Don’t Call me a Rock Climber

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.

As I moved through the grades and met more climbers, wobblers became more or less common. Still, I rarely, if ever, threw a proper one myself. Instead, my venting strategy of choice was to be quietly self-deprecating and negative. Not the best alternative, but I tried my best not to throw a full on tantrum on the rope.

Last week, though, I broke.

I tried the route “Don’t Call me Dude” (8a+) mostly on a whim, wanting to move up in the grades at a new cliff after finishing off the classic Fall of Man (8a). I also hoped to find a sub-project while potentially sinking my teeth into another route I had my eye on. I had been at the Virgin River Gorge (VRG) since late December. I’ve been known to approach projects with an unyielding obsession, and knew I should embrace the sub-project strategy, where you work on two routes simultaneously. When I arrived, I was still buzzing with the hope and optimism that accompanies major life shifts, mine being my recent decision to not pursue my Ph.D, which I had worked on for three years.

As someone who has only worked in low paying fields, my bank account is not impressive. I have two loans that total to an amount that is more than I have liquid. The math is simple, I need to get a job soon. In fact, I want to get a job. I want to feel useful, capable and, ideally, have another outlet through which I find value.

When I first quit, I felt energized and motivated to find my own way. I diligently tried my best to research jobs and careers I could pursue that I would not absolutely loathe and that might support a flexible work schedule.

Then, it seemed like I blinked and two months passed. It’s the middle of February and I have spent 10 days on Don’t Call me Dude. I never even touched the other route I was intent on trying. The sub-project has quickly morphed into the mega-project and my unyielding obsessive nature was unleashed. At around 38 goes (as of today), I’ve only tried one other route more times, my very first 5.13c that I ticked nearly three years prior. I committed to using beta I found in the initial boulder problem that felt, to me, like something out of a 14a. Then, after a break, I found a much easier way. I once thought “once I get to the fourth bolt I’ll send.”

But, now I consistently made it to the fourth bolt, and fell at about every other possible spot. While some consider the route “over” at the rest, I face another crux that feels almost as hard as the entrance moves. At the time of writing, I have only gotten here three times from the ground, and have fallen every time.

Clearly, I had found something that was very hard for me. I needed many things to come together — skin, conditions, strength, luck and mental focus. Generally, these are the kinds of routes I am drawn to. Generally, I enjoy the process. But, because I showed up to this route with preconceived expectations and a fat ego —I thought I’d find and enjoy this projecting process on a route several letter grades harder — I robbed myself of the joy of the process. Without that, it felt like work.

And then a pattern arose.

I’d go out and I’d fall on Don’t Call me Dude. Reasonable excuses for poor performance — horrible conditions, poor beta, split tips — all became reasonable ways for me to critique myself. “If I were a better climber I’d find that beta sooner.” “I can climb this thing with tape on.” I grappled with questions of regression, meticulously comparing this route with previous 13c’s and 13d’s I’d done, most between four and ten attempts. Climbing, often my medication or a vehicle for self-confidence, seemed to have become the exact opposite — a means for self deprecation.

On my rest days I’d sit on my computer and look up careers.

What exactly does “look up careers” mean? The task is as nebulous, confusing and frustrating as it sounds. I’d spend hours in the library and leave without feeling like I had made any progress.

Two months, and I had not even thought of a path. Then, I low-pointed on Don’t Call me Dude. More than one part of my identity was being threatened and I was scared.

“It’s just a route”, I’d hear. My mind, ever the optimist, immediately would try to destroy me, taking a benign statement and interpreting it to help fuel and further entrench me in my negative mindset.

“Doesn’t that statement imply that there is something else in life to turn to? A job, perhaps, or a hobby in which you find value, happiness and feelings of self-efficacy? Why couldn’t I succeed? “

I spent a considerable amount of mental energy trying to answer these questions.

Meanwhile it seemed everyone around me was clicking in more ways than one. The darker parts of me became agitated by their success and I walked away feeling guilty for even having such emotions.

