit use of that land, the someones who maintain the trails and parking and kiosks and latrines on that land, and the someones who developed the routes and problems on that land, too.
You should say thanks to those people or just be thankful in general—that’s great. But you should also become one of these “someones” yourself, because if you’re reading this you probably climb and climbing has probably changed your life in one or more ways and, despite what we’d all like to think, climbing isn’t an inalienable human right.
I bring this up because I just finished helping my local climbing organization, the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, organize an annual fundraiser (full disclosure: I’m on the board). The funds from this event will support all manner of stewardship and education projects that benefit the local climbing community, from the maintenance of latrines in Joe’s Valley to anchor replacement at popular crags to the Adopt A Crag and the Craggin’ Classic events.
Beyond highly visible stewardship and education projects like these, the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance, like most local climbing organizations (LCOs), spends a lot of time behind the scenes working with land managers and land owners, making sure that the voice of the local climbing community is heard and our particular needs understood. It requires a lot of work from a lot of people, most of whom have day jobs, families, and barely enough time to get out and climb as it is. But without LCOs like the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance and larger organizations like the Access Fund, which act on the national level, you might not be able to climb at your favorite crags at all.
Who gets to use a piece of land for what activities and when? These are deceptively complicated questions. For one thing, there’s the issue of liability. Climbing, as every gym waiver you’ve ever signed points out, is inherently dangerous. Who’s responsible when someone hits the deck, catches a rock to the head, or keels over from a heart attack while out at the crag? Who pays for the rescue? Who will be on the receiving end when the family of the injured party decides to sue? Who decides on “best practices” for bolting anchors and who, if anyone, checks and replaces the bolts that are already in place?
Private land owners often look at questions like these, not to mention issues of access trails and parking, and decide to ban climbers outright; sometimes it’s just easier that way. Meanwhile, a lot of public land managers have only a cursory understanding of what’s involved in the practice of rock climbing or of how many people might be showing up to do it. Rules governing climbing on public lands vary from well-researched and highly detailed, to vague and illogical. They also vary widely from one type of public land to the next, from the Bureau of Land Management to Forest Service land to national parks and state parks, etc. When it comes to public climbing management policies, seemingly minor changes can take years or even decades to become reality.
Add to that the complexity of local climbing cultures, where certain practices are frowned on as much because of historical precedent as official policies or land owner concerns. Even within climbing communities, there is ample disagreement on many topics.
Basically, the issues confronting those who just want to go outside and climb are complex and varied, and without organized groups of climbers willing to work on the local and national level, we’d be pretty much hosed. The Access Fund ran an ad campaign not long ago showing crags with gates and No Trespassing signs super-imposed over them. The images might seem alarmist, but they’re not—they show real possibilities in a world where climbers lack a voice.
As tempting as it may be to approach such issues with an anarchic spirit, the tough truth is that we are all connected in a social web. If we live without regard for our actions—parking in the no-parking zone, bringing dogs to crags where they’re not allowed, bolting where bolts are banned, leaving trash, blasting music at the crags, crapping near the trails—we invite trouble for ourselves and our fellow climbers. By attempting to live in total freedom regardless of consequences, we usually end up making ourselves and others less free.
Only a fraction of climbers are members of their local climbing organizations or the Access Fund, and a smaller number still volunteer regularly. With every percent increase in engagement, our crags become better maintained, our relationships with land owners and managers grow stronger, and the voice of the collective climbing community grows louder.
Edit: I just received an email from another national org, the American Alpine Club, which offers Cornerstone Conservation Grants for climbers who propose conservation projects in their areas. Check it out…
CINCINNATI, OH — After pulling at the climbing wall with great visible effort, the guy hogging the third toprope from the left sat back down into his harness having made no visible upward progress, sources confirmed.
“This guy’s ignoring the three-hang rule, that’s for sure,” said eyewitness Jeff Horvath, 32, adding that the man, who had a belay device and pair of gloves clipped to his harness for absolutely no reason had the worst footwork he had ever seen and that there was no way he was going to finish the route before the gym closed and everyone had to go home for the night.
“I could have climbed this route literally three times by now,” said Horvath. “I think this guy is actually making negative progress.”
At press time, the climber had gone in direct to a quickdraw about one-third of the way up the wall and was eating a protein bar.
Climbing, for all the complexities we may encounter on a big objective or during the course of a long project, is relatively simple: we find a line and we try to go up.
People, on the other hand, are complicated. We are full of contradictions and conflict; we hate each other for weird reasons or made-up reasons or no reason at all; we blame and expect and manipulate. Meanwhile, most of barely understand our own motivations. And don’t even get me started on politics.
This messiness of humanity is, I think, what draws a lot of us to climbing and back to nature. We crave the clarity of climbing’s challenge, the solitude of the high mountains and boulder-strewn deserts. The bright mist of stars over our heads at night asks no questions. The cactus prickles our skin but not our conscience.
But climbing is about people as much as it is about nature. If you’re a free-soloing hermit, maybe you can avoid humankind for a while. But for the rest of us, there are belayers and regular climbing partners; love interests or former love interests we can’t help but run into at the gym; that career couch surfer we met once two years ago and who seems always to need a place to crash. There’s that one partner who doesn’t like that other partner, so we do a little scheduling dance to make sure they don’t overlap. So many dynamics to consider!
And of course, there will always be the friends and family members waiting nervously for our safe return. They’re the ones visiting us in the hospital after a bad accident, attending the funeral after a worse one. Was it worth it? people will ask. Is it a consolation when a spouse or parent dies doing something he or she loved? Are we brave or selfish or stupid who risk our human bonds for the “freedom of the hills”?
