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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My eyelids fluttered closed as I put the van in park. Still, the glowing lights of the highway pulsed in the darkness. Though I had just driven for fifteen hours straight, I did not feel tired. The smell of the night’s rain lingered gently, weaving its way through my window. For a minute, though I was alone, I felt the warmth of intimacy curling up into my spine. Sleep came quickly and I awoke slowly, the hum of traffic on Rainier reminding me where I was. I lit the stove and soon the sound of cars was broken with the welcome slow gurgle of a finished pot of coffee. Today, I noticed the shape of the mug, its heat emanating into my hands.

Back in the city, a place of contrast. I long for familiar though not close friends, find comfort in a routine and feel more welcome than in many places I travel to.

Yet I am agitated, stressed and unhappy.  

When you are away for some time, the good things can tease you. So, easily, you forget what it was like. Day by day, you can get used to almost anything. Something that felt so unbearable becomes merely scar tissue that doesn’t ache unless you prod at it.

You forget that empty and painful pulse in your heart, the opposite of pride, but not quite shame. How wanting to give yourself the chance to start again felt like dying of thirst. How going out into the rain, you were just trying not to crack. How fraudulent you felt in every room, even when everyone else was gone. You tell yourself you can always walk out, but you won’t. You can tell yourself, repeatedly, to be grateful for what you have until the million thoughts swarming by become white noise and you can’t separate fact from fiction. You forget what it was like, until those few moments when it all comes rushing back at you, your heart galloping, and your mind humming. The intense clarity breaking through a dense, persistent fog. When you realize you are alone, and you should make decisions based on that hard, sobering, raw and essentially human truth.

And so, I changed.

It seems daunting, nearly impossible. Though I am relatively young, I am without money and marketable skills and feel alienated as I am surrounded by those who are good and grounded. The truth is, I haven’t yet accumulated responsibilities or commitments, and so I can take risks.  But I have accumulated intense love for specific things and people that feel unbearable to lose. Everything I love feels like it is on the table.

However, for the first time, I understood that the risk was now necessary. I understood that what was on the line was more important than anything I may lose. It finally hit me that the point wasn’t whether it was easy or difficult, the point wasn’t whether or not my future situation would be better or worse, it was neither about how it would affect my relationships nor how dramatic or romantic people might think I am — the point was that it absolutely had to be done.

The stress was turning me into something else. But the fine-toothed razor difference was that the stress came not from being over-worked, but from completely ignoring that I was knowingly on the wrong path and trodding further and further down it, making it harder to find the start. It doesn’t matter that I’m not sure which path to now take; I do not even know which are available for me.

The thousands of little eddies swarming in my head confused me, fucked with my priorities and fucked with my behavior. I dwelled on the past and it made me impossible to be good in the present.  It eventually became as if I didn’t want to be without my worries — I didn’t want to be dislodged from my suffering, because it was becoming comfortable. My seemingly persistent dilemma — to quit or not to quit — became my cause. It became my identity. For an instant, I became a bad person. I was turning myself into a demon, the eyes of a menace staring back at me inside my own head.

I won’t be pursuing a PhD and I won’t be pursuing a career in natural sciences. Besides my stint in photojournalism, this is all I have ever done.

But, even as the freefall advances, sometimes I feel like everything was turned upside down. That the windstorm in my head finally calmed down, letting everything it was carrying drop and fall away. I feel like what surface I had beneath me suddenly let out and I was air borne. I might be falling into an enormous big black hole without a landing yet built, but maybe there are stars in there, too.

An early attempt on a beautiful route. Photo by Micah Humphrey.

The only time in which I find clarity is when I am running. It’s often very brief, a few minutes here and there, but it is distinctive and real. I suppose the simplicity of the action is freeing, it’s almost like breathing- you just do it.

In October and November, I had been running on the Yosemite Valley loop trail. Every time, I ran the same length of trail which passed directly underneath a classic, steep and short route called Cosmic Debris. You can see the short angled crack jut between the pines, daring you to come try it . I had been working on the route for several days. Normally, when I’m projecting a route, I tend to find myself visualizing it when I run.

