Category Archives: climbing

The Overhanging 5.9 Hand Crack

The fates have determined that, from time to time, I will dine with royalty. And I have determined that, on those rare occasions, I will not pass up the opportunity to say something stupid.
While waiting for the food at a wilderness medicine conference banquet with my friend Andy, our table-mate, Dr. Hornbein, politely inquired as to our post-meeting plans.

I casually replied, “Oh, we’re headed off to climb the Grand.”
It was February.
To his credit, he blinked once and said, “Well, good luck.”

After sharing grilled chicken and carrots with Jack Tackle, Andy and I asked him what he thought about 2 possible routes for the next day.
He said that he liked the first route well enough. It was clean, with consistent climbing, and little loose rock.
The 2nd climb had some bad rock and mediocre climbing down low, but had an overhanging, 5.9 hand crack for most of a pitch in the middle.
“So,” I asked, “do you think that 2nd route is better?”
He stared at me blankly for a couple of seconds and replied, “It has an overhanging, 5.9 hand crack.”

In the light of subsequent experience, I get it. But at the time, I thought that I wanted to climb 5.12, so the 5.9 rating tarnished anything to which it was affixed. I worked pretty hard towards the goal of climbing 12’s, and I climbed a few 5.9 hand cracks along the way. I got there, barely.
The effort wasn’t worth it though. Working the routes endlessly, with creaking tendons and crushed toes, just did not justify the final victory. It was like winning World War I: a victory, sure, but an atrocity nonetheless.

I think I understand why other people are enamored of more difficult climbs – and yes, I recognize that 5.12 is the basement of “difficult” rockclimbing. For one of my ‘hard’ routes in particular, getting the clean ascent was like making a friend. I became so familiar with every little edge and crystal, that I’m sure I could regurgitate the beta for the route to this day, decades after I touched the rock last.

Working harder routes on rock can be painful and tedious. I don’t think it is the suffering and frustration that turn me off, though. I liked the more difficult mixed climbing that I did, and I was highly motivated to climb grade 6 or harder ice. I obsessively studied and salivated over those ice routes in the same way that some sport climbers I’ve known would microscopically analyze their projects. I trained for hard ice until I thought my forearms would pop.

I think the difference may be in the proprioceptive aesthetic of the climbs. The way a climb feels to the touch and the body position it demands get less attention than the way it looks and the puzzle it poses. The proprioceptive aesthetic is the last to be appreciated.

But the proprioceptive aesthetic leaves the most profound mark on me. It’s always front and center in ice climbing. The appreciation of touch flows from the essential circus trick at the heart of ice climbing: extending one’s consciousness from fingers, toes, wrists, and ankles into the pointy bits of metal attached to those natural appendages.
Maybe that appreciation of touch naturally gets tamped down the harder you crimp and lock off.

Or maybe, this is all just sour grapes. I don’t think so though. Given the choice of magical elixir which would allow me to climb as hard as the best climbers on rock, or a map to a thousand foot, clean, sandstone, overhanging hand crack, I’m certain that I would pick the map without a 2nd thought.

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The 6 Stages of Grief

My neurologist tells me that I have a chronic progressive neurodegenerative disease. I assume that all the repetition is for emphasis. The double-down does help the rest of his news, “but it is treatable”. He says the last bit enthusiastically. I suppose you don’t get to say that very much in neurology, and I don’t blame him for taking advantage of the opportunity.
But I know what treatable entails too. In medicine generally, but especially in neurology, it means things will go downhill in a way that we control. I understand how that might count as a win, because I’m going through the 5 stages of grief as I begin a long goodbye to climbing. Passing through the stages of grief, like controlled deterioration, may seem like a process to which winning and losing should not apply. However, I have access to a secret. I know about a transformational 6th stage to the process.

For those who are unfamiliar with the stages of grief model, some background is in order. Unfortunately, adequate understanding requires a foray into the underbrush of academic psychology. The incursion will be brief and relatively painless.

