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.Continue reading “Don’t Call me a Rock Climber”
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.Continue reading “”
The only time in which I find total 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.
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.Continue reading “An ending, a beginning”
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 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.
It started like a brief whisper in the wind, a tingling, imperceptible brush against your cheek, not even enough to make a leaf flutter. Now it’s howling and snapping in every direction, so chaotic and strong it rips you apart, no matter how tightly you try to hold it all at your chest.
My demons emerge and they tell me to be afraid. Be afraid you’re not smart. Be afraid you’re not attractive. Be afraid of your body. Be afraid of being alone. Be afraid of commitment. Be petrified of embodying every kind of flaw there is. Put yourself in the line of fire and don’t you dare move. Good girl.
In my early 20’s, I somehow managed to ignore it. This was a light time- radiant summer days, late nights dancing with boys, afternoons at the library trying to suppress bursts of laughter with genuine friends, early mornings relishing your strong stride on a run. Any decision felt reversible, unimportant.
Now, the fear wants to be indelible, to burrow into your bones and become indestructible. To paralyze you, so you’re always miserable. So you’re always tired. So you never know what is actually important to you. So you’re always on the verge of believing, until you finally lose yourself and give in.
At first it is borne externally, but eventually it is engendered in your own self. You start to believe it. You can’t follow the thread of each thought to its source before you hit a tight mess of knots. You become callous and bitter and cold towards others because you are trained to question everything , especially your own thoughts.
It seems, though, that there is one sacred, pure though that is uncorrupted and unable to be manipulated- my ambition to be the best climber I can be in a way that I have defined. It is the one thing that makes sense. Finding this natural outlet to direct my drive, which has brought fleeting moments of rich and deep satisfaction- moments when the fear is absent- comes hand in hand with drawn out periods of sometimes agonizing despair when I can’t align my life with my goal. It’s during these times that I most easily give into my demons. I cannot decide if it is a gift, or it is a curse. I’m certainly aware that the pressure of climbing well creates its own unique fear.
It’s interesting how a mere circumstance- me walking into the climbing gym at my undergraduate university and wanting to flirt with one of the climbers- eventually connected two disjoint parts of my brain, like lightning striking the earth. I think I’ve been trying to hold onto old priorities, as a means of protecting myself from the strike, but lately I’ve wanted to strip it off, envelop myself in the bright sheet of light, the jagged shards of static, carry the wounds with me.
Understanding the darker sides of my ambition does not remove the numbness. It doesn’t take away the need.
I can either ricochet between what I want to do and what I feel like I should do, be introspective and unsatisfied, or, take a deep breath and a big chance.
Note: I’ve always liked to write, but this blog has more or less been focused on traveling and climbing; I write but do not publish more personal posts. I have decided to start to share at least part of these feelings because writing- and specifically publishing to a likely small and obscure (and accidental) audience- has turned into a sort of therapy for me. It seems to justify my feelings, to transform them from shapeless and theoretical, to real.
When I left Seattle in mid-March, a fear dropped in me, hard, like a round stone in a deep pool. I could taste that feeling when what you wanted so much suddenly becomes real, but seemingly irrevocable.
I was fueled by a fiery drive to climb and to climb hard. My body felt healed from an injury, I had been training, and had begun to transform my life into the dream I had been delicately crafting in my head for years. As I pushed into winter, though, certain life events unleashed a deep fatigue that sank its tendrils into me, tightening every day. It was not one thing, in particular, just a dizzying accumulation, tiny whirls gathering around me to a big focal point, building to a callous storm.
A striking and sudden inability to find meaning in my work, confusion about who cared and who really mattered, financial difficulty, all combined to feel like a ruthless razor situated perfectly next to my ambition- one tiny slip and it’s deadly.
It turned into a terrible rhythm I could feel pulsing in my body, starting in November and strengthening throughout all of January, February and March. I tried to keep myself one step ahead of it, but eventually, it wound me up so tight that my energy crashed, and that delicate filter I have in place in my brain, the one that feeds out the bullshit, snapped. I wanted to fling it off with a violent shove, but I ran out of strength.
When I stumbled out into the desert it felt as refreshing and true as a deep breath of fresh air. I felt the grip loosen, but not entirely release.
The climbing goal was to find something hard to try, potentially a longer-term pursuit. I hadn’t projected for a year, and I missed it deeply. I wanted to get intimate with movement, to feel that miasma of frustration and joy, to slow down and take in the micro-beta that was crucial for my particular body.
My mind was set on 5.13+. I managed to dispatch a few, and quickly; the long “project” never came. I climbed some really good routes, was challenged, and had fun. But none of them feel particularly meaningful and at that moment, that’s what I craved, something bigger.
When I dig deep- cut to the core root of what I think it is that makes me tick- I find I am wandering, searching for a sense of identity but unable to land my feet on anything stable. This is because I am not very capable, or proficient, at anything. It’s easy to hide behind these walls of seemingly self-deprecating text and be met with the typical eye-roll from the other side. It’s very difficult to express that I’m not trying to debase myself for superficial reasons. I can’t find the words to show the depth of my certitude- that it goes beyond bouts of self-conscious doubt- that it’s true and wretched and that I don’t know what to do about it.
My job as a Ph.D student, though interesting on many intellectual levels, can be bereft of specific guidelines, very niche, not applied, and lacking in skill-specific tasks common to other Ph.Ds, like hard-core coding. I am neither making an impact nor honing any kind of marketable skill. That’s a toxic realization to come to halfway through a major project. The hobbies and skills I did have when I was younger, that came naturally to me and that I earnestly pursued, have gone away. It’s easy to blame myself for getting here in the first place. To conclude that I was never strong enough to avoid it, never capable of the deep thought process that could have helped me be somewhere else.
Maybe this is party why I want a climbing project. I need boxes to tick, I want a methodological outline of what I need to do to accomplish a goal. I want to prove myself, only to myself. Even if I don’t accomplish anything, I can’t say I didn’t try in a structured way. When you’re projecting the next steps can often be fairly obvious and the process can be quite calculated.
These thoughts struck me one night recently, as clear and as crisp as the cold evening air lingering in my throat- crystal, painful, like a shard of glass reflecting my image back to myself. It was a blunt, precise blow to the chest, so strong I found myself off my feet, sitting down outside on rough gravel. Inherent inability, inherent weakness, inherent ineptitude. That I’ll never be what I want to be. In a way it was somewhat of a relief, to be suddenly so acutely aware of your limits that you can tailor your goals around them. The mystery is stripped away and behind it, I don’t like what I see, but at least I can see it.