In fact, for Cosmic Debris, I’d always deliberately look at the route when I ran, to try to force my mind onto it. Because this time, and for many runs prior to and after this one, I was elsewhere, I was somewhere I really didn’t want to think about. My feet were touching ground with Yosemite Valley, but in my head I was in a vivid fantasy, performing the eight moves of the finishing crux to a route I had worked on over the summer. I could feel the left smear under my left foot, could almost see the Californian sun get a little dimmer as I found myself in a dark, wet, small cave in northwestern Washington. Physically, I was in a climbing mecca, a gorgeous spot many people vie to be in, even if only for a few days. It honestly feels embarrassing to admit this, like I am pining for some long lost lover.

Almost three months ago, I hurt my finger. This happened two days after I finally made major progress after weeks of stagnant effort. I was faced with the prospect of a full pulley tear, and took six weeks off. Nothing had tested me quite like this route and I felt distinctly that it had made me level up physically and mentally; to stop trying the route, to stop climbing completely, at the very cusp of such a breakthrough was heartbreaking for me. Needless to say, I took the injury hard; maybe it is a character flaw that I let this moment set me off into a spiral of sadness, but even if so, the intensity of the feelings I had were real. I drove way too much, spent money sort of recklessly and didn’t work enough. A long story short, I would later discover that I never tore my pulley to begin with, but rather had a bad case of tendinitis, a result of a tear I probably sustained years ago but didn’t actually notice or treat. I went from tearing up in the waiting room when I thought I’d need surgery to having my doctor call me on the phone and tell me I was “absolved” , that I could go climbing that day. The juxtaposition was joyous, but also overwhelming.

After one day at the gym to confirm I really was okay, I weighed the option of returning to the route. Logically, it didn’t make any sense. There was absolutely no way I was still in shape for the hardest thing I’d ever tried after a 6-week hiatus, I could be re-risking injury, and it was early October in Washington, likely conditions would get wet eventually.

But, I’ve always been a dreamer, always had lofty goals, and never have been too afraid to at least try them. Reckless though it was, I found myself at the base of the route two days later. I had to try. More than one person made their surprise with my decision well known, more than one person made their disappointment well known. My first day back, I felt shaky on the 5.12- warm-ups and hesitated to pull hard with my right hand. Somehow, though , this didn’t worry me. I knew my project better than these routes and was experienced enough to know it might go differently. I was simultaneously surprised and also felt validated, when I did all the moves quickly, including the V9/10 crux at the very top that took me several sessions to figure out beforehand. The power was there. My partner told me it looked like I could do the route , and I knew he was right.

But, I had made a promise to arrive in Yosemite in support mode in a week or two. The weather in WA was also looking grim. I went out two more days. On my second day, I got through the first very hard crux — containing the move on which I hurt my finger — but slipped off the wet resting hold. My last day, I made plans with one of my best friends, Nic. He postponed leaving to the Red to support me. Being around him was calming, and there was no one else at the crag. The route was getting more wet as a result of seeping from a storm beforehand. I jugged up to dry off damp holds. I changed my beta on the fly for the opening wet moves. It didn’t look good, but I found myself at the resting hold after performing remarkably well on the first crux, executing perfectly and trying very, very hard. I had definitely lost some strength , but my drive was burning stronger than ever.

Then,I made a mistake. The resting hold was wet, despite me having dried it off, and I panicked. As I sat there chalking up, I basically dried off the wet holds, and tried to dry off my wet shoes. Everything worked out, but my mind was too flustered and I made a pretty big error. I felt I had thrown my chance away. After so much time off, and with the fear of re-injury palpable, it made sense to have a go like this. It felt pretty wrong to leave. Retrospectively, I think it would have been perfectly reasonable for me to have stayed to try it, given my history on it. I think I would have understood someone doing something similar, and I can point to times in the past where I have understood that. But, for some reason, I didn’t think I could do that. However, I am not certain of any of this. If one common thread runs through all of these thoughts, it is a feeling of confusion.

And so, in a rainstorm, I drove away. I knew there would be more season left, better conditions ahead, but I used the week of rain as an excuse, and the further I got from that point, the harder it was to turn around, and the more unsettled and agitated I felt.