Psychologists have a penchant for stages of this and that. They use the terminology to craft formulas explaining the psyche, much like chemistry and physics employ formulas to describe their domains. Some may have heard of Maslow’s pyramid of needs.

There’s a similar model for addiction. And then there are the stages in the cycle of abuse. With the exception of some models of learning, psychological formulas are of little practical use. They can’t tell you what to expect when you mix Clorox and ammonia (look at the chemical formulas; you shouldn’t do this). They can’t tell you what you’ll need to enter low Earth orbit.
All that psychological models can tell you is what happened before, based on what other psychologists think they saw happen before. This dubitable power is supposed to offer emotional comfort.

For example, when a bereaved friend is sitting in his room mute and motionless, a counselor can reassure all the concerned onlookers that this is expected. The bereaved is going through the phase of denial. When that friend screams in anguish and throws a lamp at the wall, the counselor can maintain calm in the living room by reassuring everyone that their loved one is simply experiencing the stage of anger. He is overheard beseeching God for mercy? Don’t worry, bargaining is the next stage in the model. He is crying now? Meet depression. At last he emerges, drying his eyes and taking a deep breath. Now he has reached the stage of acceptance, and we are through.

Certainly, certain people feel reassured by these expositions. I’ve observed that the same people would probably feel reassured by a certified professional reading Jabberwocky in a calm voice, under the same circumstances. I’ve also observed that any reassuring effect following from the formulaic explanation of a psychological phenomenon currently in process, occurs in the observers. For the one actually experiencing a stage of something, explaining to them that they are merely experiencing a stage of something tends to breed resentment instead.

Like other, similar psychological models, the stages of grief formula does not do much work., That is, unless you add the 6th stage. Because, unlike any other stage in any other psychological formula, the 6th stage in the stages of grief is inherently action-guiding.
I call it the stage of Alpine acceptance. This stage actually occurs only intermittently, mostly to those in the know, and when it does occur, it can pop in at any point in the process.

To permit a complete understanding of this unique stage in the model, we must briefly explore the source of the terms once again: in this case, the practice of alpinism.

First off, I want to be clear that people don’t actually agree on what alpinism means. I don’t mean on a metaphysical level. I mean nobody agrees on what constitutes alpinism. Some say it is climbing a route on a mountain. Of course, that statement begs the question. Some say alpinism is climbing to the summit of a mountain by any route harder than the easiest route. Many climbers would call most of the routes encompassed by that definition “mountaineering”.

This definitional mess is further complicated by the fact that almost any climbing route, can be ascended in Alpine style, which means climbing with just what you can carry with you on your back. To expand on the implications for a moment, on any big climb, one frequently wishes for more equipment than one can carry. The reason that the practice of traveling dangerously light gets called “Alpine” style rather than “big wall” style or “mountain push” style is because one always wishes for more equipment than one can carry on an Alpine route. That is because these routes often wander over steep, half frozen, crumbling rock and unconsolidated snow which would realistically require a 12 pound electric hammer drill with spare bits and batteries along with 50 pounds of expansion bolts to ascend safely, and which actually permits a 25 pound pack, inclusive of survival gear, given the strenuous nature of the climbing.

Despite the definitional vagaries, there is little dispute regarding the Alpine nature of individual routes, and even less dispute regarding who is practicing Alpine climbing.

I hope it is clear, based on the above, that the Alpine climber risks it all (and often at kind of bad odds) to experience the inexplicable and perhaps to achieve the undefinable. This doesn’t always work out well.

Sometimes, alpine enterprises end definitively, and in the worst way, with the death or serious injury of one or more persons. However, the incidence of definitive endings is astonishingly low. Because those who undertake such improbable ventures are (or quickly become) quite canny. They can smell when things are getting rotten, and when that scent hits the nose a singular psychological process begins, to a much different end.

It is a way of giving up and carrying on at once, and it defies a clear and simple explanation. I will attempt an illustration with a summary.

