Snow, and Climbing as News

I’ve been skiing more than climbing lately, mostly on account of the snow that keeps falling. I skied North Doublehead and the Avalanche Brook trail this past weekend, the Sherbie last week and Bretton Woods the weekend before. I’m headed out again today for my lunchbreak to get a couple of runs in.

I did, however, do a couple climbing-related stories for work in the last couple days, one about a rescue on Mount Washington late Saturday night and the other about the history, culture and economy of climbing here in the Mount Washington Valley. Both of them might be of interest to SOG readers.

It’s supposed to be snow about eight inches tonight. I’m headed out tomorrow to grab some turns before work, part of my perpetual quest to sieze the day. Hopefully you sieze it too.

Falling, Part Two

The threat of gravity contains beauty. Or, more precisely, beauty can be unearthed, unveiled by gravity. Gravity is pure, like truth: it makes no judgements and offering no favors, it simply is. Run afoul of it and you fall, period. It demands excellence of any wishing to resist it. It demands perfection.

I went back to soloing today. I climbed Standard Right to PenguinDracula and Standard Left this morning, finishing up before 11 a.m. since I had a partner for Repentance at noon. I got the urge last night to climb ropeless, and in an instant my hiatus was over.

My goal for the day was not to reach the summit, it was to slow down. My goal was to try to coax the presence I’d found on Dracula last time to more moderate terrain, to test my theory that soloing doesn’t have to continually push the envelope to be centering. “Slow is steady, steady is smooth, smooth is safe.” That was the mantra I rolled through my head as I drove to the cliff. (Actually a variation on Michael’s mantra: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” I’ve learned a lot from Michael.) The ice doesn’t have to be vertical, or even steep. Just breathe, live by those words, and embrace each individual movement. Don’t try to climb the whole route at once. Embrace the process. That was the goal.

Living that, however, is harder than saying it. I started climbing Standard infront of a crowd. Old habits made me rush, which then forced me to climb slow, and not in the deliberate fashion. Brittle conditions had me sending down lots of ice, bombing those below. I felt like an ass, having rushed up in front of the crowd to shower them with debris. I felt like a jerk and a phony, and my self-consciousness and self-judgement kept me out of the moment, kept me from the clarity and the presence I had set out for.

But once I was off Standard Route and on Penguin, back on my own, I was able to once again find the center. I topped out Penguin with a smile, and I climbed Dracula awash in calm — the route just flowed under my picks. I hit Standard Left, a route I’d never climbed, and the clarity followed. I stayed slow, steady, smooth and safe (for the most part), and presence followed.

The biggest challenge, I’m realizing, is not in the climbing, but in the crowds, in me. I let my social anxieties and concerns about judgement subverted my clarity. Gravity offered me beauty, but I kept it at arms length until I was alone. Perhaps the most potent fear I need to tackle has nothing to do with the vertical.

But still, despite human/social complexities, gravity offers one more opportunity to take a step along the path. It gives me a way to push into discomfort to find clarity, and then find within myself the tools to carry that clarity to earth. Today I brought clarity from grade four the grade three. At some point I’ll get it to grade zero.

Gravity, however, also carries consequences, and it has been on a winning streak lately. It caught two of my friends this week, one on Dropline, the other at Texaco. Nick suffered a torn muscle between his ribs; Mikey broke an ankle. Nick is a professional climber. Mikey gets out a dozen times a season. Gravity treated them both the same — neither got away clean. The perfection requirement doesn’t bend, remember that.

Part of The Sharp End

The Access Fund announced their 2012 Sharp End awards yesterday, recognizing the people, businesses and organizations that go above and beyond to protect climbing access.

The official announcement was yesterday, but last week I got an email from Zach at the AF telling me I was one of the winners. I volunteer as a regional coordinator for the Access Fund in New Hampshire (and sometimes assisting with issues in Maine), and this past year I was part of an effort to get the state of New Hampshire to include climbing among the activities landowners could open their property to without fear of liability. After a lot of emails, phone calls and conversations with lawmakers the effort to recognize bouldering, rock and ice climbing as protected activities succeeded, making it into law over the summer. I was thrilled then to learn our effort (with the help of a few sympathetic legislators) succeeded, and I was thrilled last week to hear I would be getting the Sharp End award for that victory.