For the climber in isolation, such questions hardly mean anything. There is only the line, the path that resolves itself one move at a time. There is only the weather scrolling in and the decision: go up or come down. There is only the rasp of stone on skin, the cold prick of spindrift in the face, the lungful of air tinged metallic with primal exhilaration and fear.
Ultimately though, the climber in isolation is just a thought experiment. We are social creatures by nature, and no matter how high we climb, we cannot extricate ourselves from the tangle of human interdependencies. Thoreau knew this even as he wrote Walden, which many view as an ode to the hermit’s life, disengaged from society, but which Thoreau wrote while frequently visiting town to dine with friends and while engaging sufficiently in political activities to get him thrown in jail.
We cannot live or climb in a vacuum. Even in the mountains and remotest crags we encounter politics and seemingly intractable social issues: the relationship between climbers and Sherpas on Everest, for example, or the “ethics” of bolting and fixed draws, debates over the land-use rights of native people versus recreating people, the environmental impact of our rapidly growing pastime, and so on. Even when we want not to take sides on such matters, sides are often assigned us.
The simplicity of the challenge is what draws many of us to climbing. One spire, needling against the clouds, one body with more-or-less known capabilities. A few knots and safety systems. A weather report. We see the challenge, we accept it, and we adapt ourselves to it. Maybe our only choice is to adapt ourselves to the challenges of our messy human life the way we adapt to the challenges of the ice and stone: navigating it as well and with as much style and idealism as we can muster, making the best decisions possible while realizing that not everything is within our control, and not every well-intentioned choice ends up the way we expect.
It is common to divide the natural from the cultural, but maybe it’s not a valuable distinction, after all. “Those who deny that nature and culture, landscape and politics, the city and the country are inextricably interfused have undermined the connections for all of us,” writes Rebecca Solnit in her great essay on Thoreau.
Climbing would be so much simpler without the climbers, but the problem with that sentence is clear, isn’t it? Pull at one thread in the tapestry and we find they’re all apiece, after all.
“My thinking about the case, man, it had become uptight.”
— The Dude
If you’ve spent much time rock climbing, you’ve probably come across a person who wants the send a little too much: he kicks and screams when he falls; while resting, he sits with brow furrowed in stern concentration; he makes excuses for his unsatisfactory performance to strangers with no reason to care; he appears almost upset to be out climbing rocks for fun. It’s always weird to see when somebody seems to be missing the point so completely.
At the same time, most of us want to improve, to succeed on the climbs we try. Why wouldn’t we? It feels good to push out against and expand what we once thought of as our limits. It is a true pleasure of life to overcome a challenge that once felt insurmountable. But to do this, we have to set goals and make plans to achieve them. We have to care, or we wouldn’t bother to try at all. And we have to be critical of our approach in order to improve, refine, find the best path to proceed.
I find what’s needed to really climb well and enjoy it is an alternation between the Playful Mind and the Critical Mind—very much a complimentary pair, a yin and yang of mindsets.
I alternate between these mindsets with work, too. When I work from home, often I descend into uninterrupted Critical Mind for long periods of time. Then my wife comes home and finds me sunk into my chair, typing away with a scowl on my face. She starts to tell me about how her day went and I say, “Uh huh,” “Oh really?” only having half heard what she’s telling me. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I’ve been in my head all day, mercilessly criticizing my own ideas to make sure I’m not missing anything important, and it can be hard to make the transition into a more relaxed and open mindset.
I enter my Critical Mind (which I also call Editor’s Mind) because it’s important to me that I do good work, but it’s not good to be so critical when you’re spending time with your spouse or family or friends. It’s a tight mindset, one that creates tension between the keeper of the Critical Mind and anyone else who isn’t in the same mental space. It also creates tunnel vision, which can move us farther from the very goals on which we’re focused.
“To focus on one thing, you have to suppress a lot of other things,” says Mark Beeman, a professor in the Cognitive Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University. “Sometimes that’s good. But sometimes a solution to a problem can only come from allowing in apparently unrelated information, from giving time to the quieter ideas in the background.”
Counterintuitively, a more leisurely, undirected, non-goal-oriented approach might actually move us closer to what we desire. The harder we grasp, in other words, the more things tend to slip away. Look at a faint star in the night sky directly, and it disappears into the darkness. Loosen your focus, let it exist in the periphery of your sight, and it will begin to reappear. It is in this state that we can start to see the larger patterns, the constellations as a whole.
So on a new climb or a new task at work or in school, we should come with our Playful Mind first. Explore the options, consider the big picture, the entire constellation of possibilities. Experiment, exert energy in many directions and note the results without judgement. Then, perhaps, it makes sense to apply Critical Mind: decide what works and what doesn’t, analyze the why and the how of things, decide on a game plan and attempt to execute. If your plan doesn’t work, it might be time to return to the playful mind again, in search of other options.
To use only one mind or the other is a mistake. The left and the right, the light and the dark, the active and the passive, the playful and the critical… . It’s by the alternating of one foot in front of the other that we progress. But in either case—in any case—we must not hold too tightly to the ultimate result. As it says in the Tao Te Ching:
[The master] lets all things come and go effortlessly, without desire.
He never expects results; thus he is never disappointed.
He is never disappointed; thus his spirit never grows old.”
“If my hands felt this way because they were burned, it would be really upsetting,” she said. “But because they feel like this from climbing hard, I kind of like it. Is that weird?”
Just back from a long session at the climbing gym, my wife held out her hands, palm up, to display skin worn raw from the sandpapery texture of the plastic holds. The callus just below her knuckle had grown so pronounced that she could no longer squeeze her wedding ring over it. Her fingers were tattered and torn, but she presented them with pride.
