Category Archives: Climbing

You’re Probably Not A Great Belayer

A bad belayer belaying with too much slack, no hand on the brake, and while talking on the phone

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.

 

The World’s Worst Belayer [EN] Bad belaying techniques from Petzl-sport on Vimeo.

Climbing Season

 

a climber crimping and a pair of hands typing on a keyboard

Years ago, a friend of the family and a very smart fellow 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 party a 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.

8 Symptoms of Climbing Deprivation

 

grumpy cat hasn't climbed

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.

Internet husband to busy watching climbing vids to come to bed4. 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.

5. Hallucinations

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.

6. Substitution

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.

8. Simulation

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.

What is the Value of A Climb?

 

value_of_a_climb

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.

The Best Way to Say Thanks

Volunteers with the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance moving rocks at Ruth Lake, in the Uintas.

Volunteers with the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance moving rocks at Ruth Lake, in the Uintas.

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.

And of course, climbers are almost never the only users seeking to make use of a given plot of land: In the West, Indian tribes and climbers often disagree strongly over the appropriate use of rock formations; extraction industries and climbers butt heads across the U.S; and the bad behavior of other user groups, from litter to campfire and graffiti, is easily pinned on climbers.

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.

Being thankful is great, but the best way to say thanks those who work hard to be good stewards and preserve climbing access is to be one of those people yourself. There will never be a perfect time to start, but now’s as good a time as any. To find an LCO in your neck of the woods click here. Plus, support the Access Fund.

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…   

Vertical Dispatch: Guy In Gym Not Even Climbing

Illustration of guy hanging on rope eating an energy bar

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.

Social Climbing

Crowded climbing area

The climber in isolation is just a thought experiment.

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.

Critical Mind and Playful Mind

A climber laughing and concentrating

“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.”

Flappers, Gobies, and the Perception of Pain

Climber hands

Pain isn’t absolute; it is increased or diminished by context. Photo: Leici Hendrix.

“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 week my 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.

 

Vertical Dispatch: Climber Questions Ultimate Significance of Sending Project

Man looking down at deer carcass

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.