I arrived in Yosemite a shell of myself. I felt like I was carrying a heavy weight on my shoulders , a colossal mass of residual pain and resentment from not only giving up on the route, but from the injury, and the way I lived my life during the injury. At the the end of my first driving day, my neck began to hurt wildly. I carried this pain and uncertainty until I realized what it was — total anger. It felt novel to me and almost like a disease, a toxic entity in my body.

The truth is, its presence made me feel like a very bad person, and made me act like one, too. I was a bad partner, I was not fun to be around, and I felt way too sorry for myself. I felt like I was a selfish person trying to be selfless, a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. This realization made me feel worse about myself, made me vow to change, to be there fully and forget the past. I was trying to walk away from my goals to keep promises to people I cared about, although external circumstances (such as a dramatic departure to my route due to a misdiagnosed finger injury) made fulfilling those promises more difficult. I didn’t do well despite wanting to, despite telling myself time and time again I would improve, I was seemingly unable to be selfless. I wanted to be in two places at once, I wanted to a supportive partner and also wanted to help myself. I felt very confused and I felt sad. I think that sadness is simply one other form of anger, or rather anger is another form of sadness.

I went to visit my parents for a few days, who live nearby, and found myself in a long conversation with my father. He brought things up that made me uncomfortable, but that partially explained why it is so hard for me to be content, and why it is so hard for me to give myself a break. These patterns are destructive not only for myself, but for the people I love. How horrible it felt to me, to feel like I couldn’t even care for someone properly.

The feelings were mad and deep, but the anger truly was not directed at anyone but myself. The one responsibility we all bear is to maintain our own health be it mental , physical or spiritual. I don’t know if it makes me a bad person, but prioritizing a route I had worked very hard to achieve, especially in the light of the injury, felt to me like self-care.

Perhaps this is because I’ve always had a hard time accepting the fact that I’m not naturally talented. In my small family of four, I am definitely the intellectual runt. When I succeed on a climbing route, usually it’s due to dogged persistence, I never really do anything quickly, which I think is a sign of actual talent and skill. I thought I’d made peace with that, but maybe I really haven’t.

I really tried my best to enjoy the place I was in. Originally when I made the plan to go to Yosemite in a supportive role, I recognized it as a good opportunity to try to get better at two styles of climbing I never really do, but that Yosemite has world-class examples of, i.e. bouldering and hard single pitch crack climbing. I picked out the routes I wanted to try ahead of time, “Thriller”, a classic Ron Kauk V10, and the short 13b test piece “Cosmic Debris” a burly crack high up on the Chapel Wall. I felt physically I could do it, but I hadn’t ever climbed harder than a V6 outside or a 12- crack.

So, I bouldered around a bit before trying Thriller. I tried Cosmic Debris but quickly decided it was too hard, and did the easier Fish Crack first. I had decided I’d like to try easier cracks like Tales of Power (12b) to eventually work up to the Phoenix (13a), but the unseasonal heat in Yosemite made Cosmic Debris, which gets shade all day, all the more tantalizing.

I tried to focus on the place. I tried to let everything go. But on my rest days, I would run, and when I ran, it all came back. There were a few times I forced myself not to run, just to avoid the whole damn experience.

Eventually I tried Thriller. I was negative about my progress on it, having trouble with a move everyone else seemed to float. I was negative about other things, too. I saw people around me upset with their own climbing, people with actual, real talent, and I latched onto it like a drug because it just seemed to fit with the black hole that was forming in my body. Like attracts like. It was no one’s fault but my own.

Eventually, I would go on to send Thriller. After a lot of work on Cosmic Debris, I also sent it on a firey last day last go attempt. Both routes took me some work, I spent four full days on Thriller, and eight on Cosmic Debris. Cosmic Debris threw me for a loop mentally, and Thriller just seemed impossible until it wasn’t. I didn’t honestly feel proud of those accomplishments, I felt more like I had failed than I had succeeded, because of how I approached both of them and because of the length of time I dedicated to them, something I had only recently begun to really care about, probably because I know it is a weakness of mine. I chose to be extremely self-critical, hitting myself where it hurt.

On Cosmic Debris and Fish Crack, in particular, I found myself indulging into the anger. I said things out-loud on the send go that had never even crossed my mind in a serious way before this trip, things that flowed out of my mouth effortlessly this time. They were shocking moments, and again, confusing ones.