It’s pretty cool to be listed alongside the likes of Black Diamond, the Red River Gorge Climbers Coalition and the Western Mass Climbers Coalition. I didn’t expect such recognition, and I can think of several others (Tim Kemple Sr., Sen. Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro) who are at least as deserving, but I have to admit the news made me smile. I’m looking forward to getting my sandstone plaque in the mail. I just hope it isn’t made of rock from a climbing area the AF was unable to save…

Joking aside, if you aren’t an Access Fund member, sign up here. The AF is one of the two organizations I believe everyone who enjoys climbing should belong to.

Soloing, the Edge, and Finding the Center

After I soloed Dracula last month I got worried. I had climbed it seeking clarity, the clarity I found soloing Standard Route several weeks earlier, clarity that became elusive by the third Standard ascent. “What if the same thing happens with Dracula?” I thought. “What if I get comfortable here too? What then? Do I climb The Black Dike? Dropline? Those don’t seem like reasonable risks.” I had discovered a potentially fatal danger on my path: soloing for centering is unsustainable. If a few laps could transform a seemingly impossible challenge into a routine outing, would I keep pushing the grade to find that feeling?

It’s been a month since Dracula, and I haven’t been ropeless again. It’s not that I decided NOT to solo; the right opportunity just hasn’t fallen across my path. In the meantime, though, I’m beginning to wonder if the reason that feeling was so elusive was a matter of perception, not because it truly is ever elusive. Is soloing even necessary to attain clarity, or is that just one path?

Soloing is embracing fear rather than running away from it, hiding from it, rejecting it. Climbing roped offers the same opportunity, usually without the extreme consequences, but soloing purifies the effort. As humans we are never perfect, but an ascent, whether on rock, ice, sport or trad, can be flawless. Take away the rope, and the ascent demands no less than perfection. It’s easy to see why it demands clarity, and it’s easy to see how it could become addicting.

Clarity, however, is only as elusive as we make it. The extreme presence I found on Dracula was a result of being forced into the moment by my fear, but that isn’t the only way to get there. Fear is not the only path.

Do you remember where you were on Sept. 11, 2001? I do. I was on the floor of the L.L. Bean warehouse just a few weeks into a seasonal job when I learned two planes had hit the World Trade Center. We got out early, after the second plane hit, and the next few days unfolded in surreal time.

My wedding day was the same way — I was overwhelmed as I watched the evening unfold. It felt like an out-of-body experience, an extended moment of hyper-awareness, the most beautiful day of my life.

What links soloing, 9/11 and my wedding day? Extremity. The emotions, all extreme, form the connecting thread. Extreme risk, extreme fear, centers me. It brought me back to consciousness, back to the moment, as effectively as extreme sadness and extreme happiness had in the past. Emotions, when they become overwhelming, DEMAND attention. Fear, love, sadness all force us to stop wasting attention on superflous distractions and get in the moment.

Why is consciousness limited to those moments? Because we spend the rest of life trying to avoid living the moment. We sit at work waiting for 5 p.m., spend our week thinking about the weekend, spend months looking forward to our next vacation, leaf through magazines to look at places we’d rather be, surf websites about what we’d rather be doing and spend hours shopping for the new products that will somehow make our free-time more fun. We spend so much time looking to the future or thinking about the past we fritter away the NOW, and it takes a plane crash, overwhelming warmth or the risk of a 75-foot groundfall to bring us back.

Who wants to be present all the time? It’s a fair question, particularly when most of our time is spent at jobs we detest or navigating social situations that never seem to become comfortable. On its face it seems rational to live outside the moment, the only problem is selective deadening is impossible. I can’t check out all day and expect to check back in each night. I can’t check out all week and expect to be present all weekend. Attention forms habits and flows to the path of least resistance. It doesn’t come and go by our leave. Spend your life checked out and it will take a plane crash to bring you back. Maybe that won’t even do it. Stay checked in, however, and clarity becomes life. Life becomes clear. Simple concept, right? Now try to put it into practice.

The feelings I associate with soloing don’t have to be fleeting, but just like soloing they require constant evolution, constant inquiry. When my attention tended towards fleeting I needed harder and harder routes to center myself. That process may have brought me clarity for a moment, but in another respect it pushed me closer and closer to the edge. That edge was instructive, but some who venture too close to it eventually fall off. I’d prefer not to be one of those.

