Since I’m in graduate school now, let’s do some data analysis.
On September 10th, 2017, I sent a route called Fight Club. It is a power endurance test-piece of the Pacific Northwest. At 13b/c** it is the hardest thing I have ever climbed. It’s around 18 meters long (feels a lot longer) and is around 45 moves.
It took me fifty-seven working attempts spread over twenty-two different days; some days I focused entirely on the route, other days I only gave it a single burn. That amounts to 40% of my total amount of days spent rock climbing outdoors since moving to Seattle in January 2017. I have never come close to giving a route so many attempts before.
Four major turning points came on the route- finding the rest at the first set of the anchors, extending a draw to make clipping less strenuous ,completely switching my feet beta through the lower crux and discovering the thumb catch at the top shake out to make it an actual rest.
I drew three different beta maps; the first I wrote on May 27th, 2017
Two new friends kept the psyche alive- Nic and Josie
One more go, just one more go, until it was finished.
Here I present the summary of my findings of a summer of “trying real hard” in the Pacific Northwest. What results is a very haphazardly written essay that blends social science (aka me whining about my lack of a social life) and climbing lingo. I grapple with these thoughts a lot, so I’m still unable to quite put them into words, resulting in some properly poor writing and some mega streams of consciousness.
Journal entry from late June-
With summer in full swing here in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve been trying to get out as much as I can. I’ve done a smattering of alpine climbing, a lot of sport, and some trad here and there (Oh, Canada!). All throughout the winter and the spring, I thought alpine climbing would consume most of my time as it did last year. That certainly has not been the case. After a few jaunts in the alpine (one of which was a 21 hour long epic), I find that my motivation is gravitating more and more toward sport climbing. It seems like I have become a bonafide sport junkie, and I kind of like it. I must always have a brush in my chalk bag, I most definitely complain when it’s humid and hot (fun fact, the rubber that climbing shoes are made of is mostly designed to perform best between 32 and 40 degrees!), I draw and evaluate my “route pyramid”, and – most importantly- I’m trying hard stuff, and failing a lot. In fact, I’m falling WAY more often than I am clipping the chains.
Failure is not that easy. “Mental strength” is often thrown around as a strength that every rock climber should cultivate; however, most associate that ability with not being afraid of falling, keeping cool in run-outs and maintaining intensity and focus in more remote, committing areas.
Mental strength, though, involves a lot more than just conquering a fear of falling. It takes perseverance to project a route at your absolute limit, that demands not only intense physical effort but high levels motivation and a sacrifice of time and energy. It takes bravery to purposefully choose a challenge that you may very well not overcome. It takes resolve to know that the most valuable pursuits often are the most difficult. It takes humility to know when to give up and to be grateful for every opportunity you get to go climbing at all. It takes wisdom to keep everything in perspective and to know that it is still only a route. It takes an intimate connection with your body to dig deep for that final push. It takes dumb love to repeat the process over and over and over again…
No one is making me do this, no one but me knows how hard I am trying, nobody cares if I eventually succeed and no one but me deals with the inner , rotating dialogue of self doubt and confidence.
This type of thinking leads me to ponder the life-long research question, that can be broadly asked as “why do I rock climb” and can be further dissected into “why do I love sport climbing more than any other type of climbing?” “Why does it matter to me to reach my potential?”
Here’s a poorly worded version of my current hypothesis- climbing at my limit demands an extreme focus that is not demanded in any other realm of my life. It demands simultaneous mastery of technique, of physical power and of mental strength. This type of focus is rare, fleeting, difficult to obtain and only comes when I am in complete flow. During and after a sensation of flow, I feel euphoric. Climbing, thus, is the only way I can enter this “flow” state and elicit a deep sense of euphoria and self-satisfaction.
