I was 40 feet in the air on a climb called Buried Treasure - and frankly wondering what the fuck I was doing there. I looked at the modified bowline knot I had tied and threaded through the two tie in loops on my harness, and gazed for a moment at the 9 millimeter thick piece of rope that was keeping me alive just then.
In the Baker River Valley stretched out behind me, what sounded like bikers revving their engines, or perhaps a farmer operating a chainsaw, had been incessantly amplifying itself up the hillside toward the cliff for more than an hour. Meanwhile, just below me a mom who was done climbing was trying to get her five-year-old to follow her back down the trail to the parking lot. “I’m touching my mom’s butt crack!” I heard him yell as I dangled above.
I was struggling with this climb. Or, hang-dogging, as climbers often put it. No graceful, uninterrupted ascent of Yosemite was this. Rather, I was making tentative, fearful moves up the cliff, my tired calf-muscles shaking up and down like the needle of a sewing machine, my forearms burning and pumped. I moved one clip at a time, asking my partner to “take” after each one, and sitting there in my harness to rest. Worst of all, my head was completely in the wrong place. And the five year old below and the engines in the valley weren’t helping.
I had been here before. In fact, I had been here dozens of times. Maybe hundreds. This moment - when everything is telling me to go down, to ask to be lowered, to maybe just give up on climbing all together - is the moment I live for. It’s why I do it in the first place.
This, right here. The fear, the questioning of one’s life decisions, the physical exhaustion, and the battle within one’s self and all things this moment teaches me about being human. Those are the things I love about climbing.
For all its physical demands, for all of its technical requirements, it’s the mental component which elevates climbing to some other more vivid plane of existence. Climbing well is a struggle to be present, and for presence of mind.
For those of you have climbed on top-rope before, I must pause just to say that I’m not really talking about top-roping. On top-rope, falls are not really falls. They are a mere gentle glide away from the rock or from the gym wall. Top-roping may share some of the physical and technical demands of leading, but it has virtually none of the mental demands. On lead, you place your protection as you go, pushing up without the benefit of a rope above you, and falls are truly falls. And that possibility of a real, true fall is everything.
We are all afraid of heights, but climbing - lead climbing - is an investigation into whether and to what degree our fears are justified. It is a search for real and imagined doubts, not just about whether one can make it up a climb, but about why one does this in the first place. Indeed, ultimately climbing is about why we do anything.
It’s a natural question to ask one’s self when one is dangling from a 9 millimeter rope on the side of a cliff.
Sometimes, like that moment on Buried Treasure, I just want to come down. The next hold and all the unknown ones after that are scaring the shit out of me, and all I want is to be lowered and go home and drink a beer and take this goddamn harness off and not have 15 pounds of metal gear hanging from my harness, and not have my life depending on a small bowline knot I tied to myself before leaving the ground.
The whole world in a hold
In those moments my whole world passes in front of me. All my questions about purpose and the future and how I spend my time and what really matters in life are contained in those moments between when I feel paralyzed to go any further, and when I gather myself to make the next move, and take hold of the rock.
It happened on Buried Treasure. I thought about why I do this and why I do anything, and then I put all of that away, as I have trained myself to do. I took a few long breaths. My vision narrowed, my focus returned, and I called down to my partner, “Climbing!” and I moved.
I focused on what was right in front of me: in a literal sense the rock, the vertical and horizontal cracks, the edges of granite, the next bolt and the next clip. But in a larger sense, I had again forced myself to focus on the now, on my breath, on my movement, on the sensations of life.
I had been reminded, yet again - because in life we are in constant need of reminding - that my existence is fleeting, and also precious. Life is a thing which I should pay attention to, and move through deliberately. On the rock, I have to confront and grapple with the mental and emotional barriers which prevent me from moving, and so it is in life.
And we fail
Of course, there are those climbs which really do defeat us physically, as opposed to mentally or emotionally. Sometimes they’re just too hard, the edges too thin, the overhang to steep. Sometimes our muscles give out, our fingers simply can’t grip the holds anymore, and we fail.
Climbing is nothing if not physically demanding. A whole body, muscles never before used, sweat pouring down your face, total commitment kind of demanding. It requires the tendons in your fingers to strengthen. It requires you to not pull a shoulder muscle or a back muscle and sideline yourself with an injury. It requires you to not be overweight, and to learn to move as a dancer would, with grace and precision and power all at once.
If I come down from a climb, it may well have been a mental defeat - a climb which I could have completed but not for a losing battle with inner demons - but it could just as well have been a physical defeat. My fingers simply couldn’t stick on the holds. But sorting one kind of defeat from another is part of the joy and the satisfaction. Did that climb defeat me physically? Or did I defeat myself mentally?
Either is fine. I climb also for the self-knowledge. For the clarifying of things not clear in other parts of existence. At least, that’s why I climb.
We are small
After hang-dogging on Buried Treasure, I came down and rested for 20 minutes. I found a piece of flat rock to lie down on and used my hiking shoes as a pillow to prop my head up. The mom and her 5-year-old were gone, but the incessant whine of the chainsaw up the valley remained. I looked up at the angles and the holds and the 80 feet of vertical rock which had just taken so much out of me, and I thought about how I would move through it all next time.
The move over the diagonal roof. The pull over the mantle, to the small undercling on the left and the little shoulder-high edge on the right. The traverse over to the crack. After a rest, I tried again, and I did the climb “clean” - no falls, no takes, no hanging. I did it with focus and at least some grace.
It felt incredible. Exhilarating. Climbing gives one achievements, but then it gives you new challenges. And there’s not a climber in the world who can’t find a cliff that will bring out their inner demons. No matter how good you are, there’s always a rock wall out there somewhere that will kick your ass.
After Buried Treasure I decided to try the climb to the left, a black streaked arête called Prime Climb. I was feeling strong, confident. I got about half-way up when a sloping hold and a particularly devious sequence stopped me cold. I took. I hung. Pulling the move felt scary, and I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I tried again, and I took, and I hung. I remembered that we are all small before Nature. Just another small reminder. I can’t have enough of them.