The following is based on actual conversations, both internal and between partners:

“The rock quality is really deteriorating I don’t know if I can climb this,” said as he climbs it.

“Yes, this is really bad. What does it look like for the next pitch?”

“No better. This anchor isn’t the best either, but we could rap from it.”

“Maybe we should bail. Let me just try this crack over here. I think I can aid through the overhang.”

The crack can’t be climbed.

“Are you sure you can’t aid it?”

” Yeah, I can’t reach the next placement. Let me take a look around the corner”

“How does it look?”

“50° slab with gravel on it – somehow.”

“Damn, maybe we should go down”

“Let me try the crack again”

The crack still can’t be climbed.

“Maybe the slab isn’t that bad?”

“Let me take another look”

The slab has not changed.

“I can’t make it go. Do you want to try it?”

“No, we have to go down. I mean, conditions looked good from camp, but obviously this is in no shape for climbing. But now we know what to look for.”

“Yeah. You want to try the crack?”

“No. What are you doing next week?”

The above conversation is typically followed by retreat to camp where the whole endeavor gets painstakingly analyzed, until all parties are satisfied that no other outcome was possible. Then everyone goes home, regroups, and begins planning on coming back, maybe just to wait in bad weather at a campground for a month. If the weather is good though, the aspirants may convince themselves again that the route looks to be in great shape from camp, which inevitably leads to another effort, ending at the same impassible terrain that scuttled the last one.
The remarkable thing is that deep down, everyone knows that the climb doesn’t go. Throughout the futile efforts there are no recriminations, tears, or tantrums.
And that is Alpine acceptance. At a certain point, regardless of all the anger, depression, bargaining, etc. – all of which simply leaves you back where you started – the only way to succeed is to be sure that you fail completely. That is always an achievable goal, and it often proves the only way forward.

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Body and Soul

“You can kill my body, but you cannot kill my spirit.”

 - Bo Diddley

I love that song. I play it on the way home from every big day, whether I have succeeded or failed.

Today I failed. I didn’t even make it to the crag. Something is happening to me, and I am not sure what it is. I shake. My back is in pain. My muscles lock up. All these things happen in the course of normal activity. If I can just get to the stone, and put my hands on the holds, everything gets better. I get back fluid movement.
But I can’t get to the stone. The course of normal activity is in my way.

I fear that I may end up like Fred Becky. He lived to climb, and did hundreds, if not thousands of first ascents in the Cascades, and all over the world. He continued to climb until he was in his 80s. In the final years, he made backcountry forays in mountain ranges all over the world. He often struggled to get to the base of climbs, and for the most part, he did not end up climbing. Nevertheless, he dragged his bones back to the mountains again and again. Video footage of some of these endeavors exists, and it is clear from the images that he was struggling, and suffering all the way.

I used to think that his efforts were heroic. Now, I think he exemplified an element of the human condition which our old poets referenced in the tales of Prometheus and Sisyphus.
Fred couldn’t help himself any more than those mythical figures could help themselves.
The problem, for Prometheus, Sisyphus, and Fred was, of course, that the spirit can die.

The eagle eating your liver isn’t the real issue. The real issue is that your liver keeps growing back. The rock rolling down the hill isn’t the truth. The truth is your own, inescapable compulsion to push it back up.

The spirit dies with each peck and each bound of the boulder. Unlike the body, it is easy to kill. It will die over almost nothing. The catch is: it keeps coming back. It snaps back in an instant and sends you back to the bottom of the hill and prepares you for the eagle’s next visit.

I will drive back home. I will wake up tomorrow morning without having asked for it. I will do some pull-ups and climb on plastic as if I were training for something. Some onlookers may think this is admirable, others may think it is sad. From the inside, it just is.
The religions are wrong about what we go through. There is no heaven. There is no hell. There is no samsara. Those are views from the outside.
Maybe next weekend, I will get my hands on those holds. But I will act just the same, between now and then, as long as I live.

