13 February 2020

The first time I heard someone wobble I was dropping down into L’Espadelles, one of the most popular crags in one of the most legendary sport-climbing areas in the world.

The cries were shrill and prolonged, laced with expletives. It went on long enough that I was able to pinpoint the source — a recognizeable professional climber, fists pounding in the air. The image of him sinking into his harness as his anger seemingly turned to sorrow stuck with me. His sense of overwhelming defeat was palpable, as if hanging off the end of the rope —not having to deal with his own weight against gravity—was all he could do.

I thought it was embarrassing and immature. I didn’t understand why someone would have such an emotional reaction over a random piece of rock in which success was indicated by two adjacent bolts. It was spring 2013 and I was a foreign exchange student living in Barcelona for a year. A 5.11 climber, I was just beginning to get comfortable taking lead falls and certainly hadn’t tried a route more than once or twice.

I was absolutely ga-ga over this new sport, and, naively, couldn’t understand how someone could derive so much anger from it.

Seven years later, I’m a different kind of climber.

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My eyelids fluttered closed as I put the van in park. Still, the glowing lights of the highway pulsed in the darkness. Though I had just driven for fifteen hours straight, I did not feel tired. The smell of the night’s rain lingered gently, weaving its way through my window. For a minute, though I was alone, I felt the warmth of intimacy curling up into my spine. Sleep came quickly and I awoke slowly, the hum of traffic on Rainier reminding me where I was. I lit the stove and soon the sound of cars was broken with the welcome slow gurgle of a finished pot of coffee. Today, I noticed the shape of the mug, its heat emanating into my hands.

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An early attempt on a beautiful route. Photo by Micah Humphrey.

The only time in which I find total clarity is when I am running. It’s often very brief, a few minutes here and there, but it is distinctive and real. I suppose the simplicity of the action is freeing, it’s almost like breathing- you just do it.

In October and November, I had been running on the Yosemite Valley loop trail. Every time, I ran the same length of trail which passed directly underneath a classic, steep and short route called Cosmic Debris. You can see the short angled crack jut between the pines, daring you to come try it . I had been working on the route for several days. Normally, when I’m projecting a route, I tend to find myself visualizing it when I run.

In fact, for Cosmic Debris, I’d always deliberately look at the route when I ran, to try to force my mind onto it. Because this time, and for many runs prior to and after this one, I was elsewhere, I was somewhere I really didn’t want to think about. My feet were touching ground with Yosemite Valley, but in my head I was in a vivid fantasy, performing the eight moves of the finishing crux to a route I had worked on over the summer. I could feel the left smear under my left foot, could almost see the Californian sun get a little dimmer as I found myself in a dark, wet, small cave in northwestern Washington. Physically, I was in a climbing mecca, a gorgeous spot many people vie to be in, even if only for a few days. It honestly feels embarrassing to admit this, like I am pining for some long lost lover.

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That’s why you’re good”. “The best , they always try to push through the pain. They have to.”

My right hand was warm, covered in clear ultrasound gel. A probe was pressed against the base of my right ring finger, the same place that had been achy for two weeks. A computer monitor to my right displayed a coarse black and white image. In the center was a thick line made up of different shades of gray. It reminded me of a river. Below the line was a large black gap, and then a bright white base. The gray river was my tendon. Normally, it sits flush against the white line, the bone. My tendon was held well above the bone- 40cm at minimal resistance- because I had torn the ligament, the pulley, that holds it there.

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For one last moment, the place we’d left that evening materialized in front of me. Evanescent, like a thin dawn haze you’re not sure exists, and yet so solid that you’ve spent months here. It is secret and mysterious, radiantly verdant and bursting out of the forest, daring and breathtaking.