So instead I’ve been seeking another path, one that pulls clarity to me rather than insists I go to it. I’ve found it in other ways — practicing yoga, on my skis, sitting quietly with myself. I found it by concentrating on my breathing, by noticing the subtleties around me, by quieting my mind regardless of my surroundings. I’ve done it without wrestling with monsters.

Will these other paths always work? I doubt it. A friend who meditates told me recently he used to get more out of his practice when he first started. These days, he said, it’s become routine. The fact is, it doesn’t matter what it is, soloing or meditation, we can become acclimated to any path. But if the path is always changing, always evolving, if we never know how to maintain clarity, if we are always looking for new methods for centering, if we are willing to accept whatever path shows up today, the path will forever renew. If I don’t KNOW how to center myself I will always be open to new possibilities and new opportunities. By being ready to quit anything at any time I hope to recognize when a path doesn’t work. I strive to test any new practice anytime, so long as it fits.

I will lose my path. I will not be perfect, on the rock, ice or in life. I will lose my center, my clarity, and allow the fog to filter back it. But those challenges are part of the path, integral to it. They are opportunities to recommit, to rediscover forgotten lessons and learn new ones. To find those opportunities I need to embrace forgiveness, cultivate trust and be willing to let go, just like I had to for soloing. But the path is also about nothing at all, because the moment I know what it’s about I might stop looking, which is one way to lose the path.

And for me, there are still reminders on the ice. The path still includes soloing, but it’s not about chasing clarity. It’s about finding it on grade two, not just on grade five. Because the grade does not matter, only our attention that makes the moment.

The Last Route

Pretend climbing is life. Pretend one route equals your life. You are born when you tie in, you gain consciousness when you hear, “On belay.” If it’s a single pitch climb, every move equals a year. If it’s a longer route, each pitch equals a decade. When the climb is over, so are you — reaching the top equals death.

Life is a route. How are you climbing it?

I’ve climbed lots of routes with the expressed interest of reaching the top. Sending was the goal. I wasn’t there to celebrate the movement, to enjoy the day, to appreciate the time on the rock. I was there to summit. On the route of life I was racing for the chains.

Today, however, I climbed deliberately. I savored every second, looking no further than the move in front of me, striving to embrace every moment in the vertical. I never rushed, instead flowing upward at whatever pace fit. I climbed with my eyes open, my head and heart engaged. I felt the warmth of the sun, listened to my picks as they creaked in the ice. I was there to be there, not to reach the anchor. Once I reached the anchor, after all, the climbing was over.

Whether climbing rock or ice, sport or life, my “goal” has become the experience, not the summit. The process itself is the reason for action. Every individual moment has become infinitely important. The top, the summit, the chains, the end, has become an abstraction. It will inevitably show up, but the real cause for joy is contained in all the moments that led there. Every moment, every movement, every year and every decade is worth noticing, worth celebrating. Whatever you do, don’t rush.



Yesterday I quit climbing.

It was 5:30 p.m. and growing dark. I was standing in my living room, naked from the waist up, a pile of outdoor clothes draped on the arm of the couch beside me. I had been waiting for this moment all day, for work to end so I could go climbing in Crawford Notch, but now that the moment had arrived I was faltering. “Should I go?” I thought, wearing nothing but blue Capilene tights. “Do I really want to? Or am I just going climbing because climbing is what I do?” Would my plan leave me smiling and satisfied, or would I just wind up wishing I was back at home? I didn’t know, so I just stood there in my long underwear watching the sky grow darker.

I tied into a rope for the first time at 17, and ever since I’ve poured myself into my passion. I’ve spent weekends, vacations and thousands of dollar on climbing. Now I can just describe it as what I do. It’s intricately linked to my closest relationships, my work and where I choose to live. It’s how I meet people, what I talk about with friends, how I relax, what social occasions are centered around, the focus of the organizations I donate to and how I volunteer my time. It has become more than a passion — it has become life.

And yet I quit.

I stood in my living room yesterday, lost in my head, naked, exposed, and I didn’t want to go climbing. “No,” I thought, pulling off my Capilene, “I’m not going. It isn’t me, not today. I’m not a climber. I’m just not.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d quit. I quit the day before too. I had plans to go to Tohko on Sunday with Scott, but after two days out at Ice Fest I was tired. I got home and didn’t feel it. “Not today,” I thought as I sat down to read. “I’m not climbing. Not now. Not today.”