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Realism in the Time of Covid

I walked down the broad, sandy track, distracted. The path was built for motorized traffic, so it required no attention to route finding, and my mind could wander elsewhere, in places far from plagues and Gumby revolutions. But I did not stray for long. Behind me, I heard barking. The noise was the sort of high-pitched yap which a dog makes when something frightening, yet fun, is in progress.

I had assumed that a dog made the sound, but I began to doubt as the yammering grew closer at an unnatural rate and became accompanied by a growl that fluctuated in uneven gasps. I stepped off the track, waiting nervously. But of course, no extraordinary monster appeared around the last bend. What did roll into sight was a standard, biomechanical amalgamation. The dog, a German Shepherd mongrel, sat lashed to the vehicle frame up front, shaking and yelping. Behind the mutt, a lumpy man in a down coat steered the buggy from the comfort of its silver roll cage. He gunned the engine over little rises, and coasted around the curves. He gave a little smile and a wave as he passed me. A small American flag fluttered from the apex of his sun-shade.
The commotion rapidly faded, and I turned my attention back to the walk, and the granite towers at the walk’s end. I could see the formations now. Poking up from the slopes of the Little Valley, they were squat spires, the color of the sand beneath my feet. Most were not monoliths, but stacks of huge blocks, each brick 40 feet or more on a side.
At the apex of a small rise in the trail, a single, rhomboidal flagstone, and a small prickly pear with three leaves marked the turnoff to my objective. They looked as if they had been placed there, but they were no more intended for my purpose than the track of hoof prints which led away from the landmark towards the climb. A dotted line, stamped in the sand by deer and elk, and punctuated with mounds of pellets along the way, wove through the Manzanita until it intersected with a line of Cairns leading to a gigantic stack of boulders.
I dropped my pack at the base. I could not tell if the staging area had been manufactured or not, but it was a perfect little patch of dirt, sheltered by cypress and laurel. I fished the rope out from the bottom of the pack and donned harness and helmet. I carried no more gear, because my goal for the day was not to climb the 4 inch wide crack above me from the bottom up. My goal was to find out if I was still a climber, and if so, to begin to claw my way back to a respectable condition. To those ends, I would crawl through gaps between the blocks above, anchor the rope to a pair of unseen bolts, descend the rope, and climb back up to the bolts as many times as I could.
With the rope tied to my back, I made my way around the side of the formation until I could tunnel through the cracks. The way led down and across to a small alcove. A scraggly alder tree grew there, apparently supported by a very shallow bowl of sand alone. In retrospect, it had made a mistake. Though the spot was secure, the soil was too shallow, and the tree’s highest leaves could only catch sunlight for a couple of hours every day. It could never thrive, but it was a pleasant decoration for the time being. From the alcove, a short, awkward squeeze led to a hidden ledge, and the anchor. I secured my rope to the two bolts.

After descending back to the base, I loaded my self-belay device and began to climb. I moved methodically, not at all like I would climb with a partner belaying from the base. I used a single device for fall protection. This was on purpose. The set up relied on hands and feet as my first line of protection, with the rope and device as backup only. Having a second chance put an edge on the whole project which was lacking in the case of third chances and single chances alone. With a third chance in play, the focus shifted to the equipment and allowed for some slop in the climbing. Committing to one chance only demanded fatalism, and fatalism shifted the focus to the mental equipment needed to accept one’s fate, at the expense of free movement.
I climbed through the route, slowly convincing myself that I could still move smoothly. The effort meant ignoring the grind my left shoulder when I loaded it in extension, and the stiffness in my leg on the right when I tried to step high.
I made it through an acceptable number of laps and pulled the rope. The sun was now as high as it would get in midwinter, and it illuminated a small tuft of leaves poking from the alcove between the boulders above.
I turned my back on the formation and wandered down past the Cairns, the elk pellets, the rhomboidal rock, and the three-leaf pear. With the full warmth of the sun on the Little Valley, the trail was now bustling. A grade school child teetered over a bump on his motorbike. A parent followed, riding a matching cycle nearly on the kid’s back tire. Groups of people, some wearing facemasks, some not, nodded to me politely as I stepped off the trail to let them by.
As usual, I could gauge my distance from the trailhead by the age and attire of passing hikers. I first passed those kitted out with boots and daypacks, then the sneakers lot with their coats tied around their hips, then the shorts and flip-flops crowd. By the time that the expensive homes which flanked the start of the trail were visible, the vast majority of passing travelers wore boat shoes and elastic waistbands and would plainly go only a few more steps beyond the gate. What they sought by this activity, I could not imagine.