In fact, for someone like me, climbing provides great relief . My mind is constantly stimulated; one thing excites me, then something else pops up and competes for my attention. I want to learn about this new topic and try to cultivate this new skill and get the minimal amount of sleep needed to pack everything in. This can be exhausting, not only because I feel like I’m constantly thinking, processing and moving, but because no matter how hard I try I can’t fit in 10% of the things I want to do, if I want to do them in any type of meaningful way. In addition, I’m not confident that many people understand this facet of my personality, which can be draining. I walk away from most conversations regretting that I talked so much, but also wishing I had said a lot more. I’ve been critiqued (constructively, I value this input) as saying I don’t think critically enough about what other people say, or that I do not listen, or that I try to rush through conversations, but I’m not sure I agree with these criticisms. I just feel so excited that I need to say everything that comes to mind, because if I don’t then I am utterly convinced that the person won’t truly understand just HOW much I value what they are saying. I also think this personality type explains how long all of my blog posts are…
Essentially, from the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, my mind is very, very busy. Climbing, however, is so absorbing that the focus it demands mutes all of my thoughts. It’s a total “off switch” and I find it incredibly therapeutic and even relaxing.
As far as “reaching my potential”; the more skilled you become, the harder it is to make gains. As you creep toward this “potential,” you have to exert much more effort, and the gains are few and far between. But, when they come, the flow state may just be prolonged and more profound.
Hmm… I think these questions warrant additional data collection. Looks like I’ll have to write a grant to fund a long-term study that will last the rest of my life as a climber.
Here are some other questions- “why did I choose to come to graduate school in the middle of winter and focus my thoughts immediately on some route that I had never even been on, that I had only seen once in the dead of January, the first pitch of which I thought was very difficult? That was found deep in a small, wet cave nestled in the woods tucked east of Mt. Vernon? That was a 13c, a grade I had never even tried, in a style I wasn’t good at?”
OK, maybe I can answer that one.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
I came off of a bad winter; I felt socially isolated and I could not climb much due to very wet and cold conditions. I threw myself voraciously into my graduate program to keep my mind off of things. I worked intensely and without much rest, expecting more and more of myself but without a lot of knowledge on what tasks were actually important, relevant or even possible- so I tried them all. I was putting in many hours of effort but not seeing a lot of gains, and it was no one’s fault by my own. I was also finding it hard to meet people. Disclaimer: some cheesy emotions are coming up.
I’d like to think I am adaptable; in fact, I have moved around enough to know that this is true. People (I hope) tend to like me; I’m outgoing and energetic. Sometimes, if I may I venture to say it, I occasionally can even be witty. However, I also am simultaneously shy and guarded. When I sense a conversation is tilting toward more personal topics, or that I might actually make a connection with someone, I get nervous and I let my speech outpace my thoughts, keep my mind churning and churning (.. in the wake?) so I can never stop to think about how some real friends are exactly what I need right now and all I really want is for someone to get to know me. Whatever the hell that means. There’s a whole other research question waiting to be pursued. Vulnerability is more frightening than any fall I’ve ever taken.
Climbing, can be social, but it can also be incredibly isolating. When your main priority is to climb and you do not have a regular partner, you tend to rotate between a whole lot of “acquaintances.” I’ve climbed with many different people in Seattle; everyone has been very friendly, psyched to get out and supportive of one another’s goals. Regardless, at the end of the day, when we all depart, the laughs are not much more than laughs, the shared psyche and catches appreciated. Perhaps numbers will be exchanged, some beers will be had… but eventually, well we probably will stop hanging out as everyone’s lives digress from one another. After some time, these types of interactions begin to feel very empty and I yearn for a deeper type of relationship.
This situation felt like it was on overdrive in around three or four months into my time in Seattle. Then I went to Smith Rock for spring break, by myself, met a few great people with whom I climbed for around 10 days. We made dinners together, got beer after we sent our projects, and shared motivation and laughter. Yes, I connected instantly with a bunch of great people, but then I left to return to school and the cycle continued. Of course, this is more or less my fault because instead of dedicating time to meet new people or cultivate relationships, I choose to go rock climbing. Why? Because, I am addicted to rock climbing. Currently, I am valuing it more than much else.
