Falling

Falling is inevitable. It’s part of life, part of being surrounded by the unknown. For a while now I’ve been falling, in climbing, but particularly in life, a medium far less stable than even ice.

Am I falling today? I’m not sure. It’s hard to differentiate between crashing and soaring when you can’t tell which direction is up. Truth be told, every day feels like 50 percent tailspin and 50 percent off-axis tumbling. Perhaps life has been like this forever and I just never noticed. I’m not sure, but I think that’s why climbing has been so therapeutic lately — for a few hours I get a clear indication of which direction is down.

It is possible, however, to overdo the vertical therapy. Yesterday I climbed Diagonal, a route that pushed me both mentally and physically. Probably a dozen times on pitch two I launched out on slopey holds above marginal gear, and yet somehow I stayed afloat. When I got home last night I basked in the warm caress of contentment. The challenge matched what I had to give. I couldn’t have asked for a better day.

Today I tried to recreate that feeling, to find that moment of bliss again, but instead of soaring I crashed. Only the grace (and belay skills) of a good friend kept me from adding the word burn to that sentence.

The route was The Lowe Down, a mixed line I’ve climbed before. I’d already run up Doubting Thomas, and though tired I figured The Lowe Down was worth a shot. It’s bolted through the hard parts, I figured, so what’s the harm?

I was climbing sloppy from the beginning, my feet skating, my tools popping, but I was too worked to realize it. Or maybe just I let my need for that content feeling supersede my apprehension. Either way, it didn’t start pretty. I got to a stance and slammed in a screw, and then at another stance a short distance away I put in another. I kept trying to shake out, but my hands weren’t coming back. “Come on,” I kept saying to myself, “you’ve got this.”

But I didn’t. I moved up a bit more to clip a rusty pin with a screamer and found a decent hook. I shifted sideways and pulled my feet up, drapping a tool over over an icicle, leaving it to hang. I leaned back on the tool in the crack to try to find a bit of rest.

I’m not sure if I heard the scraping as the pick exploded out of the crack, but I remember watching it happen. I also remember the RRRRRRRRRRRIP as the screamer activated. I yelled “TAKE!” reflexively as I sailed backwards. “Please hold, pin, please hold,” I thought as I fell.

It did hold. I came to a stop three feet above the ground, cradled by the rope as it ran dutifully through Paul’s belay device. I let out a laugh and swung my remaining ice tool into a shelf. “The pin’s good,” I said with a smile.

How do you know when it’s time to back off, when the fight you’re in isn’t the one you’re supposed to be in? How do you know when to stop, when to turn around, when to strike off in a new direction? When is it time to find a different route? In climbing I can usually tell. I’d like to think today was an anomaly. Unlike Mean Streak, where I fell because a hold broke, today I fell because of sloppy technique, fatigue, and because I didn’t bring what I needed to bring to the climb. In retrospect it’s clear why I fell, but in the moment I pushed upwards, blindly ignoring the obvious.

Am I doing the same thing in life, where even down is an unrecognizable direction? Am I heading blindly, sloppily towards an inevitable fall? Am I supposed to fight? Am I supposed to walk away? How will I know? Do I know already? Am I ignoring the answer sitting in front of me? I truly don’t know which direction is down. Which way would a fall take me? Which way does “pushing upward” lead? How many other directions are there? What does direction even mean?

I’m tumbling, and any movement risks the scraping of picks, the ripping of threads.

In life, however, there are no pins. There also is no ground. Soaring is a matter of perspective, falling a state of mind. Right now I am soaring one minute, falling the next. I am tumbling through agony and ecstasy. For now, I can keep tumbling without making a move. The falling is outpacing the soaring, and I can feel it slowly draining me, but for now I can hold on. I can keep tumbling and ignore the urge to yell, “TAKE!” For how long? I don’t know. The thought of yelling “TAKE,” the very opposite of the contentment I was searching for, pushed into my head today, but I was able to ignore the thought, to push it out. I was able to breathe and find my feet.

You can’t soar by striving to soar. You soar by paying attention, by practicing mindfulness and LAUNCHING when the timing is right. Yesterday I found that balance, and it blessed me. Today I tried to force it, but instead I learned a lesson: gravity is a rule that doesn’t bend.

But in climbing, like in life, a fall isn’t the end, it’s another chance to test yourself. It’s another chance to decide whether your direction is up or down, whether you fight or walk away. Today I opted for up. I climbed back to the pin and made a few moves, reaching the next piece, a bolt. Another few swings got me to a second bolt. From there I began working the crux. I fell again, but this time I didn’t yell, I didn’t think, “Please hold.” I didn’t think at all. I was committed, in the moment, going to the top no matter what. I yarded back up to the bolt, looked around, and fired the ice to the trees. I was worked and wasted, but I wasn’t beat. So long as I could hold my tools, I’ll never be beat.

How does that translate to life? The fact is, I’m not beat. I can still hold my tools. And I intend to keep holding them, to keep throwing myself at whatever comes, to continue climbing despite the consequences. I will find a way to soar. I’m falling too, but just like today, Paul (and Katie, and Brian, and many others) is there to catch me too. I will smile, shift my perspective, practice mindfulness and LAUNCH. I will risk the fall. There is no other way to climb. Or to live.

[Author’s Note: Special thanks to photographer Brian Threlkeld for his photos. He came out for today’s session and pulled out his camera just before I launched into flight. Thanks to him I can enjoy this lesson in perpetuity.]

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