I didn’t think it was weird. After all, what athlete hasn’t gotten a sense of satisfaction from the pain of hard work? We climbers nearly always return home with some abrasion or other: scraped knees and elbows and ankle bones, hands covered with gobies from being jammed into cracks, bloody flappers on our fingers were rough stone caught soft skin and didn’t let go…
While these injuries might sound bad to an outsider, they are no less than badges of honor, satisfying reminders that we have, for a time at least, embraced our physicality without holding back. Like the soreness from a hard bike ride up a canyon or long day spent skinning up and skiing down, these wounds are the result of passion and dedication, and the associated pain is transformed for it.
The same weekmy wife made her observation, I heard via Radiolab about a medical study from 1956 called “Relationship of Significance of Wound to Pain Experienced,” which found that soldiers wounded in battle tended to experience less severe pain than civilians who suffered comparable injuries. The reason, the study suggested, wasn’t that soldiers are tougher than everyone else, but that their injuries meant something different to them.
For a soldier in WWII, a gunshot wound might mean a trip home, a way back to the things he loved. For a civilian, the same wound carried little upside: would he be able to work? Would insurance cover the medical bills? How would the injury affect his family? Civilians with gunshot wounds experienced pain more profoundly, amplified as it was by mental anguish, and asked for more painkillers as a result.
“The pain that you feel when you’re hit by the bullet is not just about the bullet,” explains Robert Krulwich in the Radiolab episode titled “Placebo.” “It’s just as much about the story that comes with the bullet.”
Another example of this: have you ever noticed the way professional athletes respond to serious injury, like a torn ACL or badly sprained ankle? The pain visibly grips their bodies and contorts their faces as they lie on the field or the court. Clearly, it hurts like hell, but I think what we’re seeing is the reaction to the frightening implications of such an injury. “For many athletes, their sport is their identity. An injury that takes them out of the game can feel like the end of the world,” wrote a blogger on the topic.
The decades-old study and my wife’s observation went hand in hand. Pain, like so many of the things we experience, is as much in the mind as in the body. When we look at our pain from one angle, it is only pain, only a bad thing. When we come at it from another direction, it becomes a sign of dedication or a chance to grow. Taking control of our inner perception of things, rather than seeking merely to control things themselves, is among the biggest challenges we face in this life, but also, I think, among the most important.
BOULDER, CO — It was a feeling that had been weighing on Brendan Slater’s conscience for some time, but this Saturday, the weight became too much bear. “What does it really matter if I send my project?” Slater said. “At the end of the day, climbing just seems so meaningless… so selfish.”
Slater, who works at the local sub shop in order to maintain a flexible schedule for climbing, admitted scaling vertical surfaces has for years served as his primary source of fulfillment and self-worth, but that he began to wonder about the ultimate significance of his passion after finding a deer carcass on the hike up to the crag to work on his project.
“I just sort of stared down at that deer’s skull and its bones and those tufts of fur and thought, ‘That could be me,’” Slater explained, adding that the world seemed suddenly like a very big and cold place, and really what else do we have in this life but our good works and our compassion for our fellow humanity, you know?
In an effort to assuage the existential void that gripped him while gazing into the deer’s vacant eye sockets, Slater sought council from a local pastor, who recommended volunteering to help those less fortunate.
“That didn’t feel like the right way to go, either,” Slater said. “I feel like that’s just as selfish, because I’d only be doing it to feel better. I’d still be looking out just for me.”
“For now, I’m going to stick with climbing,” he added.
We were eating breakfast at a bakery this weekend when a plus-sized, gleaming, silver Mercedes Sprinter camper—a creation that resided somewhere on the vehicular spectrum between van and RV—glided past.
“Check out the road-trip mobile,” I said to my wife, impressed. The aproned girl busing the table next to us looked wistfully out through the plate-glass façade and said, “I want one so bad.”
As I climber, I sort of wanted one, too. Or something like it, at least—something that would let me roll to destinations unknown and leave my life and responsibilities behind, all the while taking a little bubble of comfort and familiarity with me.
Stickers circulate: “Work Less. Climb More” and “Quit Your Job.” We want to listen to them. They are a siren call. Companies and magazines tap into this thirst for new vistas with hashtags like #neverstopexploring (The North Face) or #daysyouremember (Mountain Hardwear). I can only take that to mean that days spent in less adventurous ways—working in an office, reading a book, tending to chores—are days we won’t remember. I see this as a missed opportunity. We should (must!) strive to make something of our too-small allotment of moments in this life, no matter where they transpire.
The question is, what do we hope to find on our travels? Do we truly believe there is some answer hidden like a geocache in far-flung spots? How many of us in our Ultimate Road Trip Mobiles are driving away from, instead of towards, something? How much more challenging is it to appreciate the inexhaustible newness of the world amidst a routine? I suggest that what really makes the adventure, on the road or off, isn’t what happens to us, but how we experience what happens. A beautiful sunset over strange lands is good medicine, sure, but it’s no panacea. To put it another way, there’s probably nothing wrong with where you are, just with your perspective.
The great poet and Zen practitioner Gary Snyder considered the idea of exploration, both externally and internally, in his essay On the Path, Off the Trail. In it, he offers a seldom-heard wisdom: “Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes, checking the dipstick—don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits.”
On July 20, 1969, the day of the Apollo II moon landing, the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki spoke to a group of students in California. “The first one to arrive on the moon may be very proud of his achievement, but I do not think he is a great hero,” he said, likely in an attempt to jar his pupils from their attachment to goal chasing, patriotism, and pride. “Instead of seeking for some success in the objective world, we try to experience the everyday moments of life more deeply.”
As Robert M. Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there.” Then again, sometimes we have to drive 20 miles on a rutted-out dirt road, cross a stream that almost stalls the engine, park, and walk half a day to climb up a big piece of rock to find the Zen we already had inside us.
