The boulder problem was exquisite. Four holds sat arranged in a diamond — a sloper above me, an undercling to my left, a gaston to my right, and a foot below. They beckoned at me, challenging me to find a way through.
Intrigued, I hung on the end of the rope and considered the route. It was sustained, demanding great strength and technique. The rests were marginal at best. The climb ascended the wall perfectly, gently overhanging until it culminated in the most difficult sequence I had ever tried.
At first, I could not believe it existed. It felt as if it materialized and grew out of the forest for me to climb; it felt like a dream.
Ironically, given my instant infatuation with the route, I had never given Voodoo, 5.14b, much thought. The seldom touched king line at my favorite local crag, Voodoo is clean, daring, monumental and intimidating. That afternoon, I was bored and restless. When my friend suggested I try it, I could not think of a reason not to.
Quickly, Voodoo found its way into an unoccupied corner of my brain and burrowed into it.
Soon, I found a way through the puzzle and pieced together a wall of features into a delicate, difficult sequence. The line, once mute and out of focus, began to take shape and feel tangible. As I hiked out, I was uncharacteristically quiet, my brain meticulously shifting through the gears of what it would take to succeed.
I have had climbing projects before, but Voodoo was different. Its seduction lied in its difficulty — it rested right on the sweet spot, close to my limit but possible. I could succeed or fail. Which way the pendulum struck would be up to me and my potential, an irresistible and attractive challenge .Inside of me, a hungry beast began awakening from a long nap, limbs taut and outstretched, preparing to leap at its prey.
This is how my life began to rotate on Voodoo’s axis.
That summer, while my students worked, I would visualize the beta. When I ran, my feet made contact with cement but in my mind, I was pressing on the crux left smear. I was fine-tuning my body to the nuances of the Voodoo dance even when I was not there.
When I felt a twinge in my finger, I considered the pain diligently only to ignore it. I would be done with work in a week, just as the weather would shift from hot to cool. I was primed, it was lined up and the thought that something could go wrong was unfathomable.
All at once, I made a shift. Shaky, desperate two-hangs turned into near-flawless performances in the matter of a single attempt. I found myself pulsing with a confidence I did not know I had. Each move fed my forearms and fingers with strength, propelling me to the anchors.
When I arrived at the crux for the first time on point, my mind suddenly was ahead of my movement and I was airborne.
Though I did not clip the chains, I was giddy, lit up with energy, aware this was one of my best climbing performances. In a way that felt natural and true, my satisfaction detached itself from the outcome, allowing me to access a deep connection to my motivation and my climbing.
My happiness came from the brief moment in which I tasted a previously unknown feeling of mastery. It felt larger than myself, as if the molecules in the air were humming, aligning themselves so that I could do the route. Though it slipped from my fingers then, I sensed I was on the verge of a superb breakthrough, marveling at the places this route could take me. I also felt my finger yowl.
I returned, drawn to Voodoo like a magnet. As we descended to the base, it got colder. It felt mythical, like the forest would swallow up the crag as soon as I left.
I climbed with all pistons firing and was quickly at the first crux. The familiar texture of the first edge was comforting. As I closed the crimp I felt like I could tear through the stone, find myself at its core.
As I shifted my weight onto one foot, a sharp pain tore through my finger.
The rope tightened as quickly as my belayer’s cheers turned to silence. And as quickly as I had built Voodoo up, it fell apart.
When my pulley tore, my identity collapsed with it. As I picked up the pieces I could not ignore how much of my self-worth I attached to a piece of rock, enough to cause deliberate damage to myself, to risk climbing altogether.. I felt incredibly foolish, an overwhelming juxtaposition to my mentality only a day before, when I thought I was surmounting a pinnacle of performance.