The parking area had filled up since my departure, and in the usual fashion. When I had arrived in the morning cold, the only other cars parked in the lot were a dated Subaru and a Toyota truck. The Subaru had a Sierra Club sticker on the back window. The truck was covered in dust. Between morning and afternoon, cleaner vehicles had filled in the rest of the parking spaces. A few of these had American flag decals, and one of the flags was blue with a prominent blue line through the middle of the stripes. One rear window bore a red white and blue “Q”.
I wondered who belonged to those stickers. Nobody on the trail looked crazy. Certainly, nobody looked like a revolutionary, and if my fellow travelers that day really were the sons and daughters of the Revolution, then the revolution would be over as soon as the propane and Slim Jim’s ran out.
I had them entirely wrong, though. What a person trusts depends on what a person wants. What a person wants depends on the depth and breadth of their perception. The revolution was against the untrustable unseen. They revolted against rumors of an invisible pathogen. They revolted against the idea of murky social, political, and personal depths. Most of all, they revolted against a start in the cold and dark which they had somehow been convinced that they were entitled to avoid.

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Welcome to the Aftermath

“Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser.”

  Vince Lombardi

“There only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games

Ernest Hemingway

“The ideal form of government is democracy tempered with assassination.”

 Voltaire

The difference between Hemingway’s sports and games is, of course, a matter of winning. In games, winning really is the only thing. In those other endeavors, winning is nothing.
Simply engaging in sport yields the maximum voluntary experience. Engagement delivers everything on the spot, whether or not the participant comes out on the other side, and certainly regardless of winning and losing.
Trophies, money and ribbons only serve to dress sports up by equating them with games. The civilization must thereby disparage sporting ends, since it strives constantly to the opposite goal.
The civilization turns out to be really good at window dressing though. Its props and costumes create a realistic illusion in which games are wholesome and sports are pathologic. Maybe that is why we now live in an age of games and gamesmanship. Our culture has created a situation where Lombardi is right.
Excessive trappings have made sports and sportsmanship not only unrecognizable, but incomprehensible.
Subsequently we have the rise of the consummate gamesman: Trump. To him, there are only winners and losers. Failure to engage and success in shifting the cost define the gamesman’s method.
Allowing him to operate so at the controls of our society has given the whole thing a gamy taint.
To clean it up, we need to make things a little more sporty, though we might not need to make politics quite as sporty as Voltaire suggests.
Perhaps it would be enough to replace the inauguration ceremony with a bullfight.

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Analytic Truths (and all the other stuff)

There are, in climbing, certain analytic truths. An analytic truth is something which is true by definition. A statement like, “Dan is tall”, refers to some fact external to the criteria for Dan and height. The statement depends on Dan’s relative height, and is not an analytic truth. On the other hand, “A unicorn has one horn” is an analytic truth. It doesn’t require any supporting facts. In the United States, climbing’s analytic truths pertain to the Yosemite Decimal System, or YDS, as its devoted followers refer to it.

The YDS is one of several numerical rating systems for climbing difficulty. All of them would make Francis Galton proud, because they are all consensus systems. Numbers get assigned based on the collective experience of those who have travelled the route. But unlike Galton’s casual survey of fair-goers, the YDS has normative power as well as statistical power. Nobody wants to be the arrogant prick who over-rates his route. Nobody wants to be the arrogant prick who under-rates his route, or worse, downgrades someone else’s route. Because the number-ratings themselves are synthetic – they refer to facts in the world regarding rocks and people – the moralizing can only go so far. The internal consistencies of the system have no rails, though, and frustrated moral instincts often seek fulfillment among the system’s analytic truths.