Huge numbers of people will try climbing for the first timein the years to come. Statistically speaking, most will have their first flirtation with the vertical world in a gym, while a percentage of these will go on to specialize in just one or two of climbing’s many sub-disciplines: sport, trad, alpinism, what have you. If you’re a n00b, you’ve probably already wondered, “Which type of climbing is right for me?” Rather than wasting your time trying a bunch of dead-end genres, use this handy decision tree to find the style that best suits your personality.
I’m very pleased to share with you the first (but hopefully not the last) guest post on The Stone Mind. This one from a friend and writer Ian Mathias, who knows a thing or two about getting gripped.
Are you a downhill skier, a climber, a mountain biker, or just the type of person whose hobby involves frequent moments of gripping fear? If so, I challenge you to watch the little lady in this video squirm and not get a full-blown flashback—not just to childhood, but probably to sometime in the last few weeks:
Two million views and counting. It’s a cute story, and an inspiring one, too. But I venture to guess that what gets people sharing this video has as much to do with a sympathetic connection, a certain fellowship of the gripped, as it does cuteness and inspiration. Damn if we haven’t all been there before. And the interesting part: That dialogue never really changes. We get stronger and the stakes get bigger, but we still need to torture ourselves before going for it. Fourth grader or fourth-grade teacher, for two minutes or for 20; when truly gripped by self-induced fear, the narrative arc stays the same:
Step 1: Belly up. Stand on the edge. Or sit at the base of the problem. Tie in and put your hands on the start holds. Whatever it is, one can’t really start this absurd routine until the very last possible moment. Any anxiety before then can be shunted by countless other distractions or choices. The only choice now is either send it or bail—or start squirming.
Step 2: Premature self-assurance. “C’mon, you got this.” “Here goes… something,” as the little ski jumper says. No kidding, here goes something is right. Only that “something going” won’t be you anytime soon, as you definitely do not “just got this.” If that were true—if it would all be as easy as saying “c’mon” to yourself—saying it wouldn’t be necessary. Nope, not ready, just pretending to be.
Step 3: Insignificant gear fixation. Ahh yes, now would be the perfect time to get spooked by a trivial equipment issue or other minor nit. Brush the hold you just brushed two seconds ago. Check brakes… again. Adjust harness, then subconsciously readjust it to where it was originally. Rub the life out of the point of a climbing shoe, as if substituting dirt with grease from your fingertips will really improve performance. “My skis are slipping off!” cries the little girl at the top of the ski jump, but her skis are the same as they were 10 minutes ago. Likewise, it’s not your gear but you who are slipping off the edge because you’re acting shifty and stiff.
Step 4: Beta begging. Since it’s quite clear that “the grip” of fear is taking hold and there’s nothing critically wrong with your equipment, it’s time to obsess over process. If a partner’s around, he or she becomes the target of an array of self-evident questions, which he or she (if a true and trustworthy partner) will answer supportively. If solo, now is the time for intense over-analysis of terrain. Stare at that bad landing or big gap. Stare at it! It looks worse up close, as always. This whole thing is so fucking stupid!
Step 5: Stall. The low point. Nothing new to stare at. All equipment has been touched, though not adjusted in any meaningful way. And the 17th “You got this” self-help session has really lost its bite. So just stand there and wallow. Avoid eye contact. Pray for some kind of hand-of-god intervention that would allow a justifiable retreat. Hey, is that rain?
Step 6: The nudging. The loyal partner, getting cold and/or bored, continues with the same lines of support and confidence, but with a noticeably different tone of voice. As in, believe it or not, there is more on the agenda today than watching you mentally fall apart. “C’mon” is no longer shorthand for “You can do it!” but “Come on and do it already.” Also, the best thing that could ever happen to a gripped adventurer without a partner would be the sudden appearance of newcomers, wanting to either observe—or better yet, send the line themselves. That fear of looking timid in front of strangers is a powerful, totally nonsensical motivator.
Step 7: Commit. Ironically, this is often the easiest part. No thinking really required… just living in the moment, doing it—on the way to the send or to the hospital. Either way, the act itself is surprisingly fast, and therefore not as terrifying as the preceding minutes of essentially questioning your entire interest in this dangerous sport.
Step 8: Chatter, NBD declaration. Assuming everything goes well, the moments immediately following the send are for making yahoo noises and blah blah blah-ing idle chatter to anyone who will listen — releasing the stress and anxiety brought on in the name of recreation. “Yes! Wow! Holy shit. Yes! Oh man, I was scared!” The late stages of this chatter must include at least one decree of “that wasn’t so bad” or “easier than I thought it would feel.” Lucky you. Though if it was a lot harder than expected, you’d probably be upside down and bleeding right now.
Step 9: Bliss out. After all that mental stress and physical exertion, after the endorphins wane, what’s left is a glowing, marginally functional victor, good for buying a round of beers and not much else. As Chuck Palahniuk wrote, “After a night in fight club, everything else in the real world gets the volume turned down. Nothing can piss you off. Your word is law.” Whether or not that line really was NBD, the rest of the world certainly is now, at least for a little while.
Ian Mathias is a writer based in Salt Lake City. Every year he contemplates quitting his fancy marketing job and becoming a part-time baker, part-time writer, but can’t bear the thought of waking up so early every day. Read more from him at the30x30.com.
I was seated on a rock amidst the loosely consolidated dirt of the southern-Utah desert after a long morning of climbing, and I was feeling mighty hangry. The only sustenance I carried in my chalky old pack was a cup of delicious strawberry yogurt. Eagerly, I peeled back the foil lid and reached for a spoon, only to discover there was no spoon! I felt stranded, with no way to stir that fruit-on-the-bottomy goodness or convey it to my pie hole.