Then, at the end of the day when, for the third time in a row I hadn’t matched my high-point, I yelled, pounded my fist in the air and threw a shoe.

I had wobbled a few times in close, private company, but it was the moment I did so in front of others and with one of my best friends on belay, that I suddenly saw myself from afar, and I got the sense that I was watching someone else, someone I didn’t recognize.

I don’t know when it happened, but within the last six months, climbing has shifted from being a way to gain confidence to a way to do the exact opposite — to find any opportunity to sell myself short, to compare myself to others, to feel weak and to funnel all of my life’s frustrations into performance on a single route.

In a lot of ways, it’s a tricky balance to strike. Everyone says “don’t take it so seriously” in response to my less cheery statements regarding performance.

However, the very act of moving through my life, one I designed to capitalize on climbing opportunities, is the most obvious manifestation of what climbing means to me and is much more telling than any deprecaging statement I make about a route. My aimless career searching just makes that reality all the more clear. Still, too much focus on the outcome or performance can quickly suck out the joy from climbing and hamper attempts to complete a route.

I do not think it is foolish to focus on data and performance when you put energy into something with the same fervor as I have done for climbing. Progression matters to me, and that is okay. However, when I have my low-points, the fun and enjoyment of movement tends to outweigh those negative thoughts. The moment that stopped happening is when things shifted.

In a lot of ways, I enjoyed climbing so much more when I was scared on closely bolted 5.11, proud to just get to the top. I was very much engrossed in my life in Barcelona with a buzzing social life, engaging studies and climbing with a supportive and very strong crew. In the moment, I still enjoy complex movement, trying very hard and the process of unlocking a route. But, it’s obvious to me that I stopped having fun awhile ago.

So, for now, don’t call me a rock-climber, not until I find the joy again.

16 February 2020

The morning I sent, it clicked. After two rest days following a week of low energy and poor performance, I executed well, felt strong and flowed up the route. Compared to how many times I had red-lined and fumbled through, this performance felt unique and rare, even in the context of other routes. Typically on a route that has tested me this much, I do not feel as in control, even on the send burn.

The path to victory was, admittedly, convoluted and brought out the worst in me. Still, it was all worth it; every time I slipped off, that time when I stuck the last hard move and then fell because the pocket was wet from the humidity change, even that creepy fall where I flipped upside down was worth it, because it’s all just written in the story of the route.

Don’t Call me Dude brought me face to face with toxic assumptions and thought patterns at a time when my ego was already bruised from external life events. I was vulnerable, and so instead of embracing the challenge, I readily let it kick me while I was down. Along the way, the climb taught me a lot about myself.

After I sent, I figured I might as well try the route I had originally wanted to project, at least once, before leaving the area. Sparsely bolted and fiercely hard, I grabbed the stick-clip to get the rope set up as high as possible.

“Watch this” I told my partner and some other climbers.

I unhinged all of the clasps on the stick-clip so that when I thrusted it outward, all of the moving parts of the stick would come out simultaneously and the pole would be at its full length. I set it up, and held on tight as I flung the pole forward to release the sections.

They all caught, until the last part jettisoned out of the pole landing feet away in some vegetation.

“If I just broke my stick clip, that moment was worth it,” I said, in between full, rich laughter.

I had indeed, broken my stick clip and I couldn’t now take it up the route with me. Sometimes things just don’t go according to plan. I tried what I could, knowing well, due to my experience in hard projecting on cryptic vertical routes, that I shouldn’t bother trying to lead up it on the first attempt. Instead I got on another route, Dark Boy, that I knew was good.

I sat around and talked to people at the crag. I gave my partner some long belays and cracked up when I noticed him starting to french-free the route route, awkwardly grabbing two perma-draws, one in each hand. Just another day at the VRG.

I tried to send Dark Boy that day but fumbled my foot sequence at the end of the crux.

Hanging in space at the end of the rope, I naturally and immediately told myself “really good effort.”

Who knows, maybe you can call me a rock-climber again.

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