In fact, as soon as the temperatures crept up, I got outside as often as I could. A big chunk of my spring and summer was spent at Equinox, a little haven of climbing near Mount Vernon, WA . At first, the style intimidated me. The wall is steep, which intimidated me. Lots of the moves are powerful, that also intimidated me. Reachy moves? Intimidating. Many of the hard climbs just did not fit my “style.” This was, well, intimidating, but also empowering. I threw myself at these climbs, using Equinox as a training arena with the hopes of improving on a style that challenged me. Progression came, albeit slowly and disguised under a thick layer of fatigue. In fact, for a large portion of June and July I constantly felt tired. A deep exhaustion flooded my body , and it felt foreign, like a virus. I’ve always been energetic and active, so this long-lasting sensation of fatigue really distressed me. Maybe, throwing myself at all of these routes, specifically Fight Club, wasn’t the best idea, maybe I had hit my “potential” already, at the ripe age of 26. Thoughts like this were demoralizing and difficult to deal with. I ended up trying other routes at Equinox and I often took trips out to Squamish and to the Cascades. I also went to the Fins in Southeastern Idaho for some technical, vertical rock-climbing, a style that suits me far better, to climb on some different rock and get some confidence back.
But, the truth is, I fell in love with Equinox. I wanted so desperately to get better at its style. Somehow, failing was addicting; it made me more and more determined to succeed.
After four weeks of climbing in other areas, or on other routes at Equinox, I roped up for Fight Club again. To my total surprise, I executed what for me was always the stopper move on the first go. Not only that but I felt strong. I was climbing close to the wall. My body tension was incredible. Every hold felt bigger than before. Neurologically, I was timing my moves perfectly, hitting what used to be low-percentage moves much better. This strength didn’t just manifest itself on Fight Club, but on every route I tried at Equinox. The break helped, it allowed my body to take in all the stresses I’d thrown at it and use it to get stronger. Of course, I was still nowhere close, this was a minor breakthrough but I didn’t turn into A. Ondra overnight. However, I now knew that for the first time, if I kept this fitness up, got lucky and climbed in good conditions, it was actually possible. I put in the time and the effort and began to feel like I was reaping some rewards; it was game time.
I busted out all the stops to give me the best possible chance of finishing the route this season. I bought a knee bar pad. I rested a lot more than I normally would but made sure it was never too much. I obsessively looked at the weather. I needed everything to align if I had a chance.
I also decided to be proud of myself. After being able to one-hang the route consistently, I felt satisfied with the season. My goal was never to check a box next to some grade, but instead to focus on a specific style, to make my goal “improve at steep, powerful climbing”. Fight Club became my battleground, my training arena… but also my zen. If I were to magically send, it would be icing on the cake. This took a lot of pressure off of me and made me feel grateful to be able to climb it again and again. I decided not to care how many tries it took me, and told myself I would immediately stop investing the time in the route if I stopped having fun, or if I regressed on it in any way. Any anxiety I had evaporated, and I climbed smoothly, focused yet relaxed.
Fight club- Sent it. 57th go.
Friends- I’d say I made a few?
I got home at around 8 PM on Sunday evening, the night of the send. Immediately, I logged into 8a.nu and wrote this about Fight Club in my profile
“I have never fought so hard in my life. Almost fell from the very last move- so pumped! Logan’s beta made the top feel less desperate, but it was the conditions in the end that made the biggest difference for me. Regardless, this was the hardest route I’ve ever done and the biggest investment of time and energy I’ve given to a single line. I’ve never been more proud or psyched. Thanks to all of my many belayers for the encouragement, and to Tom for suggesting I try this gem in the first place. Felt impossible when I first got on it- felt just nearly possible today :). 50 or so goes.”