I guess, though, I felt satisfied, at least briefly. But I didn’t leave Yosemite feeling happy. I felt like I destroyed something there. I left feeling more stressed, more agitated, and still angry. This time, I was angry that I had let myself indulge in certain toxic thought patterns, and probably hurt people close to me. I was angry that I couldn’t just ignore it and be there, fully. I didn’t sense anything around me that didn’t make me feel unwanted, weak, ugly or small-hearted, despite the achievements of the goals I had made for myself, the goals that seemed very lofty when I first set out to achieve them. I don’t really know if the people around me actually felt that way, probably not to such an intense degree, but I felt that way , and at the end of the day your opinion of yourself tends to color everything you do. I simultaneously didn’t feel “worthy” of being there, felt like i couldn’t socialize or run with the crew, but I also felt that anger. Two things were pulling at me in two different directions and, as a result, I didn’t budge.

I don’t know if I am overreacting, whether or not I am being too hard on myself and what is reasonable to do for others.

I wrote this down in a quick hurry, the urge to write coming over me as it so often does, quickly and quite honestly rarely. I’m not sure why I am writing this, or what the point of this blog is. I guess it is a reminder to me that it’s not really about the achievement of things, if you are not all that excited about them. If something in your life is out of alignment, you can’t force happiness. Ticking boxes can trick you, for a moment, but like any other rush it goes away, revealing who you really are in its wake.

I’m confused as to whether or not I am even a good person. Maybe I am just selfish, or maybe I asked myself to juggle too much, and made a gigantic mess when I dropped everything.

Why do I care so much about some dumb route ? Why did I let it destroy myself from the inside out? I don’t know, but I suspect it has nothing at all to do with the route ,and everything to do with me wanting to try, wanting to give something my very best effort. Giving up when it’s not physically called for, felt so wrong. But, being an unsupportive partner felt just as wrong.

There are so many ways in which I am a mediocre climber. The most glaring weakness is that I haven’t contributed in any way to the community and I haven’t put up any routes or boulders. I haven’t done any very difficult multipitch routes. My onsighting, bouldering, and trad game are weak. There are so many realms that I want to explore, so many things I could have directed my energy towards both during my time in CA and my time injured, but instead I sat and analyzed the past, which only stoked the fire to become bigger.

The confusion I hold towards my job, climbing, my relationships, is really starting to take a massive toll on me. My stress is extremely high. The thing I want most right now is to stop thinking about all of this. If I got paid per hour for how often I thought about all the ways in which my PhD is a bad idea, or about how climbing fits into my life, or any number of other big picture questions, I’d definitely be able to retire by now.

However, since it is my fatal character flaw, I will as always be overly and intensely introspective, something to add to the growing catalog of my many mistakes.

That’s why you’re good”. “The best , they always try to push through the pain. They have to.”

My right hand was warm, covered in clear ultrasound gel. A probe was pressed against the base of my right ring finger, the same place that had been achy for two weeks. A computer monitor to my right displayed a coarse black and white image. In the center was a thick line made up of different shades of gray. It reminded me of a river. Below the line was a large black gap, and then a bright white base. The gray river was my tendon. Normally, it sits flush against the white line, the bone. My tendon was held well above the bone- 40cm at minimal resistance- because I had torn the ligament, the pulley, that holds it there.

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For one last moment, the place we’d left that evening materialized in front of me. Evanescent, like a thin dawn haze you’re not sure exists, and yet so solid that you’ve spent months here. It is secret and mysterious, radiantly verdant and bursting out of the forest, daring and breathtaking.

When climbing clicks it’s as good as any buzz out there. It is fierce and lithe- a cheetah taut, tight, and then leaping at full stretch. It’s as precise and right as an iris flower, beautifully optimized to perform. It is momentous and captivating, the beginning score of a flawlessly tuned orchestra rising suddenly from silence, deep, full and roaring inside of you. You’ll go through a million bad days for those minutes of absolute perfection.

That feeling brushed by me last weekend, like a soft wind soothed by the mountains. A mere thirteen body movements at the cusp of my limit, executed perfectly. I chased it down the rest of the day, but as quickly as it came it was gone.

