Airborne

Every time I climb, every time I start up, I begin by looking down. I check my harness and my knot, I make sure I’m threaded through both loops, I touch base with my belayer (“Locked and threaded correctly?”), the whole deal. Then I start climbing.

75 feet off the deck, however, when the holds get small and my last piece of protection sways with the rope below my feet, doubt creeps in. Did my diligence ebb this time? Is my system as solid as I think? The prospect of becoming airborne is tenuously close to being realized. It is the moment I need trust and faith the most, and that is the moment they abandon me.

Or is it me that abandons them?

Humans were not built for flight. Falling invokes a primal, eviscerating fear, something almost wholly unique these days. It’s a fear out of our forgotten past, something that comes from a million years of evolution and primordial instinct. The prospect of complete loss of control overwhelms our capacity to think. I look down, my rope slack below me, my gear swaying gently with every movement, and everything inside me screams: “NO!”

And yet…

I’m in the Red River Gorge for the week, camping with friends, cooking over a Coleman, searching for the sun. But what I’m really doing, what this trip is really about, is screaming back into the darkness. It’s about that moment of doubt, the moment where the ground seems so much safer. It’s about opening my eyes, breathing into my faith and trust, finding focus and saying “FUCK IT.” UP is the only direction. There is no option but to LAUNCH.

I have not done a ton of sport climbing. I only found it five years ago. Before that, my fingers knew how to jam far better than they knew how to crimp (Maybe they still do?). But I waded into the bolted world, learning more and more about projecting, redpointing, stick clipping and heel hooking. I’m by no means a rock star, but I have fun and can hold my own.

I do not, however, have a history of onsighting well. I can work a project, figure out all the moves and send, but when the holds get small and the whip looks likely I start to doubt. The fear starts rising. “What’s the fall like?” I think. “Will I swing into that corner? Will I flip over? I better take, I don’t want to risk it.” Eventually I work out all the moves and send, but the first go does not have a history of being my finest.

History, however, is not the future, and fear marks opportunity.

I came on this trip determined to check my knot, check my harness, confirm my belay and LAUNCH. I came determined not to think, but instead to find trust, to live within faith, to climb even when climbing seems like a mistake, until I reach the top or set sail trying.

It started on Tuesday, the first warm day. Super Best Friends looked good. The rest of the group was taking turns on it. Aaron sent it second go. Pat took it to the roof. Alexa did as well. I’d warmed up slow and was feeling good. I checked my knot and my system — all good. “Breathe,” I thought, “then shut your mind off.” I started up.

The urge to scream, the overwhelming fear, is also the chance to scream back, to eviscerate eviscerating fear. It is that moment where life happens, and all the moments around that one. Hiding is always an option, a choice, but not one to take in this moment. Not today.

I swung my heal up onto a ledge and found two holds big enough to rest on. “Breathe,” I thought, blowing out hard. “Breathe” took the place of all thought, of all fear, of all doubt. “Breathe.” I was six or seven bolts up maybe, looking at a handful more moves to clear the roof. I reached up to an undercling, swung my feet around and reeled the holds in. Clip. One more draw. Feet up. Move hands. Feet up. Reel in. I popped out the roof, but I never saw the headwall above. My eyes were focused three feet above me and four feet below my shoulders. Feet up. Move hands. The rope snaked below me under the roof and out of sight. Feet up. Move hands. The holds kept coming, not good enough to slow down but good enough to keep pushing up. Feet up. Feet up. Breathe. Thoughts were my enemy — they would only bring doubt. Move hands. Feet up. Breathe. Move hands. Feet up. Clip. Feet up. Move hands. Clip. Clip. Chains. The rope came tight, pulling my waist into the rock. I looked down, and my thinking brain clicked on. What had I just done? My hands were useless, but I was at the chains.

Faith and trust are not thoughts. They are emptiness. They are implicit, embedded, part of us. To find them, I had to stop thinking and start listening. They were there the whole time, but I hid them from myself. With them uncovered, however, screaming back at the fear ceases to be a choice. It instead becomes the path, the way, the only road. The decision is before the fear arrives. The decision is whether you are willing to listen, whether you are willing to find faith within yourself. Everything after is the moment unfolding. Even now. Even now. Even now.

