The Mountain With No Top

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After several months without a single day of hard climbing, some friends took me out to a California crag called Owl Tor, named after the UK’s Raven Tor (home to Ben Moon’s great boulder problem on a rope, Hubble). Like its namesake, Owl Tor is steep and bouldery. There’s one gronky 5.11 on the left of the cliff band, a 5.11d in the middle, and it gets rapidly harder from there.

So, feeling out of shape and mentally unprepared, I tied in and spent the whole day working the 11d. I gave the beta-intensive 60-foot celebration of drilled pockets and glue four or five tries before admitting to myself and my companions that it just wasn’t going to happen. I had a good time, but felt demoralized; I used to run warm-up laps on routes of this grade, now I was projecting one.

But every time I start to get down on myself about such things—about my performance or lack thereof—I get a funny feeling. I’ve long harbored doubts about the validity of the underlying motivation that drives me and, from what I can tell, most members of the “type A” clan. I see a certain needfulness in it: to prove oneself, to put oneself above others, to feel the affirmation of success and excellence. When I look closely, it’s hard to see it as much more than an addiction. It’s an addiction that’s certainly reinforced by popular culture, that holds up select people as heroes for their athletic prowess or intellect or other skills and talents. The successful are addicted to their accolades while the masses dream of being successful one day, as if it might give their lives some rarefied meaning.

“Like drinking salt water to relieve our thirst, trying to satisfy momentary desires just leads to more desires.” It’s a quote I’ve seen around the web, usually attributed to Buddha. Though I can’t verify the source, the concept stands on its own. Many of us will dedicate our whole lives to satisfying momentary desires. The cynical might suggest that’s all there is, the accumulation of accomplishments like the constellation of brass plaques on The Big Lebowski’s wall. But it’s hard not to feel like we’re chasing our tails when we fall into that belief system.

Sure, I want to climb 5.13 again. But after that, I’ll also want to climb the next grade, and the next. There’s no ultimate satisfaction, only the passing affirmation that, yes, I can do that. I can run 10 miles or 13.1 or 26.2 or 100. I can climb route X or make salary Y. I did it. I can do it. I’m special goddamnit! Now onto the next thing.

And maybe that’s it. Maybe there’s nothing else but the eternal hamster wheel of accomplishment. But somehow it doesn’t feel right. After all, at some point we’ll all hit our peaks. Some day we won’t be on the upswing, no matter which key performance indicators we use to measure ourselves. And when that happens, no matter how high our point on the metaphorical mountain, we won’t have reached the top and we won’t have made a dent in the universe.

What then?

It seems like a silly question, but I think it’s one worth asking. And sooner rather than later.

While climbing at Owl Tor I felt that, with some effort, I’d likely regain my prior prowess. But I also saw someday that wouldn’t be the case. I looked out ahead and saw a life that, at its longest, would never be nearly long enough to satisfy my human obsession for more. I decided the only sane thing to do is work to drop the baggage that was weighing me down. I climbed with the pleasure of someone who might never climb any better than on that day… and it was enough.

One day. One climb. One blog post. One run. One moment. The past is a dream and the future isn’t guaranteed. There’s not much room in the middle to be overly concerned with bullshit.

Or at least, that’s how it seems to me these days.

Vertical Dispatch: Climber Questions Ultimate Significance of Sending Project

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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.

Writing, Climbing, and the Exploration of the Unknown

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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.

The Rotpunkt Method

Last week I wrote about climbers who are afraid to admit they care. It’s a phenomenon especially common in teenagers, but many adults struggle with this fear, too. To care is to open yourself up to the frightening possibility of failure. It’s safer not to care —  send or fall, you’re meh either way. Of course, most people who pretend not to care do so because they care too much. If you really want something, then you run the risk of being embarrassed, demoralized, or otherwise disappointed if you don’t succeed. Better to keep the world at arm’s length and pretend you’re all good just where you are.