Some of climbing’s more problematic truths include: “5.11 is harder than 5.10.”, “A 5.9 climber can climb 5.9.”, and “A 5.9 climber cannot climb 5.10”. Now, the latter two statements may appear to refer to some actual climber or climbers, even if they are hypothetical. Admittedly, the statements could be interpreted that way. For instance, if Dan says that he is a 5.9 climber, then his colleagues may reasonably expect that he can get up a climb rated 5.9. But that interpretation is rarely used. Instead, the statements are taken to be strictly consistent. At best, the definitions have to be realigned to fit. In other words, if Dan fails on a 5.9 climb, then he is not a 5.9 climber.

At this point, some examples are in order.

This is 5.9:

This is 5.9:

You got it, 5.9:

Let me emphasize the human factor in these photos. Some of the people shown climbing some of these routes have absolutely no hope of climbing any of the other routes (not me, of course, as I am a 5.11 climber).

But, if I am a 5.9 climber, shouldn’t I be able to climb 5.9? If I don’t climb that 5.11, am I still a 5.11 climber? Is there something wrong with me, or is there something wrong with the rating? Or am I equivocating between a synthetic category and its logical extensions?

The YDS axioms do not really sort climbers, nor do those truths-by-definition really sort routes. Yet the climbing community still takes the YDS formulas seriously, as prizes, urine marks on the wall and occasionally, inspirations.

As inspirations, logical consistencies are particularly treacherous.They can be like the funny little man at the rollercoaster entrance with a big smile and beatific expression, his finger pointing at an invisible line in the air.

“You must be this tall to ride”, he says, “and if you can’t make it today, maybe come back a little later and you will be up to it.”

But formulaic aspirations can flip without warning. The little man can turn nasty. He can suddenly point his finger at you and screech, “This is how tall you are, bitch. This tall and no more. Now go away!”

In the end, the climb goes or it doesn’t. Paying attention to the numbers themselves can help a person figure out what is worth the effort. Sometimes, the numbers can even keep a person out of trouble.

The truths about the numbers’ internal consistency are another story. Those get gummed up with ambitions and insecurities in no time. They are, like all analytic truths, entirely uninteresting in themselves, be they ever so ripe for projection.

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Balance Impaired

 

DSC00176Close-up, the little gully evoked a strong sense of deja vu. The angle suggested that one might almost be able to stand up and walk it. The rock looked like a crocodile’s skin – all knobs and chunks with few cracks or pockets – and the few voids in the surface had formed from the erosion of yellow clay inclusions. I had been in this situation before, in the Canadian Rockies, the Tetons, the Cascades. It meant sparse and dubious protection for insecure climbing, with an ugly fall looming throughout.

The fresh memory of yesterday’s Eureka foray reinforced my unease. Just going into the mining country in Colorado’s San Juan mountains is sobering.  The road winds through acres of avalanche terrain peppered with jumbles of gray boards and rusty iron marking the eternal resting places of generations of abandoned avarice. Eureka itself stands for self-consciousness of our bitter relationship with the range. Once a small,  hopeful mining community the town is now a single building. The lone, windowless watchtower bears a prominent sign with the name of the town, placed there, no doubt, by the same sort of joker who might strap a party hat on a skeleton.

DSC00173

Yesterday was our second consecutive day at the ice climbs in the valley above the ghost town. The day before, we had been denied access to the longest climb in the area by an SAR exercise. Yesterday, we encountered a line of four parties on the same route, and we decided to trudge a bit further past the routes at the valley’s entrance. Around the bend and not far above, we found a lovely pillar of ice baking in the sun. The air temperature was cold however, and the ice looked to be in good shape from the ground, so we went for it.

