“Nothing changes really about love”
Alice Munro

Photo by Reed Johnson

I received a piece of advice recently, from a surprising source.

“Do what it is you need to do”

For days, the words tumbled in my mind like a pebble stuck in my shoe, persistently yet softly reminding me of their presence.

Each word is simple, common and monosyllabic. Yet, they are arranged in such a way to express an idea that is worth enough to be profoundly unclear upon first reflection; to understand it, I had to sit with it.

But, as I considered the simple beauty in that, most of my attention was focused elsewhere.

In the grand scheme of things, Voodoo, a 5.14b in a sport crag in northwestern Washington, is nothing special. My story, of setback, doubt, growth and ultimate success on a project is ubiquitous to the point of being mundane in the climbing world. (Though I include a video with a description at the bottom of this post, for the geeks).

I should know. I have been “projecting” routes (in my experience, that is between 10-50 tries, 50 being my personal max) now for around three years, when I get the chance. Amongst my friends, I am kind of known for getting sucked in.

I have been thinking a lot about this process recently because when I sent Voodoo, I turned a few heads.  I turned a few heads when I sent To Bolt, too.

I won’t dispute that I am an above-average rock climber, but the peculiar thing is I do not think success in either of those two routes – which I focus on because that is what people consistently list as my achievements – has all that much to do with rock climbing.

In fact, if I took a quarter of the people who praise me and think of me as “stronger” or “better” and I put them in front of To Bolt or in front of Voodoo, and I said “okay, do everything for this route” and they actually did that, meaning they wrote off work as much as possible, drove long distances, paid too much money for gear, kept coming back, prioritized sleep and health and even endangered relationships– then yes , given luck with the uncontrollable elements like good conditions and lack of injuries, they would succeed. 

In this way, Voodoo taught me about myself.

It shed light on an aspect of my personality I was still beginning to uncover. My “success” has as much to do whatever motivation keeps me coming back, than it does with my ability as a rock-climber. If I want something, it is not difficult for me to go all in. This can be good and this can be bad.

In that way, Voodoo taught me about the sacrifice embedded within mastery and devotion.

If you don’t go all in, part of you feels unsatisfied, agitated and like you are missing out on something you should be engaging with. It is another, more entrenched, pebble in your shoe.

But, If you do go all in, you are perpetually haunted by thoughts of the future, of sustainability and of longevity of passion in a hobby dictated in large part by physical ability. You feel , and are lightheartedly accused of being, self-centered for pursuing something so aimless and contrived.

Voodoo taught me about selfishness.

The more I go down this path of doing what I need to do, the more skeptical I am that I am selfish.

Maybe, doing what I need is the opposite of selfishness, because it is imbued with honesty. In fact, I feel much more selfish when I present myself as something I am not to colleagues or to acquaintances because I inevitably do a half-assed job in my work or put half-assed effort into a relationship. That behavior is the opposite of generosity. Can I measure success in the achievement of being true to myself, and perhaps, therefore, presenting the best version of myself to those around me and maybe even falling into the work I am most suited to do, and therefore the work that will allow me to provide the most to others?

Voodoo has taught me about vulnerability.

Vulnerability, as well as humility, are manifestations of strength. This is  a lesson I have confronted many times in my life, but the nuances of which only become sharper and more clear, each and every time. 

 Opening up to pain  or to failure takes tremendous courage. In my experience, most people don’t do it often because when it doesn’t work out – which inevitably will happen – it is nothing besides you and your desperate soul in a room together. Every time you come out, you’re more haggard, exhausted and damaged. You’re older. I think the most universal experience in this realm is being rejected by someone you love.

Projecting a rock climb is a beautiful and cautious avenue into the most risky yet most profound way of self-growth – tackling something that might not work out.

It is not always pretty, and we all play the game of balancing what we give with what kind of pain I think may be a consequence. For example, I will not invest energy into a route I don’t think I can do.

Voodoo taught me that I will grow not despite my failures or losses or pain or heartbreak, but because of them. 

I retreated with my tail between my legs in the summer of 2020 away from Voodoo. I once opened my heart to someone fully and do not know if I have ever or will ever do so in the same way again, the raw pain of the end was so damaging. When I showed up at Rifle  only a few days ago I was intimidated by the scene and the style and I got so tangled up in myself that I let that, rather than the climbing and my friends, dictate my mood and control my days.