At first, I tried to throw Voodoo out and slam the door behind it. But, it would always find its way back through a crack, like rays of sunlight piercing a dark room. I gave in, forgave myself for caring so much. I mimed the moves every night for months. I forced myself to believe that I would not simply overcome my setbacks, but would grow because of them. Sending was on my mind, but true failure became not a matter of whether I clipped the chains, but whether I showed up and tried.
Summer turned to fall, my finger healed and I climbed. While each route had its own story, they all fit into the larger narrative of returning to Voodoo. As my planned return drew near, doubt and fear of reinjury crept in. In these moments, I put my head inside the movement, turned the volume up and drowned everything else out. I thought about how it would feel to hit the final sloper, how it would feel for the body and mind to unite in the ways I needed them to. My motivation and love of the movement was my gravity, grounding me when I started to float.
Nine months later, I returned. The quickdraws I had left were still there, shuddering in the wind as I tied in. When I pulled on, it felt like no time had passed, as if I were revisiting an old friend I had not seen for years, the relationship so ingrained that time had no effect.
Two weeks passed. One day, I felt weak. As I bore down on a sharp crimp, my skin tore open and blood poured out, just as another split had begun to heal. These were devastating blows on a route that is so condition-dependent. I needed every advantage I could get, yet I kept tearing my skin apart. I screamed, then was silent. As I lowered, a feeling of failure grew heavier the closer I got to the ground. When I hit the earth, I crumpled under its weight.
For the first time, I truly hated Voodoo. I hated myself for the sacrifices and investments I made. I thought the route was stupid and the goal contrived. I felt guilty and selfish for dragging my partner out there. Then I stood up, grounded myself in the movement, taped my finger, and climbed.
The day I sent Voodoo I showed up to find half the route wet due to a storm. Tension rose between my partner and me as we talked about the futility of the conditions for hard rock climbing in Washington. Though I gave these thoughts life with my words, I did not believe them. My breath quivered and hung in the air, a sliver of silver, carrying my demons away into the dull sky. By the time I warmed up the afternoon sun had dried off most of the route.
On my first attempt, I had fallen where I normally do, in the diamond of holds. But, I made a subconscious minor adjustment to how I held a left hand that leads to the crux. The shift was extremely subtle, like a brief whisper in the wind, not enough to make a leaf flutter. Yet the strength it brought me felt as noticeable as a howling storm moving in front of me. For an instant, my mind and body united, a connection that stretched from the healing skin of my fingertips to the tips of my toes, worn from tight climbing shoes. I felt tranquil, yet keyed up. For the first time in two years, my entire being knew I would do it.
Yet, an hour later, when I found myself at the end of the hard climbing, I snapped out of flow and into an agitation strong enough to shift every cell of my body towards taking the next part, the easiest moves on the route, very seriously. Normally, I scream with difficult movements and did so often on Voodoo. Today, I had not made a sound.
So, though I felt in control and with plenty of power, I screamed the entire way through the finish, my way of ensuring I gave it absolutely everything, even if everything was not required.
Afterward, the hole Voodoo left within me was cavernous. I was proud and satisfied, but sending was also a loss, a signal to the end of a rare time when a challenge matched my needs so perfectly. For weeks, I felt like a soft fruit without its core, mushy and unstable. It took time, but I would go on to fill the hollowness with new ideas and bigger, harder dreams because Voodoo taught me that sometimes daring pays off.
The highs Voodoo brought were matched in intensity and frequency by the lows. But, when I climbed on Voodoo, the focus it demanded was surreal. Whatever surface I had beneath me, the good and bad of work and relationships would suddenly collapse, everything vanishing like pollen rising in a steady current of wind.
Today, I still often consider the simple beauty in the moment when I screamed up two bolts of 5.11a with no one but my partner to see, and no one but me to feel. Seldom in life do we really give it everything, and never do we give it everything if we do not have to.
I will always choose to go through a million bad days and no-guarantee investments for those minutes of flawless performance and flow. The question is not whether or not it is aimless, selfish, or worth it, the question is whether or not I need it – for better or worse, Voodoo showed me I do.