When climbing clicks it’s as good as any buzz out there. It is fierce and lithe- a cheetah taut, tight, and then leaping at full stretch. It’s as precise and right as an iris flower, beautifully optimized to perform. It is momentous and captivating, the beginning score of a flawlessly tuned orchestra rising suddenly from silence, deep, full and roaring inside of you. You’ll go through a million bad days for those minutes of absolute perfection.

That feeling brushed by me last weekend, like a soft wind soothed by the mountains. A mere thirteen body movements at the cusp of my limit, executed perfectly. I chased it down the rest of the day, but as quickly as it came it was gone.

More often than not, the big cat is turned nervous and edgy. The flower opens too soon, a jagged out of tune note thunders out of harmony, the volume turned up full blast. It’s a thin line to walk- achieving the most meaningful flow requires a no-guarantee investment of many, many bad days.

Climbing near my limit forces me to prove it to myself. Can’t be weak and try voodoo. Can’t be unfocused and try voodoo. Maybe I can’t love you and try voodoo. Can’t give anything less than a furious, firey, ball of energy. A calculated, controlled explosion of emotion, power, fight, strength, and humility.

Can’t. Can’t. Can’t.

“I can see it in your eyes”, he told me.

It was the kind of day where you could so easily slip into the weather, let it take you by the hand and guide your mood.

“No…”, I managed to mutter.

My breath quivered and hung in the air, a sliver of silver. I watched it rise, coalesce and crash into itself, tumble outward and grow until it vanished, a slim shadow thickening into the gray sky.

He was right. I was frustrated and doing a poor job of hiding it. I had tried a route, “Third Millennium” that I deliberately sought out because I hoped it would be challenging. The most difficult series of movement on the route is the very first dozen or so moves. On my first attempt I tried the sequences repeatedly, but did not even come close to doing any of them. I pulled on the rope, slumped deep in my harness and looked up. I saw seven quickdraws, slapping and shuddering in the wind. This is when I felt my mind split into two.

One part of me was highly motivated by the challenge. This level of physical difficulty in climbing is what I had been looking for over the past few months. I wanted to clench the route and crack it open, light it up, examine it deeply from all angles until I found a way. I felt unfrightened, curious, driven, and eager. I wanted to continue up the climb.

The other part of me was angry and sullen. It told me I was weak, a bad rock climber, not cut out for routes of this difficulty. I felt stressed, inadequate, disappointed, sad. I felt like I was expected to give up.

I had to make a decision to keep climbing or to stop.

I lowered.

I belayed two other climbers who made easy work of the route. I was speeding down the mental pathway I chose, a bottomless flood rising behind me with no way to get back once crossed.

I was not always like this. Sometime in the past few years, I have forgotten how to ignore this insidious blackout. Now I run into it, arms wide open.

I did return to the route the following day, and thanks to considerate, careful, and kind support from my partner, managed to figure out the moves. A dozen or so working attempts later, I finished the route. Despite my consistent progress, I was still chained up, a prisoner living inside myself.

In the hour after I sent, I was struck by a memory, sweeping and strong in its clarity. In 2015, I signed up to run a half-marathon a mere two weeks before the race. I had just gone through a tumultuous break up with someone I loved and who loved me. I had not ran that distance in a long time, but somehow, I felt the race would help me heal.

I remember my foot jolting against the pavement on my first stride. I saw his face, stricken and cold. I saw the dull glow of my bedroom light. I felt the blades of grass tickling my cheek as I leaned in, charged and warm with desire. I heard the clicking of my bicycle chain, the wind blunt against me.

The air smashed into my ribs and my legs screamed, but it did not hurt. Nothing could hurt. I got second place in that race, beating some semi-professional runners and blew past my own personal record.

I knew then that I have a unique energy. It can transform me, send a shock of electricity that leaves me crackling and glowing. I am capable of more than I think, physically, mentally, emotionally, if I just let myself try.

Of course, I am entirely aggrandizing certain chronic habits and ideas. I’ve always liked to write, but lately I have been indulging on an almost gluttonous level.

As with everything else, I wonder why.