My partner took the lead and ran the two pitches together. It went well until the very top. There he found the last few feet melted out and he could not get to the fixed anchor. Worse, in a fit of hubris, neither of us had thought to have him take the kit for building ice anchors. He put in two ice screws at his high point and I lowered him back to an intermediate ledge. He set up a belay and I set off to retrieve the ice screws and build an anchor in the ice to get us back down to the base.

Looking up at the situation, I knew that I should not risk falling. He had placed the two screws at the anchor properly. They had already held his weight on the lower. But the stainless steel tubes were basking. Many times, I had raced the process now at work on the anchor, placing another screw on a sunny climb before the last one heated up enough to melt loose. I arrived at the anchor and placed a back-up screw. Out of curiosity, I jiggled the anchor screws. They rattled in their holes, and by the time finished the rappel anchor, I could lift the screws free with two fingers.

DSC00159

By the time we got back down, the crowds had migrated our way. We had another objective in mind for the afternoon, but our hopes were squashed on the road, for we found a fellow standing at the head of the approach trail just staring across the valley as if he were reconsidering something. He informed us that he had ridden a slab avalanche for a few meters down the slope below our goal.  My partner had his wife and young son waiting back in Ouray anyhow.

DSC00163

There had been angst around bringing the child, who was their first. He was a nidus of concern in some familiar ways. He was 18 months old and did not want to eat or sleep regularly. He clearly understood everything said to him, but his only bit of expressive language was the word “No”. Each morning, he spent a non-stop hour on Rube-Goldberg action. Cups went into other cups, packets of jelly were transferred from person to person and then into the cups, and then back to their original owner. All of this chaos worried his parents. It seemed so overwhelming that one could hardly imagine any organized behavior arising from it.

Unless you had seen it before. I had. I distinctly recalled worrying about how I could possibly teach my first child to speak. I had no training, and no idea where to begin. Nevertheless, the kid started to talk. He had inherited the talent for it. From an adult perspective, it looked like a miracle, because adults liked to think that they had, each and every one, invented the world – or at worst discovered it. That way, the adult felt more competent, and the world seemed more solid.

From the child’s standpoint, he was building a constellation from the inside out. He had his experiences – what he might come to call ‘sense impressions’ should he grow into a particularly deluded adult – and he had the dots and lines to mark and tie together those experiences, inherited in his nucleic acids, language, and culture. The dots and lines were powerful tools. They would allow him to develop at heady pace, mapping out massive territories, like language, on the fly.

His ancestral mechanisms  assembled his star chart in a blur, and if he was at all self-conscious in his adulthood, he would spend a lot of time figuring out how he got there, and what kind of picture he had made with all those dots and lines overlying the bright spots of his experience. It would be daunting and he might be tempted to throw his hands up and just call the dots and lines the truth, to give the mathematical, linguistic and philosophical accretions on experience an undeserved solidity, while relegating the experience itself to a dirtier, incomplete status.

My partner’s son would have an antidote in that case. He would learn to climb, and that would at least open the blinds on the relationship between the picture of the stars and the stars themselves. He would still have to look, but most people didn’t even get that chance.

DSC00170

Perched in the little gully, I saw the true landscape.

I was not motivated. I felt the burden of all those extraneous considerations which populated the slope with angels and demons instead of little edges and blotches of ice. I climbed back down and handed the sharp end over to my partner. He was motivated, and managed to lead the pitch despite some misgivings about the security of the climbing. I followed without slips or fumbles. It was sketchy, no question. We looked at the next pitch, but decided against it. It would be there when the stars aligned favorably, or even better, when no one was thinking about the pattern of stars at their back.

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Rabbit Holes

I have looked at the little wall for a couple of years in a slightly creepy way. The pathology  was reflected in the looks on my sons’ faces as they stood with me at the base of the cliff, and in the way that they looked away when I finally broke long, silent stares at the thin crack in the sandstone tower. Their expressions were familiar to me from my rotations on the psychiatric wards. The nurses looked at new admissions with the same expression right before noting in the record, “Patient appears to be responding to internal stimuli”. A person with that phrase recorded in their chart inevitably received an antipsychotic medication.

