This was originally written for Gnarly Nutrition

No matter what I did, the heel hook would not stick.

the heel hook on “Gription” v9 at Moe’s Valley; which gave me some trouble

I tried to use different pairs of shoes. I showed up when it was crisp.  I recorded myself to see if there was a difference in my hip position between when I stuck the move and when I did not. I meticulously focused on comparing each potential body position – was it better if my left foot smeared as I pulled with the right heel, or if I used it as a back-flag?

Yet, whether or not my heel-hook would stay on – allowing me to pull with it and reach the final hold of the problem – seemed more related to luck and cosmic forces rather than skill or technique. This bothered me. For days, I walked away frustrated, but also intrigued. What was so mystical about this heel hook that made it so difficult? The grade of the boulder was hard for me, but not novel. Every other move was difficult but consistently repeatable.

I considered changing my beta, using the more typical left heel hook that would be harder to reach for my short frame, yet, once established, easier to move off of. There was a chance that if I committed to the left outro, the time invested in the new method would lead to a quicker tick than if I kept trudging forward with my beta.

But I was stubborn.

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I am often asked to elaborate on my experience getting a Ph.D. and how I juggle my pursuit of a doctorate with a determined and time-intensive dedication to rock-climbing. I am asked, most likely, because over time I have publicly insinuated certain discontent with my career path, although I am now content with these choices and my work.

Someone asked me to write about it, for a blog catered to graduate students and those interested in the experience of Ph.D. students. I agreed, neither entirely enthusiastic nor ambivalent.

As I sat down to write in July of 2020, this piece tore itself out of me. I wrote it in the span of an hour and the advice geared article I had intended became something else entirely.  My story of my convoluted journey in one realm seemed to me simply one manifestation of a mindset I have cultivated and carried with me for my entire life – a mindset that has more often harmed than helped.

I will emphasize that we should not look to our past as an excuse for our behavior , but it is helpful to perhaps, look to it as a partial explanation. To realize that your choices are influenced by long forgotten memories,  engrained habits, toxic childhood behavior and nebulous social norms and pressure can be extremely devastating in the moment, but upon reflection, ultimately freeing. 

Understanding where people come from, understanding that a lot of who we are is borne from things we really had no control over – circumstances, luck, entropy, disaster, tragedy – can, I think, help cultivate compassion and empathy in a world that is increasingly fraught with loneliness , resentment and anger. It is human.

I have held onto the piece for more than half a year, my decision to publish coming in the middle of a long overdue self-reflection. I kept it for myself partly because of the vulnerability I would expose myself to upon publishing, but largely because I didn’t think it was fully formed. The thing is, I don’t think it will ever be. I wish I could be one of those reticent types who keep things guarded , but, I’ve come to respect my need for this nebulous void in which I throw my most confused, darkest and brightest thoughts – it means something to me that it’s out there.

Finally, people say we live in the stories we tell of ourselves. I’d like to free myself of this one, and so I want to tell it.

A final thanks to Chia-Yi Hou for her encouragement , thoughtful suggestions and copy editing. Check out her Medium page here.

“It was as if, because of the very strangeness of my heritage and the worlds I straddled, I was from everywhere and nowhere at once, a combination of ill-fitting parts, like a platypus or some imaginary beast, confined to a fragile habitat, unsure of where I belonged. And I sensed, without fully understanding why or how, that unless I could stitch my life together and situate myself along some firm axis, I might end up in some basic way living my life alone.”

Barack Obama, A Promised Land

My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break

William Shakespeare

Living in Fear

For my parents , with immense gratitude

I do not know where the courage came from when I walked into my advisor’s office on a gray December afternoon. 

With five words I released what demons had been haunting me for the last year, as I moved apathetically through a Ph.D. program.

“I can’t do this anymore.”

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To the reader: Gnarly Nutrition asked me to write an article about tactics for projecting that could be applied to all sports What follows is my full-length article that is more geared to climbing, a condensed version can be found on Gnarly’s blog.