How little we appreciate the simple functionality of a spoon until we find ourselves without one! And while foods like sandwiches, fruits, and trail mix yield handily to manual eating techniques, others, like yogurt, soups, and saucy pastas, pose more of a challenge in the absence of proper utensils.
Science has shown that our nearest evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee, is quite deft in the use of tools for accessing and ingesting food items. So, too, have modern climbers and other outdoors people devised ingenious eating implements out of necessity. I, for example, was able to fashion a primitive scoop from the flimsy foil circle I peeled from the top of my yogurt cup, giving me the precious energy needed to finish out the day and perhaps live on to spread my genes.
Following are a 10 clever cutlery workarounds spotted in the wild. What tricky tactics have you employed when caught without a spork?
Sticks – Among the most obvious improvisations, a well-selected stick, de-barked and whittled to varying degrees, can be used to spear and roast foods like hotdogs and marshmallows, scoop messy foods, and even to stir things like cocktails or coffee.
Toothbrushes – Most climbers carry old toothbrushes for banishing excess chalk from handholds. The rigid plastic stems can double as chopsticks—particularly handy for noodles or salads.
Rocks – A good sharp rock can serve as a knife, while a slightly scooped stone takes on spoon-like properties. Large, flat ones can even be used as makeshift frying pans or plates. Pro tip: brush off dirt, lichen, or bugs before using.
Carabiners – The quintessential climber bottle opener. There are many ways to pry open your favorite non-twist-off bottle of suds with a biner—just be sure you don’t cause any sizable gauges in the rope-bearing surface, as it could end up snaggletoothing your rope’s sheath.
Shoes – Hard to open without a purpose-made tool, a wine bottle can be made to give up its cork with repeated blows against a wall using a shoe as padding. Behold, this instructional video stands as proof:
Knives – An advanced technique known as “the lip splitter” involves using the blade of your Swiss army knife not only for cutting, but also spearing and scooping food into your mouth. Zen-like focus is required to avoid terrible injury.
Nut tools – Sometimes all you need is a way to shovel stuff out of the container and into your hungry face. A climber’s nut tool, with its flat metal end, can tackle this task quite handily. These tools can even be used to cut or spread soft cheeses or similar.
Tin foil – One friend of mine commented that he has used tin foil to make a cup, bowl, shot glass, and spoon. The origami skills required here are not as advanced as they might sound, depending on the food substance you’re looking to contain or manipulate. Getting peanut butter out of the jar with a foil tool, however, requires a working knowledge of engineering principles.
Bread – In Ethiopia, the Middle East, and various other cultures, flatbreads are used to pinch and scoop deliciously messy foods. If you have a slice of rye, crackers, or a tortilla among your rations, you have with you an edible utensil! Pro tip: the under-appreciated heel of the bread loaf here becomes the hero, offering superior scooping power.
Fingers – When all else fails, we return to the original eating implement: our fingers. These marvels of engineering can manipulate a vast array of objects, including those stinky tinned sardines in oil you brought because someone told you they were high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Hopefully you didn’t forget your wet-wipes, too.
I’ve been climbing since I was 12 years old. I started in a windowless little closet of a climbing wall in a nondescript commercial area of Columbus, Ohio.I sometimes reflect on those early days and wonder what it was that drew me back to that place when all my peers were playing baseball, soccer, or running track. I have only the faintest memories of it now, but I can only reckon I must have been unusually comfortable up there, dangling, scaling, moving in the vertical. I wonder what came first: a random enthusiasm for climbing, or some innate climbing ability that gave rise to that enthusiasm?
I’ve been plowing through David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene of late, and it suggests that natural aptitude is key to creating and maintaining interest in an activity. That kid at the climbing-gym birthday party who gets to the top more quickly and effortlessly than the others, or that college student who seems to jump a letter grade every time she goes to the crag—it makes sense that these ones are more likely to self-select as climbers, while those who move with fear and hesitation, who lack a strong grip or deft balance sense will be less likely to return for another session.
Throughout his book, Epstein, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, explores the science behind the genetically predisposed strengths and aptitudes that figure so prominently in our attraction to and success in an athletic activity. While he never cites climbing specifically, the ideas he presents apply as well to someone like Ashima Shiraishi, who climbed V10 when she was only 8, as to Chrissie Wellington, a British triathlete who, unknown and with no experience in a race of such length, entered her first Ironman World Championship and won by a margin of five minutes.
My friend Alex is a strong all-around climber, but I was always particularly impressed by his endurance on the rock, his ability to climb on and on, seemingly without tiring. Years ago, I spent a couple of seasons working a long, notoriously pumpy route in the Red River Gorge called Tuna Town. It was my “nemesis.” About 90 feet long and maybe 30 degrees overhanging, it doesn’t have a single hard move on it—just a lot of very similar, energy-sapping moves topped off with a “sporty” finish on small edges that feel even smaller with a raging forearm pump. The first day Alex and I got on the climb together, he pushed through to the anchors in a few tries without being particularly fit.
In climbing as in life, one should always keep one’s ego on a leash. “There’s always someone better,” as the saying goes. But what seemed odd to me then was that fact that, by most other measures of climbing performance, Alex and I were closely matched. We had similar technical skills and, on shorter, more powerful climbs, I might even have had an edge.
My poor endurance wasn’t for lack of practice, either. I traveled to the Red, home of “the biggest jugs you’ll ever fall off of,” almost every weekend for several years, climbing with folks who all seemed to have better endurance than me. For whatever reason, I just wasn’t (and still am not) well-equipped for doing a lot of moderate moves in a row. Epstein’s book sheds some light on this phenomenon, too.