I still guard my heart at my chest, sometimes being tactically affectionate so as to not betray too much of myself for fear of the ensuing sting. But, when I am relaxed enough to tear down the walls, I gain something that even if it disappears, has enriched my life so thoroughly in the present that it will undoubtedly reverberate through me for years. My injury on Voodoo taught me about my body and tested my resolve, making the ultimate success on the route more meaningful.

Voodoo has taught me about forgiveness.

In the pursuit of climbing, I have certainly done regretful things to other people, to co-workers, colleagues, friends, family and lovers.

Recently, I finally saw how I had been acting cowardly towards the people I care most about. Though admitting I had acted inconsiderately was particularly trying, I felt grateful for the realization. I felt grateful to be shown how much of an emotional, self-interested prick I had been.

In this regard, I have a lot of work to do to become better. On the other hand, I could walk away and not change because that’s easier, and because there are certainly people who would love me all the same for it. But, that’s not what I’ve learned.

In the process of meaningful change, the kind that starts from one small act, you must be willing to forgive yourself. Every time I wallow in my own self-deprecation, it is because part of me is still somewhat invested in it and a part of me is still gaining from it. Still, I don’t think it is possible to become the person you want to be- ethical and strong and just and humble and kind- unless you act the part of your worst self first. Then, when someone points it out – you need to look at that face in the mirror, confront it, and decide that isn’t who you are. Then, you must work as hard as you can to fight against what’s easy and try to do what is right.

I haven’t yet left a project undone. But I hope that when I do, I will realize that what drew me to it was the process. In that sense, I always learn and am almost always successful in the ways that matter the most, the ways that touch other parts of my life.

The day I sent Voodoo, something interesting happened. Normally, I scream when I am on hard routes and did so frequently on Voodoo, where I encountered a very difficult crux at the end of what is likely a 5.13d.

But, when I found myself at the good hold post the crux, staring down the 5.11+/5.12- outro for the first time on point, I forgot how I got there. I snapped out of flow, and snapped first into astoundment and then into an agitation not quite as severe as panic, but something strong enough to shift every molecule of my body toward taking the next part, the easiest moves on the route, very seriously.

So, though I felt in control and with plenty of power, I instinctively screamed the entire way through the finishing moves. This was my way of ensuring I gave the route everything, even if everything was not what it required.

And a month after finishing the climb, I considered the simple beauty in that moment. Seldom in life do we really give it everything. And never do we give it everything if we really don’t have to.

Voodoo taught me to accept that this is what I need. As did Fight Club, To Bolt or Not To Be, Third Millennium, Don’t Call me Dude and Don’t Call me F-dude.

You will learn about yourself if you lean as much as possible toward doing what you want and need. And knowledge really is power.

“And it is in such a way, with a mixture of reserve and of daring, of submission and revolt carefully concerted, of extreme demand and prudent concession, that I have finally learned to accept myself.”

Marguerite Yourcenar The Memoirs of Hadrian

Voodoo, as I did it , is broken down as follows : gain a jug by either jumping across a gap or leaning over, if you are tall enough, to begin the 12d, Black Magic. This leads to a mediocre rest at the chains and two back to back difficult boulder problems on small edges to a very poor and uncomfortable rest. The route culminates with  a condition-dependent pumpy traverse on slopers that brings you straight into a v9/v10 revolving around opposing a razor thin left hand under-cling with a poor right-hand gaston from which you either make a direct deadpoint to a sloper or bump the right hand to a slanted, one-eighth pad crimp to then bump to the sloper. (9:36-10:00 on the video). Out of my 50 attempts on Voodoo spread over two seasons, I hit the crux sloper three times from the ground on point . The third time, I took it to the top.

After that, you can shake and complete a  few more moves of 5.12 climbing and one bolt of easy terrain until you hit the anchor and finish the route. The first ascensionist, Jonathan Siegrist, climbed it from the ground via a 13a rather than from the 12d start. The majority of its other ascents were done from the 12d start.

Thanks to Tom Moulin for the footage and the belays.

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