My friend Charley recently told me about a kid — let’s call him Billy — on his gym’s youth climbing team. Billy was naturally strong, but he never worked routes. Instead, he’d get on a climb, look good up until the crux, fall, and then move on to something else. One day after doing this, Billy’s coach asked him why he gave up. “I don’t need to get back on that route; I know I can do it,” was Billy’s reply. The coach called bullshit and ordered him back on the climb, where, not too surprisingly, he fell lower than on his first attempt. It was exactly as Billy had feared — he wasn’t that close after all. But the part I want to stress is that Billy could do the climb. Maybe it would take him one more try, or maybe 10, but if wanted to prove himself the route’s equal, he’d have to enter the difficult, frustrating, and ultimately rewarding world of the redpoint.

The german climber Kurt Albert coined the term Rotpunkt while climbing in the Frankenjura region in the 1970s. In a 1994 interview with Will Gadd, Albert recalled that climbers in the Frankenjura aided all the routes. “If you saw a piton,” he explained, “you grabbed the carabiner or put [an aid] ladder on it. So there was no free climbing for the sake of free climbing.” But after a trip to the Elbsandstein area, where people had been freeing routes for decades, Albert started climbing the routes of the Frankenjura without the use of gear for aid. When he freed a route, he painted a small red dot at the base, to let other’s know it was possible. Rotpunkt in German means simply “red point.” The name, catchy and with a colorful history, remains a staple of the climbing lexicon. For our purposes, the redpoint’s most important aspect is the process of working out the sections of a challenging climb — memorizing every crux, rest, and clipping stance — and then linking the sections into a whole, as a dancer executes a dance.

In life, there are few big challenges that don’t require a redpoint mentality. Alison Osius, Executive Editor at Rock & Ice, used a redpoint-like strategy when tackling her book, Second Ascent: the Story of Hugh Herr. “I really just focused on it chapter by chapter,” she said. “If someone ever asked me where I was in the process or how much more was left, I would say I couldn’t think that way. Or it would have been overwhelming. If the person would ask if I could say that I was halfway, I wouldn’t even touch that.” It’s how we must approach any project that, on its surface, is too big to swallow. The best way to eat an elephant, as the adage goes, is one bite at a time.

When a climber approaches the limit of his or her ability, the rehearsal period required for a redpoint grows longer. Martin Keller, for example, spent three years and over 100 days on a single boulder problem in Chironico, Switzerland. In a less extreme example, I worked Tuna Town, a long, pumpy route in the Red River Gorge, over the course of two seasons, failing, often miserably and near the end, dozens of times before succeeding. When I finally clipped the anchors for the send, the route felt easy and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why it took so long to happen. It is one of redpointing’s greatest wonders when a climb once so difficult comes to feel almost easy. Small holds feel bigger, big moves feel smaller, long sections climb themselves, scary clips lose their fangs… . In his blog post, Keller describes his feelings after sending his longstanding project as “something you can’t buy anywhere and there is no number to express it.”

There are few things more satisfying than a long-worked-for redpoint. You feel like you’ve done the impossible, almost like you’ve become someone else entirely — the type of person who can do a climb that difficult, or, thinking more broadly,  get into a school that good, or get that job, or what have you. When I climbed my first V10, Squeenos, in the Gunks, my friend Jason swatted me on the shoulder and exclaimed, “You did it, man! Today, you are that strong!” But I only made it there through a long and frustrating process of getting to know the problem — how much pressure to exert on each rough little crimp, which way to turn my hips, where to drag my toe for extra friction… . There were days when I couldn’t do two moves in a row on Squeenos, days when I couldn’t do the crux moves, and days when I couldn’t even get my ass up off the ground. I had to remain open to failure, unsure of success, and willing to keep trying. Working towards such seemingly distant goals can feel, as Keller describes it, like an act of hubris, but I can think of no other way to achieve anything worthwhile. It’s what we do when we care. But first we have to admit we care, and then we have to do the work.

It’s a simple (and as complex) as that.