“Our great mistake is to try to exact from each person virtues which he does not possess, and to neglect the cultivation of those which he has.

Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian
Myself setting up on the crux move of “Deep Blue” (13b, 1300ft), a brilliant route on Washington’s Mt. Baring. In September, I was supported by Matt Carroll on belay, and many others with logistics, as I tried and succeeded with a no-fall ascent. Photo by Nathan Hadley.

I once existed most beautifully between the moment when I pulled onto a particular rock climb and the moment in which, for the only time, I did not fall off.

It was my first real climbing project and I was enraptured by what it was giving me. The process altered  the view of my own possibilities, lengthened  the horizon upon which I now gaze. 

Still, when the dust of my eventual success settled,  my priorities were left in a harsh light for me to examine.  Due to my neglect, a good relationship that brought me joy stagnated and ultimately failed. While I nurtured an incredibly enriching and life-long friendship with my climbing partner, I strayed away from others and lost valuable work and life experiences.

It was simple, in the end, to realize that the positive outcome was so rewarding because it was never guaranteed. It’s a rule true in any field — the larger the investment and risk, the greater the payoff. For me, this payoff came in the form of strong and profound feelings of flow, a direct result from how much the route demanded of me. Throughout the process, I discovered great enthusiasm and devotion. In essence, I liked the way it made me climb, and, despite what I later viewed as sacrifices, liked the way it made me live. 

Equally, when you strip away the nuances of a sport — of running your fastest, lifting your heaviest, or climbing your hardest — you will be left with what makes a project incredibly difficult, and incredibly special.

When you try, there is always an inherent risk that your aspirations may not align with your abilities or your opportunities. You will, consequently, expose yourself to failure and vulnerability. When it doesn’t work out, the ensuing sting can weave its way straight to your core, a part of which is normally guarded during the pursuit of goals in which success is highly likely. 

Though I have never regretted a project, I have become more intelligent about respecting their complexity.  Each and every time, I learn that the mental approach I take  before I pull onto the wall is as important as the climbing itself.

The advice presented here is geared towards the rarer, large projects which demand a significant investment of time and sacrifice, but are useful for a project of any type.

So, you want to project…

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 “In that case, I have one more question for you” a fellow Rifle climber posed to me after I accepted his offer to give me beta for a route. He was lounging comfortably in a lawn chair at the Bauhaus wall on a sultry July afternoon, a spliff in one hand and a laser-pointer in the other.

“Would you like beta given via conversation or via laser?”

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“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.

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Life here shows itself in far-gone gestures and traces, always one step ahead of me. I have never seen the mountain lion I decided was male and affectionately named Igor, but often find his fresh tracks. In the evening, what I believe must be a dignified owl – its hoot so deep and melancholic – makes itself known, but never seen. The bounding antelope undulate  and meld with the distant heat-waves. Even the fighter-jet pilots frequently fly over this area are visibly untraceable as they send a shivering whistle that can be heard for miles.

The presence of field mice, though, has been confirmed, as they unfortunately found a way into my van. I dubbed them (all four of them) Henry, after the affable husband of the protagonist in one of my favorite books, Olive Kitteridge, who dies. I have been reading a lot, lately.

After briefly considering them as pets, I ultimately provided four suppers for the local owl. His hoot seemed to liven up a bit and I felt better about Henry the third, who set the trap but did not actually die. I found him next to it, hyperventilating and only slowly responsive.

I took him outside and laid him like bait on the gravel. My heart filled with lead and sank as he looked up at me, perhaps confused as to why it was suddenly so much colder. I closed the door of my van and went to bed.

In the morning, Henry the third had disappeared.

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Because there is nothing less controversial than photos of beautiful plants. Spring is still here

Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust,
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart,

Suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose looming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade,

and once again I am blessed, choosing
again what I chose before.

Wild Rose by Wendell Berry
Castilleja angustifolia var.flavescens
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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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