Roughly speaking, our muscles are composed of two types of fibers: fast-twitch and slow-twitch. Fast-twitch fibers provide more peak power but tire more quickly; slow-twitch fibers generate less force but are much slower to tire. The average person, according to The Sports Gene, has a little more than half slow-twitch fibers. But if you look at the fiber make-up of athletes who excel in powerful activities, such as sprinting, you’ll find a ratio closer to 75% in favor of fast-twitch. Olympic marathoners like Frank Shorter are just the opposite—when tested, nearly 80% of his leg muscle fibers were shown to be of the slow-twitch variety.
Importantly, studies suggest that differences in muscle-fiber ratio are not the result of training, but of genetic coding. People like Shorter aren’t creating more slow-twitch fibers as they run, but instead excel at running because they were born with more slow-twitch fibers.
I guess I’m more of a fast-twitch guy.
My seemingly poor natural response to endurance training didn’t keep me from climbing Tuna Town—I eventually finished the climb—but it doesmean that I never would have stood a chance on the World Cup route-climbing circuit. No matter how hard I pushed, I’d always be struggling to send the warm-up routes of the many climbers who happened to have a superior mix of genetic traits: slender build, tendons of steel, and plenty of slow-twitch muscle in the forearms.
This flies in the face of what moms tell their kids everywhere: you can be anything you want to be. We’ve all heard stories of underdogs fighting to become champions against all odds. What Epstein’s book and the data it cites seem to indicate is that, if what you’re gunning for is elite athletic performance, it’s very unlikely that such dedication will be sufficient to overcome one’s own genetic make-up. The stories we don’t hear so much, but which are probably quite common, are those of athletes who fail repeatedly and then quit, or switch to another sport that better suits their natural talents.
The tendency to pursue sports we’re good at should come as no surprise. In the past, though, the explanation for why one person was so much better than another from the start, or why one person responded to training more quickly than another, was left to fuzzy ideas like “grit” and “drive” and “the love.” In light of scores of scientific studies on the topic, genetic traits seem to offer a more reliable explanation.
The great sport climber Wolfgang Güllich was the first human to climb 9a (5.14d). His groundbreaking route Action Direct, in Germany’s Frankenjura, is an improbable ladder of dangling moves on pockets that rarely accommodate more than one or two fingers. The “campus board,” which he invented as a training device for the route, is often credited as a crucial tool in his quest for the hardest climb in the world. His obsession with training was undeniably a big part of what put him so far ahead of his peers, and yet…
And yet not everyone would benefit equally from Güllich’s regimen. In one study Epstein describes, researchers asked participants to perform identical leg exercises for four months. At the end of the trials, the test subjects broke down into three basic categories: those whose muscle fibers grew 50 percent, those whose fibers grew 25 percent, and those whose fibers did not grow at all. Same training, very different results.
It’s a refrain throughout the book: there is no one-size-fits-all training method. We each respond differently to different types of training and excel at different activities due to certain seemingly indelible genetic traits. My own experiments with the campus board at first yielded impressive strength gains, and then quickly sidelined me with shoulder problems I have to this day. To push as hard at Güllich, you can’t just want it; you also have to have it.
Epstein’s book focuses on traditional sports like basketball and baseball and track and field events—ones built on a more competitive foundation than climbing, and that offer greater rewards for competitive prowess. It’s because of this that the studies he cites seem a less-than-perfect fit for climbing, which we climbers often describe as “more lifestyle than sport.” Gifted or not, what matters most in climbing isn’t how good we are, but how much we take from the act. Maybe this idealistic perspective holds for more popular sports, too, but it just gets lost in the whirlwind of fame and fans and records and money. It’s precisely such a state of affairs that many climbers fear when they rail against the commercialization of our little game on the rocks.
The Sports Gene is a solidly-researched, artfully-written work of non-fiction that is general enough to interest just about anyone. As I read it, I couldn’t help but think how cool it would be to perform studies of the sort Epstein describes on climbers. How exciting to understand the biological factors that separate a great climber from an average one, or the what types of training work best for what types of people. But I also kept thinking about how little that knowledge would really mean to me or most climbers, and how besides the point it all is, anyway.
If there’s a gene for a positive outlook, for a deep love and appreciation of life regardless of medals or world ranking, that’s the gene I want to have. And whether I have it or not, I’m damn well going to work to cultivate those traits, no matter how long it takes or how far I am behind the pack. After all, as I learned on my send of Tuna Town, success after a long struggle and against the odds, no matter how minor and unworthy of the record books, is the sweetest success of all.
Climbing’s addictive nature has been well documented, but the reasons for this dependency remain less clear. Maybe it’s the concrete simplicity of the goal—getting to the top—and the fact that there is always another “top” to get to, that makes the climb so hard to leave behind at the end of the day. Perhaps it’s the exhilarating feeling of exceeding one’s own expectations.
About a month ago, my wife Kristin started demonstrating the moves of her latest projects in the air with her hands. A sure sign of addiction. This past friday, she was particularly frustrated. She had come within on move of finishing her project of three weeks—a pinchy, pink-taped V4 with a committing last move.
“They’re taking it down; tomorrow will be my last day to do it!” she explained. “The first part is easy now, but there’s a move at the end where you pull up off this ledge…” As she mimics the move, she winces. Her shoulder is tweaked, her muscles sore to the touch. “Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow and we can go and you can spot me and I’ll do it!” she says anyway.
Tomorrow comes, and even before she’s out of bed, it’s clear Kristin doesn’t feel better. She might even be more sore than the previous day. As we straighten the kitchen, she has trouble lifting the woodblock cutting board to put it away.
