The Next Project

On the way down, we're already considering the next project. © The Stone Mind.

“You know you’re trying your hardest when your ‘climbing’ becomes a series of falls punctuated by a few glorious moments of holding on,” a friend once said to me.

You might call this the ragged edge of climbing, where we feel no flow, only frustration. The impossibility of the task whelms up and over us, an impenetrable wall, and we wonder why we’re even wasting our time.

This is a job for someone else, an inner voice opines. Better to give up now and find something more… attainable.

But some other part of us sees the faintest glint of possibility—or not even sees, but intuits it, stretches out towards an irrational belief, bolstered only by the knowledge that there’s nothing to lose for trying.

And so we fight on. Against the forces of doubt and inertia, towards a hope barely visible.

And still we fall.  Each time the boulder rolls back down the hill. Each time we endeavor to roll it back up, like that old Greek story.

Maybe the story gets it wrong, though. Maybe Sisyphus wasn’t just compelled by the gods to roll his boulder up the hill. Maybe he chose to roll it because he believed one day he might grow strong enough to push it all the way up, past the limits of his vision to some distant crest.

With every fall and every failure, some lesson is learned, however subtle. Sometimes it’s as simple as “rest longer between attempts.” Other times it’s as minor as “crimp the hold rather than open-hand it,” or “turn the hip a few degrees more to the left.” Often we must remind ourselves of the most automatic of things, like “breathe.”

Just to breathe. Just to focus on the task at hand without the weight of context on our backs. This is all we have to do, but it can be a lot to ask, because our monkey minds are busy: Will I get hurt if I fall from here? Will I have energy to try again if I don’t do it this time? Who will see me fail? Will I disappoint myself? The monkey mind is strong and cunning…

Sooner or maybe later, we see the possibility of success grow brighter. Unbroken sequences of movement grow longer. We find solutions to moves that once seemed inscrutable. Piece by piece, the impenetrable wall yields.

Now, instead of small islands of success in a sea of failure, an archipelago arcs gracefully into the water, broken only here and there by cruxes.

Finally, we enter the state of flow and a complete bridge appears. “Here” is connected to “there.” But even as we near the top, there’s uncertainly. A final anxiety grips us so firmly, we’re apt to falter on some easy move that we’ve climbed many times before.

Sisyphus’ boulder nears the top of the hill. The end of his struggle is at hand. The impossible has become possible, and yet…

The boulder hasn’t changed. The hill still holds the same incline, the same length. From the top, he looks out and sees no grand answer or tangible reward, only another hill, and behind that more hills without end. The thing that’s changed is his perspective. The only answer is he’s gained is to the question: “Is it possible?” but the affirmation fulfills only momentarily.

What does he do then? He sets his gaze on the tallest peak in eyeshot and plots a course, to see if that one is possible, too.

How is this any different than the climber who, at the end of her project, is already thinking of the next project even as her belayer lowers her back to earth?

Two questions come to mind: Is this all there is? and If so, is there anything wrong with that?

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.