Some Things to Remember for Next Time

A climber in Moe's Valley, Utah

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.

Endless Autumn

A tree in fall with yellow leaves

The cool slant of late autumn light goldens up the world. The ungreened leaves twirl to the ground with a papery music and layer the bouldertops up and down the granite canyon. Amongst the dry leaf litter, under the fractal branches and unimpeachably blue sky, a few climbers play over the stoney surfaces. Winter is coming and the last mellow days of fall take on a special preciousness.

If surfers dream of an endless summer, climbers chase autumn; the pre-winter chill and low humidity make for ideal skin-on-stone friction. In the fall, the climbs we labored to complete all summer long become mere trifles. In a place like Little Cottonwood Canyon, my “backyard” crag here in Salt Lake City, late fall and early winter are the only times of year certain boulder problems can be climbed at all!

So it is that rarely frequented climbing zones begin to accumulate minor crowds in the fall. And a few times in my recent outings, I’ve run into acquaintances who, you might say, are in the late-summer of their years. A little heavier, a little slower to bounce back from injuries, yoked with more of life’s many responsibilities, these experienced climbers expressed frustration with their favorite pastime. They couldn’t do the things they used to do, and it was taking some of the fun out of things.

“Wait till you’re my age,” one of them warned.

I understood well enough. After two decades of climbing, I already have to navigate around recurring injuries and rest longer and longer between days on the rock to feel recovered. But the frustration my friends voiced, while understandable, comes from a problematic perception of the world. It comes from a holding on to expectations and to the past—something I’m always working, with varying degrees of success, to let go of myself.

It is common to think back to our best day of climbing, the day where we climbed harder than we ever thought possible, and to set that as our new expectation.

“I should be able to do this,” we might think of some route that’s giving us problems. “I did something at least this hard years ago!”

One problem with this way of thinking is that it’s not realistic. No one improves in a steady, upward line—we all move in cycles, ups and downs defined by all manner of life circumstance. But a bigger problem still is that such thinking is focused on something in the past and in our minds. Engaging in constant comparison creates dissatisfaction and wastes the short time we do have, to climb and to live.

The use of seasons to represent life stages is a familiar literary trope. Spring is youth, summer early adulthood, autumn late adulthood, and winter old age. For the climber who constantly strives to improve, grow stronger and ascend higher, the turning of life’s seasons can be an especially difficult thing. Accepting the gathering nip in the air is not in our nature.

In my blog, I often refer to Eastern philosophy or religion, and find a certain value therein. But it is not because I subscribe to any particular belief system. Instead I see the perspectives of the East as a counterweight to the dominant ideas of my own culture.

“Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” wrote Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. I do not deny the raw beauty of his sentiment. But to really be valuable, I think it should be balanced with words like those of the Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah, who said: “Letting go a little brings a little peace. Letting go a lot brings a lot of peace. Letting go completely brings complete peace.”

As Westerner with a taste for the ideas of the East, I try to climb somewhere between Thomas’ rage and Chah’s release.

One of the Most Important Things to Know About Snorkeling or Pretty Much Anything Else

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik
Photo courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik

“Those who can be like a puddle become clear when they’re still,”
– Lao-tzu

The first time I panicked while snorkeling was when I hit the water. Immediately, I felt like I might sink. Or if not immediately sink, quickly exhaust my energy, snorf a lungful of sea water, maybe vomit, and then sink.

Just 30 seconds earlier, I was standing at the edge of the catamaran. I turned to one of the guys working the tour.

“So just jump in?” I asked, peering through the smeared and scratched glass of my mask. He smiled big and reached out to tighten my straps.

“Yeah, just hold your mask when you jump so it doesn’t come off.”

I took a deep breath, peered down into the azure sea as it fwapped against the boat hull, and jumped.

Let me say that I am a poor to mediocre swimmer and had never snorkeled before this trip. Right away, I was in distress. Trying to keep my head up in the air while dumping water out of a snorkel felt way too complicated. At first I used one arm to handle the snorkel and straighten my mask, but quickly realized I’d need both hands to get everything in order. To accomplish this, I pedaled my flippered feet madly, exhausting myself. As if to mock me, the small ocean chop kept slapping me in the face.

You’re not going to drown, I assured myself. I stopped futzing with my snorkel and paddled away from the boat. As soon as my thrashing slowed, the ocean floor became visible through the crystalline water. The sand was pale, inviting, and I could make out the indistinct shapes of sea creatures moving below. Excited to see more, I bit down on my snorkel and started to breathe. It felt funny, not surprisingly like pulling air through a tube. I dunked my face into the water and panicked for the second time.