“Let’s just see how I feel in a bit,” she says, unready to accept the idea of not finishing the climb before it’s stripped and reset. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever…” When you look at it that way, how could you not go back and try again? The project has her in its thrall. Any non-climber would say, What’s the big deal? Other climbing addicts, enablers that they are, would egg her on, regardless of consequences.
Having had my fair share of climbing dreams and floating hallucinations featuring my project du jour, I know it’s not ideal to carry the stone around in your head like that. But it’s her call, so I don’t say anything. Eventually Kristin works through the pros and cons and decides it’s probably not a good idea to return to the gym. She seems a little sad about it.
A while later, after some thought, she sits down next to me. “I think there are some lessons here,” she says. “First, I really don’t want to be that type of person—the type of climber who is only happy if she sends her project. I mean, there will always be other projects, even if it doesn’t exactly feel that way now, right?”
“Also,” she continues, “If I do want to finish my project next time, I need to do three things: I need to break down the problem and work out the pieces faster, I need to not be afraid to go for it when I’m up high, and I need to just try harder.”
The lessons Kristin took from her experience with the one that got away are the same lessons climbers of all ages and experience levels are constantly learning and re-learning. They’re pretty good life lessons, too. And why shouldn’t they be? Climbing is just a part of life, after all.
The takeaways, then, are: break down your big problems into manageable bites to avoid getting overwhelmed, don’t let fear make decisions for you, and give the things you really care about your all. All that said, don’t be afraid to let go when it’s time to let go.
Over the years, I have developed in my head a pseudo-mathematical representation of a certain climbing phenomenon many of us have experienced, yet few have bothered to define. I picture a simple graph plotting two functions whose lines approach each other and then diverge, without ever intersecting. I refer to this moment, where the lines draw near but never touch, as the Zone of Unbearable Frustration.
One curve represents a climber’s Strength Potential (SP) throughout the course of a session. As the climber warms up, her SP curve ascends, reaching a peak that can be maintained for varying lengths of time depending on fitness, nutrition, hydration, rest, and other factors. It is in this peak zone that a climber exerts the greatest force on the rock. Eventually, of course, the climber’s energy reserves begin to run down and the SP curve drops.
The other curve represents the difficulty of the climb in question relative to the climber’s ability. Like a mirror of the SP curve, this Relative Difficulty (RD) drops with every attempt, as the climber decodes the beta for the climb, making it feel “easier.” The steepness of the drop depends on several factors, such as the climber’s experience level and aptitude for the particular style of climb. The RD curve begins to level out after the climber has discovered most of the key body movements required to efficiently do the climb.
When the SP curve is, from the start, above the RD curve, the climber will flash or onsight the climb. When the RD remains above the peak of the SP curve, the climber won’t send. When the RD curve starts out above the SP curve but drops, and the SP curve rises to intersect it, the climber should send after several attempts.
The Zone of Unbearable Frustration occurs when a climber faces a particularly challenging route. As she warms up, she feels stronger and stronger. At the same time, she grows increasingly familiar with the climb’s unique sequence, becoming more efficient with each attempt. The RD and SP curves are drawn towards one another…
But it is precisely here, when victory looms into sight, that the dreaded Zone manifests itself. Like Tantalus, whose blighted lips can never reach the cool water in which he is submerged to the neck, the all-gratifying moment of fulfillment is denied! Just as the climber unlocks the last key pieces of beta, her energy reserves begin to drop away. Overly depleted, no matter how much she rests, the send recedes into the confounding distance like the last train pulling away from the station.
Doubts will stalk the climber’s consciousness that evening: What if I had found that undercling sooner? What if I had eaten a better breakfast or brought my new, more downturned shoes?! If only I had gotten there earlier, when the temps were ideal!
Such thoughts thrive in the Zone of Unbearable Frustration, but we must seek to banish them from our minds and remember that climbing can be a lifelong curve, with profound value at every point, not just those segments where Strength Potential ekes up above Relative Difficulty…
…although those moments do feel pretty damn good, too.
DEAR THE STONE MIND:“Being an editor at Climbing Magazine may not seem glamorous to you by now, but to the ears of a penniless college student, it sounds like a pretty sweet gig. Did you deliberately set that goal and then take all the right steps to achieve it, or did you just sort of wing it and end up there? In hindsight, what were some key stepping stones or landmarks that you hit along the way to landing that job?”
DEAR PENNILESS IN COLLEGE: Thanks so much for writing. You ask a good question, and it’s one that a few readers have emailed to ask already, so I’ll answer you and, in the process, hopefully anyone else with similar curiosities.
I’d like to preface things by saying that being happy with where you are in life is the closest thing to success that anyone can really get. More practically, a good job is one that challenges you, inspires you to get up in the morning, and provides sufficient income to relieve you of the burden of daily financial worry. (No matter how cool your gig might seem, if you struggle to pay your bills, stress will slowly erode your stoke. Unless you’re a Zen master. In which case you probably don’t have a job anyway—just a robe and a bowl and big golden aura.) With that in mind, a gig that seems sweet from the outside can be pretty crappy on the inside. As the old saying goes, don’t judge a book—or in this case, magazine—by its cover.
But since you asked, I’ll do my best to outline the trajectory that brought me into (and then out of) the climbing magazine world.
I discovered climbing at the age of 12 and was hooked right from the start. Similarly, I was a precocious wordsmith, winning an award in elementary school for an ode to dragons. Climbing and writing—these two loves, seemingly unrelated, could be logically combined in a climbing magazine job. Still, such a “career path” didn’t occur to me until I was done with college and casting about aimlessly for employment while living in a shabby railroad apartment in Brooklyn’s East Williamsburg Industrial Park.