It feels good to quit, to reject the passion that in many ways has come to define me. It feels good to put it down, to let it rest, to let the pressures and expectations that built up around it dissolve. Will I send my project? Who knows. Probably not, because I quit. And that’s OK. After weeks and months of doing nothing but climbing, I just walked out the door.

It doesn’t take long to fall into habits, and climbing is an easy one to fall into. When you climb every weekend, every vacation and every free moment it can be difficult to determine whether you are climbing today out of passion or simply because you climb. For me at some point the climbing flips from being a passion to being work. “It is the weekend again. Where are we climbing?” The desire to tick the next project, to push to through the next grade, takes over, and when it does the passion is gone. But I keep climbing because I know nothing else. What meaning does it bring at that point? What value? None. The feelings climbing can elicit are gone, and yet I stick to it. It’s become a habit, just what I do.

When that happens, I quit. I walk away. I put down my gear, fuck it, and do something else. I did it yesterday. I pulled of my Capeline, did some Googling, and instead went to a yoga class. It felt fantastic. I spent an hour and a half trying not to fall over. Every pose was taxing. I embraced sucking at something, free from any self-imposed pressure to perform. It felt the way climbing felt that first day. It felt the way it felt when I quit this summer — instead of tying in I went surfing, and I spent hours just trying to stand up. Ego stayed home during those sessions — I couldn’t afford its critique.

Quitting is liberating. It is freeing. It takes the thing that you allow to define you and puts it back in its place. Climbing isn’t life, it is an activity. It is a way to spend time, no more, no less. It can be fun or it can be miserable, depending on the day, but it is neither good nor bad. And when it starts to feel overwhelming, like it has become a job rather than a passion, the best thing I can do is quit.

And so yesterday I did just that. I quit. I walked away. I said fuck it, and in rejecting climbing I found freedom. It was in every yoga pose — the same feeling discovered 14 years ago, that first day I tied into a rope — the wonder of movement, the high of self-awareness, the intense connection between mind, body and breath. Instead of searching for that feeling in climbing like a heroin addict seeking another fix I looked somewhere else. And there it was. I found it. All that because I quit.

I’ve quit so many times before. I spent a year barely climbing once, and three years off the ice. I went on sailing and bicycling trips, spent weekends camping and watching movies, blew money on cameras, concerts and plays. I’ve quit countless times since too, and each time I discover how much I truly love my other passions. Quitting has allowed me to I train and compete in a triathlon, and it afforded me a stint in Iraq and Kuwait reporting for public radio. Quitting has given me much more than it ever took away.

Quitting has also let me discover, once I finally tie back in, how much I love climbing. The quitting helps me see my passion within a proper context, as one passion among many, all of which are rewarding and expand my perspective. Embracing the quit and the subsequent resurrection refills my passion. It allows the beauty of what climbing offers wash over me. It helps me grow.

Passion are meant to support us, to engage us and push us to new heights and levels of understand about ourselves, but if they come to define us they do the opposite — they make us contract. They can help us seek our own self-imposed boundaries, or they can form the foundation for those same walls. Climbing runs that risk for me. It is in so much of my life it can easily box me in if I sit back and let it. But in quitting I reject that mold and embrace the growth. Quitting allows me to look around with clear eyes and see all the other things I am missing.

It also gives me a chance to recommit. Every time I quit I get to rediscover the wonder climbing brought me that first day. Quitting reinvigorates my passion. Yesterday I decided I would not climbing. I quit, and rejecting climbing as a definition. I won’t go again, I told myself, until the drive comes from a place of passion, a place of love, a place of growth and willingness to accept the unknown. If the thought of climbing provokes a question about to whether I want to be there, whether or not I was making the right decision, I wasn’t going. Climbing should provoke feelings of elation, I reasoned, not exhaustion, so I quit. I just walked away.

Then today I got up and packed my bag for the rock gym. I’ll be there tonight, back on the wall, back among friends. My quit has run its course. My willingness to walk was the ingredient necessary to see my passion with fresh eyes again. After years of pitched battles (within myself always), it now takes just days to be ready again (except for those times it takes weeks or months). Today I’m back to climbing out of love rather than obligation. Quitting kicked the habit, and it no longer rules me. I cannot deny I my passion, but through quitting I let it re-bloom into a passion, a love, of my choosing. If it were any other way I’d have to quit.