More often than not, the big cat is turned nervous and edgy. The flower opens too soon, a jagged out of tune note thunders out of harmony, the volume turned up full blast. It’s a thin line to walk- achieving the most meaningful flow requires a no-guarantee investment of many, many bad days.

Climbing near my limit forces me to prove it to myself. Can’t be weak and try voodoo. Can’t be unfocused and try voodoo. Maybe I can’t love you and try voodoo. Can’t give anything less than a furious, firey, ball of energy. A calculated, controlled explosion of emotion, power, fight, strength, and humility.

Can’t. Can’t. Can’t.

“I can see it in your eyes”, he told me.

It was the kind of day where you could so easily slip into the weather, let it take you by the hand and guide your mood.

“No…”, I managed to mutter.

My breath quivered and hung in the air, a sliver of silver. I watched it rise, coalesce and crash into itself, tumble outward and grow until it vanished, a slim shadow thickening into the gray sky.

He was right. I was frustrated and doing a poor job of hiding it. I had tried a route, “Third Millennium” that I deliberately sought out because I hoped it would be challenging. The most difficult series of movement on the route is the very first dozen or so moves. On my first attempt I tried the sequences repeatedly, but did not even come close to doing any of them. I pulled on the rope, slumped deep in my harness and looked up. I saw seven quickdraws, slapping and shuddering in the wind. This is when I felt my mind split into two.

One part of me was highly motivated by the challenge. This level of physical difficulty in climbing is what I had been looking for over the past few months. I wanted to clench the route and crack it open, light it up, examine it deeply from all angles until I found a way. I felt unfrightened, curious, driven, and eager. I wanted to continue up the climb.

The other part of me was angry and sullen. It told me I was weak, a bad rock climber, not cut out for routes of this difficulty. I felt stressed, inadequate, disappointed, sad. I felt like I was expected to give up.

I had to make a decision to keep climbing or to stop.

I lowered.

I belayed two other climbers who made easy work of the route. I was speeding down the mental pathway I chose, a bottomless flood rising behind me with no way to get back once crossed.

I was not always like this. Sometime in the past few years, I have forgotten how to ignore this insidious blackout. Now I run into it, arms wide open.

I did return to the route the following day, and thanks to considerate, careful, and kind support from my partner, managed to figure out the moves. A dozen or so working attempts later, I finished the route. Despite my consistent progress, I was still chained up, a prisoner living inside myself.

In the hour after I sent, I was struck by a memory, sweeping and strong in its clarity. In 2015, I signed up to run a half-marathon a mere two weeks before the race. I had just gone through a tumultuous break up with someone I loved and who loved me. I had not ran that distance in a long time, but somehow, I felt the race would help me heal.

I remember my foot jolting against the pavement on my first stride. I saw his face, stricken and cold. I saw the dull glow of my bedroom light. I felt the blades of grass tickling my cheek as I leaned in, charged and warm with desire. I heard the clicking of my bicycle chain, the wind blunt against me.

The air smashed into my ribs and my legs screamed, but it did not hurt. Nothing could hurt. I got second place in that race, beating some semi-professional runners and blew past my own personal record.

I knew then that I have a unique energy. It can transform me, send a shock of electricity that leaves me crackling and glowing. I am capable of more than I think, physically, mentally, emotionally, if I just let myself try.

Of course, I am entirely aggrandizing certain chronic habits and ideas. I’ve always liked to write, but lately I have been indulging on an almost gluttonous level.

As with everything else, I wonder why.

With tired red eyes I shift an unfocused gaze toward the metro window, comforted by the regular intervals of dazzling horizontal sheets that leap from the darkness. My mind feels slippery, grasping for solid ground and finding nothing. I only have a few moments to gain purchase, otherwise I’ll be in free fall.

I close my eyes; everything is dark but I can almost make out deliberate ripples in the shadow. Thoughts doing their ritual dance, unfurling and folding in on themselves. Everything clenches tight- I know how sharp it can slice.

I’ve been around the real thing enough- remarkable people, smart, beautiful, strong, acutely aware of their desires and potential. I’m good enough to spot the difference when it’s right in front of me. For one sublime, breath-robbing moment I think of you.

I open my eyes and get off the train. Riding the stairs out of the underground, met by an unrelenting, vivid light.