AVALANCHE!

MWAC Photo

Anyone who enjoys SOG would likely enjoy this story I did for the paper this past weekend about avalanches on Mount Washington. It represents only part of a number of conversations with snow rangers and guides, conversations that were both interesting and enlightening despite 14 years of skiing and climbing and two avalanche courses. It makes me want to take some of the new avalanche courses, although I would probably look to take it out west rather than on the hill. Anyway, read it and enjoy.

The Start of Something New

Well, it looks like ice season is over for me.

At 5 a.m. this morning I woke with Shoestring Gully caught in my head. I rolled over, fully intending to go back to sleep, but I couldn’t shake the thought of a morning uphill jog. I laid in the dark for a few minutes, trying to let the urge to run up 1,000 feet of snow and ice before work would subside. It didn’t. I got up and started pulling on synthetics.

An hour later I was driving north, headlights on, rocking out to Call Me Maybe. The thermometer read 36 degrees. The clouds squatted over the valley. “One hour,” I thought, “that’s all I need. If the rain can hold off for one hour I should be able to get up and back down.” The forecast called for rain all day, but thus far everything was dry. A hard shell sat rolled in my pack just in case.

As I hit the straightaway by The Notchland Inn, however, the drops began. I’d run the windshield wipers to clear mist on the way into the mountains, but these were the real deal droplets. The rain had come. I kept thinking of Mark Twight’s words: if water is running, things are falling. Not good. I turned around.

Friday I leave for two weeks in the Red River Gorge. By the time I get back from the Mecca of sandstone sport climbing it’s possible there won’t be anything left frozen. Today could very well have been my last opportunity, and I missed my shot.

I don’t mind, however. I realized the other day after a beautiful day at Shagg Crag that there is something I love more than climbing: early season climbing. It doesn’t matter if it is the first day of tugging on rock holds or the first day of scratching verglas with ice tools, the first day is the BEST. Climbing becomes brand new again for that day. Whether the switch is from rock to ice, or from ice to rock, climbing on that day becomes both an old friend and a new love — exciting, thrilling even, yet familiar. There is a newness, a wonder to the movement and the action, that comes flooding back on that first day, and with that newness come renewed commitment.

That moment is why I find myself scratching my way up The Black Dike in October or November each year. That newness is why if find myself postholing out to Shagg on the first warm day of March. It’s also why I dive at the chance to ski in February when the snow begins to fall in earnestness — newness brings clarity, even when the thing itself isn’t new, so long as I come with a renewed perspective.

That newness inevitably dulls over the course of the season, setting me up for a fresh launch into the next season. This week marks the transition from ice to rock, and as the Red approaches I can hardly contain myself.

As a side note, I’m interested to see how Shades of Granite changes now that ice season is over. It is question I don’t know the answer to. The risks of bolted sport climbing or even traditional climbing are very different than on ice. The struggles within me, however, are largely the same. Climbing above bolts allows a margin for error ice does not, but climbing into outer space is outside your comfort zone, regardless of the medium. Control is an illusion, on rock or on ice, and the goal is to embrace its loss.

SHAGG!

I love Shagg Crag.

Temperatures today his 50 degrees, which for me meant it was time to posthole out to Shagg Crag and begin the sport climbing season. I’m heading to the Red River Gorge in a week for two weeks of sport-o action, and Shagg Crag is great training. It is also one of my favorite places to climb in the world.

I shot some video while I was there (unfortunately I only got on the warmup and one other route before space ran out on the card) today and edited it together tonight. (You may notice that I mess up the URL to my own blog at the end. Friggin’ blogspot!)

I can’t get over how good it felt to be clipping bolts and climbing in a tee-shirt after a long winter of trembling above ice pro. The last few routes we belayed in tee-shirts and climbed without them. SPRING IS HERE! Amen.

Enjoy.