Reading this a few days later, the significance of all the people I mentioned in this blurb hits home. Seems to me that the effort was more of a communal one, that I leaned heavily on others without even realizing it. These relationships may be ephemeral, but they certainly are not empty.
That night I emailed Tom, thanking him for ever suggesting I try the route; there is really no way I would have gotten on it without his belief that it was something that I could at least try. That suggestion came to me in the depths of the Seattle winter, “A steep 13c, Tom, are you serious?” I probably said out-loud and disregarded the notion. But the seed was planted…
When I lowered to the ground, a woman I had just met, but with whom I had worked the route a few days prior, gave me a bear hug and told me she was “proud of me.” This veteran climber had blasted through the grades, up to 5.14b, and I admire her. But hell, I was proud of myself, too- I fought like a champ.
In the maybe ten or so minutes it took me to send, I paid attention to nothing but my own breathing, to the sensation of the holds on my fingers, and to the building pump in my forearms. However, when I let out a shout at the anchors, I cheered out to a crowd, to friends, to a tribe.
I felt the support coming from all directions. This was probably amplified by the fact that I was literally glowing- my brain was on fire, extremely stimulated by everything I had just put it through- executing sequences perfectly, pushing everything to the absolute limit, and now reveling in the aftermath, flooded with adrenaline. The battle combined with the intense amount of time and energy I invested into the route made the send all the sweeter. If I had floated up the thing, I would not have felt so accomplished. The truth is I couldn’t have been closer to falling as I clipped those anchors. This type of joy- the joy that comes from having accomplished something extremely challenging- is extremely rare. The only way you can get it is to take a risk, to try something that you might not actually succeed in. These are the best ventures in life- the ones whose successes are not only not guaranteed, but are unlikely.
When I lowered I immediately found my phone to text the partner who supported me the most in this entire process that I finally did it (my exact words were “I owe you a burrito” because that was the promise- whoever sent first would buy the other one a burrito). Even though we hadn’t talked for a long time, I did not hesitate to e-mail Tom, because I know that he would want to hear about it.
I glowed and felt the energy bursting out of me, but what I wanted to do most was to belay my friend on her own project, to swap beta for other routes, to find the next thing that will stoke the fire again.
But, for now the fire is extinguished, my fingers need a break and my central nervous system is exhausted. I dug deep; it is going to take awhile to replenish my body and mind before I can even consider trying that hard again.
Like any good research paper, this synthesis has only, at best, half-answered one question ,but has asked a lot more. Why is it important for me to climb hard routes? Is rock climbing a terrible or an effective way for creating meaningful long-lasting relationships? What the hell lives under that yellow tarp in the pit beneath the belay deck at Equinox?
A few days prior to my send, I heard a quote in a random outdoors video I was watching; I wrote it down on the first page of my training log, right next to my favorite Mary Oliver poem and a great little diagram from Bill Ramsey called “the pain box.” I never was able to track down who actually said it, but I identified with him the moment I heard it.
“I want to climb my hardest, and sure that’s associated with a grade, but it’s more associated with a feeling.”
Why do I climb? I climb for that feeling. To immerse myself in it when it inevitably floods my entire being after a fight. And, when it inevitably escapes, to continue chasing it, with the best kind of people running right next to me.
**with regards to me grading Fight Club as 13b/c- it originally went as 13d when people used the upper dyno move, then was downgraded to 13c when a crimp out left was discovered. (pretty sure I have that history right, please correct me if I don’t!) Then, most recently, Logan Barber found some new beta for the top, making that move much less dynamic, and therefore higher percentage (especially for us short people). I don’t know if this downgrades it to a 13b as I have not climbed enough at that grade. It’s definitely way higher percentage. Hard 13b I would say, it was only after go 45 that I started to be able to link the bottom crux from the ground. Regardless, somewhere between 13b – 13c is where it lies.