But, the boundary between dream and delusion is an eggshell composed of success, and I might just be able to climb this, after months of driving back and forth, writing a script composed of all the little holds and moves, dangling on a top-rope cursing, and route-specific training. All of these things are expected. I have done all of them before, with every project that I have done, just as I have sworn off projects after all of my other projects.

I fully expect to swear off projects after this project as well, even though I have been eyeing another route at the other end of the crack-width spectrum for several years, and with the same unhealthy obsession . The rejection of projecting at the end of each project results from an incremental increase in the sanity quotient which comes from terminating the effort. To be clear, I am not saying that anyone who engages in projecting is banking up mental health; quite the opposite.

To start considering a route on the edge of one’s ability, one first must feel a little bored and unmoored. One must ask oneself, “What am I doing with all this? Where am I at? What else is there?” before the darker ambitions can take over. The desire to take on a maximally uncertain climb is a mark of deterioration. The only enduring benefit may be a touch of healthy fatalism. A person taking on a project won’t help himself because he can’t. It is part of the lifecycle, which rolls on with or without our acceptance. Amor fati, or not, the route may go…

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Losers

I have to confess; I climb at a gym. I could dress it up and say that I train at a gym, but that would not quite be true. I climb the routes sometimes.

At my last gym session, I was just about to indulge in that guilty pleasure when I overheard something which totally gasted my flabber. A woman had clipped into the autobelay  on a steep section of wall and struggled up a few feet before auto-trundling*.

As she swung to the padded floor, her husband walked by with their toddler in his arms.

“Did you lose already?”, he asked.

“Lose?”, I thought, “You don’t lose at climbing.”

In the first place, climbing is never over.

In the second place, I can’t see what would constitute losing, short of just not trying at all. Everybody falls. Every steel-tendoned youngster runs up against something they can’t climb. Even the best can die in the mountains, and to think that even such an extreme endpoint defines losing at climbing is a subtle reversal.

Climbing is instrumental, and it is the finest instrument in my book. Think of it like a Stradivarius. A Strad. is worth a lot of money. Investors will bid on a Strad. and brag about owning one. But the violin still gets played, and the day that it gets locked in a vault as a chit is the first day of loss, because the violinist is the one who really possesses the instrument, while the investor is a mere parasite upon it.

There will be a gold medal for climbing soon. There are already prizes, sponsorships, grades and bragging rights for climbing. Some will take all those trappings seriously. However, we should not take those people, or their trappings seriously.

There is no loss in climbing.


  • Auto-trundling – as opposed to cleanly popping off the route and subsequently orienting oneself in mid-air, to auto-trundle is to disengage from the holds in a disjointed fashion, resulting in a tumble which closely resembles a loose rock rolling down a hill.

 

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That Moment

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Every climber starts out believing in their own invulnerability. Death and injury happen to other people, because they are fools, suckers, or just don’t have the luck, like you do. Believing oneself impervious comes in very handy, especially during the formative years. In that era, every risk and critical action is still new.

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The other ‘O.S’ route, North Ridge of the Grand Teton

You will take big run-outs whether you plan on it or not. You will make potentially fatal mistakes along the way. If you think nothing bad will happen to you, then you will march on past those moments of critical danger and learn the game. Of course, other outcomes are possible. Some people get the chop during the formative era. Some get bored with their apparently inevitable success and abandon the sport.

For everyone who sticks with it, there comes a moment when the belief in one’s invulnerability gets wiped away. For me, it was watching people die, and nearly being killed by the falling bodies. After that, there was no wishing my way back to the last age, where it couldn’t happen to me, no matter how convenient such a wishful belief may have been.

We can’t pick and choose what we believe in the end. No matter what, those moments come to spoil the utility of our delusions. Yet after the disappointment fades, you begin to understand: what you do after those moments is what really matters.

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