For some reason, it felt much harder to breathe with my face submerged. I sucked desperately on the mouthpiece just as a wave welled up and filled my snorkel with sea water. I gulped a mouthful and narrowly avoided regurgitating my grilled mahi-mahi lunch. OK, man, time for a reset, I thought. I went to my happy place, found my power animal, and reminded myself that I was not the first person to use a snorkel. Several million people, many much older, younger, more out of shape, and/or worse at swimming than I have successfully snorkeled. I just needed to relax.

It’s amazing what not freaking out can do for you. In a very general sense, freaking out is the best way to make all of your fears come a little closer to reality. When rock climbing, freaking out makes you the worst climber you can possibly be. This also holds true for traveling, cooking, trying to pick someone up at a bar, playing badminton, or pretty much anything you can think of. The only good time to freak out is if you’re an actor whose character is freaking out, or if you’re in a freak-out contest, which I’m not sure even exists. When you don’t freak out, you’re much better at having fun and, not coincidentally, you’re more fun to be around…

Or, more poetically, “When we stop struggling, we float,” to quote Mark Nepo. It’s counterintuitive, but there’s a truth to it. Calmer, I found I could stay comfortably on the water’s surface with little effort. I tried looking down again, but since I was no longer hyperventilating, I could breathe.

In my field of view appeared spectacular mounds of pale coral speckled with sea urchins. Some were black and spiny, like balls of lacquered toothpicks. Others had rounded spines like fat pink tongue depressors. A small, dark green sea turtle with a light band around its neck glided by. Big black fish with flowing fins, yellow stripped fish, a long, silvery fish with an eel-like body and pencil-thin nose… A little bit of water flopped into my snorkel, so I puffed it out with a sharp breath, like the guys on the boat suggested. Not only wasn’t the experience scary or hard, it was relaxing, almost meditative.

“Don’t do this,” explained one of the tour leaders before we jumped in, waving his arms and legs in demonstration. “If you’re thrashing around down there, you’re scaring the fish.” So I moved slowly, comfortably buoyant, serene. I dove down into the water-warbled light and gently touched a lipstick urchin. Schools of fish divided unhurriedly at my approach. I was a visitor in their quiet world for a moment and they seemed OK with it. I was OK with it too.

Chris Sharma and the Difficult Balance

Letting Go: Chris Sharma and Mark Coleman from Prana Living on Vimeo.

“Some of these things are so difficult, I have to want it more than anything else in the world. It has to mean so much. But that can work against me…”
— Chris Sharma

As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, although the title of this blog comes from a Zen story, I’m no Buddhist. Like a bird building a nest from odd scraps and detritus, I take only the parts of Buddhist philosophy I need and leave the rest. The concept in Buddhism that seems to resonate most with me is the lesson of non-attachment.

In the video above, there’s this exchange between Chris Sharma and “Mindful Living Ambassador” Mark Coleman:

Coleman: You’re balancing the intense desire…to achieve something — but as you say you can’t do that and be tight, because it just contracts everything: body, mind, and your climbing — so how do you balance holding a goal, and at the same time not being attached.

Sharma: It’s a difficult balance, because, if you don’t take it seriously, then why even try so hard?

Here the riddle of greatness is stated clearly. And, of course, the video never actually answers any questions, only identifies the challenge. “It’s a difficult balance,” says Sharma. He probably strikes it more often than most, and yet he cannot express how to strike it. It is something you must seek without seeking. You must care, and work, and try… and then it just happens.

In Zen, similarly, to reach enlightenment is the goal, but the means of reaching it involve not focusing on the goal. Like Zen koans, the logical inconsistency is uncomfortable to the brain, like an Escher print. However, with assiduous practice and constant repetition, one can enter the state of doing without trying.

Chris Sharma at RocTrip China
Chris Sharma at Petzl RocTrip China

Many classic Zen stories identify a moment of sudden awakening. For example: a monk is walking through the market and overhears a conversation between butcher and customer. The customer asks which cut of meat is the best. The butcher answers that they are all the best; he carries no cut that is not the best. And with that, the monk is enlightened. (So simple, but what the story doesn’t mention is the many years the monk would have spent in a state of constant effort, trying to understand the nature of existence.)

In my life, I try to hold many goals in mind, but to hold them lightly. A violinist should not clutch his bow, nor a painter her brush. Similarly, to make use of our bodies, we must practice letting go, loosening ourselves until we are pliable like a reed and not stiff like a dry old stick. In climbing, constant tension is the enemy, always defeating us on our way to the top. In life, too, a constant clenching of the mind is self-defeating.

To know this intellectually is simple — just a matter of linking one word to the next. But to live it every moment, now that truly is a difficult balance.