Tag Archives: climbing

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.”


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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