Being full of literally high-mindedness, I applied for internships and entry-level jobs at places like the New York Times, Penguin Books, and The New Yorker. I received no responses. I sent an email to the editors at Rock and Ice, and was similarly ignored. I can’t say I blame anyone who discarded my letters; I had no idea what being an editor meant. I had studied literature but didn’t know the difference between copy editing and proofreading, or what the hell “TK” stood for.
So I did what any middle-class college grad faced with grim job prospects and offensively high rent would do: I went back to school. Grad school. For poetry. I put in two years exploring the intricacies of the written word, but I never expected to end up working in the field. Not what anyone would call a career-minded decision.
Around that time, a friend of mine suggested I contact Urban Climber, a fledgling pub in search of writers willing to work for nothing but bylines and Red Bull. “I’m in,” I said without a second thought. I was following my interests and crawling through the windows of opportunity that appeared around me, with minimal regard to where it was all leading.
After grad school, I moved to Ohio (long story) and took a job through a friend of a friend at a consulting firm, doing basic copywriting and graphic design. Your typical climber might confuse a button-down desk job in the Midwest with one of Dante’s circles of Hell, but it was just what I needed. It wasn’t always a thrill ride, but I learned as much in three years there as I had in four at college, and the money flowed in a more favorable direction. In the meantime, I kept doing the things I loved: writing, climbing, and hanging out with friends.
I’d say that’s pretty important: always finding a way to keep doing the things you love, even if you have to do other things you love less (or not at all) to pay the bills. Never stop chasing that sense of wonder and excitement inside of you. As long as you are able, you have to find a way—it’s like a little rudder that keeps your ship pointed towards better things, even while you might feel like you’re heading in the wrong direction.
Eventually, I became a part-time editor-at-large for Urban Climber. Then Urban Climber’s parent company bought Climbing, and I started to work with both. Then, while out covering the Hueco Rock Rodeo one spring, I had an epiphany in the desert (power animal: javelina) and decided to go half-time at the consulting firm and half-time at “the mags,” as we called them. After working a sufficient number of nights and weekends for minimal compensation, I was offered a full-time position with the mags, editing and writing out of the new HQ in Boulder. I took the job and worked through varying stages of joy, frustration, and disappointment until I could bear it no more. Sometime in 2010, I quit and took a marketing job in the outdoor industry, which I still work, happily, to this day.
Chaos theory has shown that complex and organized systems can arise from relatively simple rules and interactions. This property is known as emergence, and some common examples are the ornate filigree of a snowflake or the beautiful oneness of a flock of birds in flight. Similarly, I think a life guided by little more than a few basic principles can, in retrospect, appear as if it was carefully plotted.
Looking back, things all seem to have flowed in some sort of purposeful direction, but it was never by any grand design of mine (not consciously, at least). Instead, I think it was by the action of a few guiding principles: always try in earnest to learn, grow, improve, stay positive, and work hard, even in the face of doubt, fear, or disappointment. That, and make time for your passions, as mentioned above. The rest, in some way or another, takes care of itself. Mostly.
Look, whatever clarity we might claim in this life rarely comes without a great deal of difficulty and confusion. Mostly it comes as a result of them. And so I think we should all probably rest a bit easier when feeling unsure of the world—it is only by such feelings that we can ever make sense of anything. As Robert Frost wrote, “I can see no way out but through.”
I’m sure this response contains far more words than you were expecting and far fewer answers than you might have hoped, but isn’t that always the way?
When we attempt a climb for the first time, it can feel very difficult, bordering on the impossible. We might spy distant anchors, but have little clue how to reach them. Or maybe the anchors are hidden from view entirely, but some faint line of possibility emerges from the chaos of the rock. Much of climbing’s excitement comes from this uncertainty, and we set out to explore new territory and our own abilities. Along the way, we’ll often find that the path we plotted from the ground won’t get us where we want to go, and we must try new directions and less familiar methods to achieve our goal.
It’s often like this when we sit down to write, too.
When I gaze into the blank screen, I have only an inkling of where I’m going and how to get there. I employ all manner of tricks and tools to turn the nebulous occupants of my brain into concrete sentences on the page. In the process, things I once believed might perish in the alien atmosphere of the world outside my head, like deep-sea creatures brought to the surface too quickly. Or connections that were but wispy filaments, so fine as to elude my conscious mind, appear obvious when finally converted into language and set down on paper.
The act of writing is as much about exploration as it is exposition, which is what makes it so satisfying. If writing was a simple transcription of thoughts fully formed, how dull would that be? Likewise, if we could read and perfectly understand all climbs just by looking, if we could know for sure, without trying, whether we would be able to do them or not, would we even bother?
Most climbs that challenge us require multiple attempts to complete. Redpointing is the process of breaking a climb into constituent moves and manageable segments, perfecting them, and then reassembling them for the send. It’s very much the same with a piece of writing. We must craft it sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and then smooth the transitions, rejigger the order, edit out the unnecessary bits… until everything flows and we achieve our goal as cleanly as possible.
It is also true that the climber will always come up against routes and the writer will come up against ideas that just aren’t going to happen. Not that day or that week or that year. In such cases we need to step away and come back again when we’ve earned a few more merit badges, so to speak. Often when we do, we find the once-impossible becomes possible, and we wonder what we were doing wrong before. Sometimes we just have to wait until the planets align, the pendulum has swung past, the tide has gone out, and no amount of striving will quicken the process.
And sometimes the door never opens,and the route never happens; that idea that seemed so clear never gels on the page quite the way we wanted. Many folks would see this as frustrating, but I think never quite knowing when and if and how things will come together is an integral part of the adventure. The unknown and the uncertain are fuel for an inexhaustible engine in the human heart, driving our need to explore: the rocks and the mountains, our own beliefs and ideas, the universe as we know it.