It’s Monday. The weekend is over. My boots, gloves, screws and ropes are all hung to dry, and I’m at work. I’m sitting in front of my computer, recovering from the weekend, wondering if I made the right call. The climbing is over, but it’s weight still hangs over my head. Physically I’m at my desk, but in my mind I’m staring up at a blood-splattered column, a screw at my feet, horizontal cracks both above and below me, wondering: “Up or down? Up or down?”
A week ago Peter and I made a pilgrimage to Grafton Notch to fire Hackett-Tremblay, a stellar grade 5 that rarely appears. I was all set to climb the first pitch when a chunk of ice slammed into my helmet, transforming my lead head from a galvanized piece of steel into a spongey mess. After a brief attempt I turned the sharp end to Peter, and he did what he does best — went to the top.
I didn’t blame myself for backing off — that chunk of ice hit me pretty hard — but I wanted another shot at H-T. I knew it would go, I just needed to be there 100 percent, no excuses, to reach the top.
So Sunday I went back. Scott and I piled into the car at 7:45 a.m., and we made the same pilgrimage I’d made a week before. We parked in the same spot, and booted up the same trail, and at 10 a.m. I found myself racking up at the base of the route I’d seconded a week ago.
But lots of things were different this time. First off, the week before it had been 30 degrees. This time it was closer to 10. Last week the route was running with water. This week there wasn’t a drip. Last week the ice was soft and forgiving. This week it was glistening and bulletproof. But I still wanted my shot, a chance to prove myself against the ice. I racked and roped up, tightened my boots and readied my head. “You know what you’re in for,” I thought. “Just breathe, just climb, and this will go.”
One swing into the ice, however, rattled my resolve. My tool made a CLUNK as it swung into the curtain. The ice, detached from the rock by the warm weather, had not reattached with the cold, it had just stiffened and turned brittle. I moved up, down and side to side trying to find good ice, but every tool placement sliced to the air behind the curtain.
“I don’t like that sound,” I shouted down to Scott.
“Me either,” he shouted back.
But I was committed. I wanted the send. I didn’t like where I was, but I wanted the top. Doubt began creeping in, but I pushed it aside. I took a breath, entrenched in my belief that UP was my direction, kicked in my feet and started climbing. A handful of moves got me to good ice, and then I was at a shelf staring at the base of a column, the true crux. I wound in a screw, then a second, hooked my tool into the back of the column just below a quarter-inch horizontal crack clear through the pillar, and made an awkward mantle. Standing on the shelf I could see a gap of several inches behind the pillar, space that wasn’t supposed to be there. The black rock and the warm sun a week earlier had cooked away the bonds, and now the column was just hanging.
Or was it? I swung into it about six feet up and felt it vibrate. I looked up and saw a second horizontal crack about a foot above my tool, again almost a quarter-inch wide. I tugged on the placement, and the column groaned. The screw in the shelf at my feet was solid, but I knew with slack and momentum I would reach the ledge below if I fell. It wasn’t a question — the next few moves were akin to soloing. I looked around. The ice above looked better, like it would take a screw, like if I could get there I would be set. I knew from my ascent the week before this was the section most detached, the riskiest. The next six feet were the key to the route. I thought back to Peter, who reached up and placed a high screw from this same stance. I couldn’t do that, however — all I would be doing is attaching myself to the detached, groaning column. If it came off I’m be anchoring myself to a bull, and I had better be ready to ride it. No way. I looked back at my feet. The ice was smeared with a deep red-brown the color of rust that melted pockets into the column. “Blood,” I thought. “Someone had worse luck than me in the last week.” I looked back up. I would have to make two, maybe three moves on the column to get tools in the good ice. If it popped with me on it I would break. It wasn’t hard for me to decide. “Down,” I said aloud. “I’m coming down.”
That didn’t just happen yesterday, it happened right now, in my head. In my mind it just played out again, as it did on the drive home, as it did in bed last night. I wonder to myself if the column would have held me, if I made the “right” decision, if I somehow let myself down by backing off. Did I fail myself? Could I have made it past there? Could I have taken that key and used it to unlock the climb? It’s Monday, and I am carrying with me the weight of my “failure.”
Failure — a term only I use to describe my decision — is harsh, a judgement, one that hurts only me, one that calls into question my value as a person as well as my value as a “climber.” It is a foolish view, one without value, one that does injury to both myself and my climbing, and yet I have trouble letting it go. Every day I struggle to live in the moment, to not carry my decisions with me. In this instance my only “failure” is not embracing my decision to descend.
What is living in the moment? It is being present ALWAYS, knowing there is no future and no past, only NOW. Tomorrow will never get here. Yesterday can never change. Today, right now, this moment, is the only one we have. I can’t go back and change my decision, and therefore there is no use thinking about it. There is no “right” and no “wrong,” only actions and consequences. Time cannot be saved, it can only be spent, and living in the past is spending time poorly. How do I let go of that? How do I embrace my decisions, trust it was the “right” one and move on? I’m not sure. I’m learning. It’s the reason I’ve enjoyed soloing lately — it requires presence in a way most other things don’t. It requires ignoring the world around me, trusting myself, shutting of my mind and just being. Thinking is enemy of now. Fear of consequences, judgements of past actions, rehashing and reevaluating — those are the things that keep us from experiencing this moment. This one. Here. Now. NOW.
How do we stop thinking? I do it through embracing fear, and not just fear of heights. Fear of rejection, fear of embarrassment, fear of emotional pain — all of those do the same thing for me as climbing. I stop thinking by doing whatever the thing I think I don’t want to be doing is. Embracing that thing creates stress and forces me to face fear, and in that moment I am present.
How do I do that everyday? Easy: I don’t. I forget. I fall back into habits. I get comfortable. I start to drift from my practice, from my embrace of the unknown. I drifted on Sunday when I stood on that ledge thinking of “all the things that could go wrong” rather than opening myself to the experience and accepting whatever challenges (opportunities) I found. And I have been drifting since with every rehash of my decision, every replay of that moment in my mind. Could I have made it up? Could that column have held? Who cares. I opted not to test it. That is what happened. Let that choice be.
“If we were to put our minds to one powerful wisdom method and work with it directly, there is a real possibility we would become enlightened. Our minds, however, are riddled with confusion and doubt. I sometimes think that doubt is an even greater block to human evolution than is desire or attachment. Our society promotes cleverness instead of wisdom, and celebrates the most superficial, harsh, and least useful aspects of our intelligence. We have become so falsely ‘sophisticated’ and neurotic that we take doubt itself for truth, and the doubt that is nothing more than ego’s desperate attempt to defend itself from wisdom is deified as the goal and fruit of true knowledge.”
– Sogyal Rinpoche
I seek out fear in an effort to find enlightenment, knowledge, emptiness and personal growth. Those things are elusive, but I am not failing on that journey. The path is not clear. But in recognizing that I strayed I have moved a little closer to the light. It is still the early morning, the first rays of sun are peaking. Full brightness is on its way, just keep your eyes open.