The Nine Stages of Getting Gripped

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. 

You got this…

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.

 

Headshot of Ian MathiasIan 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.

 

No Time To Waste: Memories of Garrett Smith

Garrett Smith on the airport shuttle
Garrett (left) on the airport shuttle with his friend Dustin during the first leg of a long trip to Mexico.

We meet a lot of people in a lifetime. Most of them we forget within hours or even minutes of a first encounter. Those who stick with us are woven into our neurons by repetition, over the course of years, through shared experience — a parent, a significant other, a best friend from childhood, for example. But there is another sort of person, those with whom we share much shorter, simpler relationships, who leave unexpected impressions on us, too. Their presence sticks in our subconscious like a fine cactus needle unwittingly picked up on a desert walk. Only a brief encounter, but then, later — sometimes much later — we touch the spot where the needle has nestled and feel its sting. To me, Garrett Smith was one of these people.

Garrett died a year ago today in an avalanche. He we swept away in the backcountry, ironically and unbearably while testing snowpack stability. He was with his wife and several of his friends, experienced and cautious backcountry skiers.  His loss was particularly painful, because Garrett was only twenty-six years old. He was young and driven. He followed his passions — photography, skiing, and climbing, among many others — with an intensity few would or could match. It is cliché to say someone was taken in their prime, but here it is hard to avoid the expression. Married less than a year, just coming into his own creatively and professionally, Garrett seemed poised on the cusp of great things. But in the end he found himself on the wrong side of the line when that slope fractured and gave way. When his friends dug him out fifteen minutes later, he was already unconscious, unbreathing, without a pulse. They performed CPR enough to bring his heart back online, but his brain never followed. When his body arrived at the hospital, it had just enough life left in it to offer a final gift to the world of the living; his organs were given to others in need.

Garrett at the Hammers Inc. Art Festival
Garrett at the Hammers Inc. Art Festival, which he founded. The festival was another one of those things that a lot of people talk about doing, but that Garrett actually did.

Looking back, I didn’t know Garrett that well. Mostly, he was my co-worker. Less than a year after I was hired he passed. Our encounters were limited. We both went for pho lunches on Mondays with a small crew of co-workers, we both went to Mexico for an international climbing festival hosted by our employer, and I once participated in a photography workshop that he led in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Other than that, we spoke briefly around the office and nodded to each other on the train when commuting to work. Our conversations were never exceptionally personal, mostly snippets of camera and climbing chat. But still, his memory sticks with me. I feel its sudden twinge from time to time. I felt it just the other day.

*   *   *

Garrett was six foot seven, bass-voiced, with a ruddy nose that seemed always to be running, and a rotating selection of facial-hair configurations. He wore unorthodox outfits — Hawaiian shirts and sandals with socks, colorful scarves from the Middle East. After pre-dawn ski runs, he’d come into the office and work in his thermal underwear, one long-boned leg pronged unabashedly up on the desk, much to the chagrin of his co-wokers in neighboring cubicles. He was expansive in both physical form and in his passions.

Garrett bouldering in the distance
Garrett in the distance, climbing as my model during his photo workshop up Big Cottonwood Canyon.

One of the first times I encountered Garrett was on a northbound train, heading from Salt Lake City to Clearfield, where our office is located. On the bench seat, his knees came up towards his chest, like an adult sitting in a child’s chair. His bike rested next to mine at the end of the train car. He was quiet, and we didn’t speak. When we got off the train and mounted up, I started to pedal hard, interested to see how this lanky introvert would keep up. Within seconds, he had opened a large gap between us. I eased off a few blocks later, realizing I’d have to go all out just to catch him. Clearly, I was outgunned. Later, I learned he biked miles to and from the train every day, through rain and heat and the slushy Salt Lake City winter, all in an effort to save up for a car. But that was his way: he had plans and refused to compromise. At the time, I didn’t think much of encounters like these, but, it turns out, they were leaving impressions in my subconscious.

Now, Garrett’s memory needles me, inspires me not to just kick back in front of the TV with a beer at the end of the day, but to create something. He is one of the reasons I started writing this blog, taking photography more seriously, and believing that there is no time to waste when it comes to going after what you want in this world. The fact that he died while in the thick of this pursuit only makes me want to work harder, write faster, think bigger thoughts.

*   *   *

I went up into the foothills surrounding Salt Lake City the other day. It had snowed at elevation, but the valley was dry. I chugged up the steep, rocky path with my camera bag, my blue heeler Bodhi out in front. After a while, I arrived at the snow line. The cover was thin and muddy at first, but soon grew thick, until I was breaking trail shin deep. On the high ridges, the snow was up past my knees and every step was a battle. Even Bodhi, hyper-active by breed, looked exhausted by the slow, damp progress.

Salt Lake Valley panorama
The panorama I shot while hiking up in the foothills above Salt Lake City. Whenever I carry my camera gear into some remote or scenic location, I remember Garrett. (Click to magnify the image.)

Heart hammering and quadriceps burning, something triggered my memories of Garrett: flying away from me on his bike; in Mexico, loaded like a burro with bags of camera gear; in Big Cottonwood during his photo clinic, bounding over teetering granite blocks in search of the perfect composition. He was perpetually kinetic, happiest when he was moving forward, constantly working towards something. My bag felt lighter at the memory. I pressed higher, to a peak with a view of the entire valley. The whole of downtown was just a little pile of rectangles, with the Great Salt Lake laid out like an old, tarnished mirror beyond and the snow-capped Oquirrh mountains beside it.

I remembered some of the landscape photos Garrett had taken, which I hadn’t really appreciated until after his death, probably blinded by a stubborn sense of competitiveness. I stood in the snow with my camera and starting snapping, changing lenses and snapping some more, letting the snow melt and soak my pants and shoes. My fingers went numb but I kept shooting. Cold, wet, it was no problem; I’d be warm again as soon as I started moving. It wouldn’t have stopped Garrett. The light wasn’t perfect, and I knew the difference between me and Garrett is that he would have been up here hours earlier, just as the morning was igniting the valley in its first, golden light. He would have gone the extra step to get the shot.

I told myself next time I’d do it that way, too.

Click here for Garrett Smith’s portfolio on the Hammers Inc. Photography website

Click here for a nice post from the Adventure Journal on Garrett

In Case You Missed It: JP Auclair Street Skiing

The first installment in our In Case You Missed It series is an amazing “street skiing” segment from the movie All.I.Can, by Sherpas Cinema. After talking to some seasoned filmmakers from Big UP Productions and Sender Films, I found I’m not alone in calling this one of the finest pieces of “extreme sports” videography evar.

One fun game is playing “spot the skier” in the opening shots of the film that appear to be just scenery. Enjoy!