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.

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