Suck, With Passion

Suck, With Passion

I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors hiking, climbing, skiing and mountaineering. I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail at 18, worked as a pro patroller on tele skis in my early 20s, spent months living out of my vehicle, guided clients on snow and ice and climbed rock on three continents. But I still suck at stuff, and I love it.

I suck at surfing. My first experience was in college when an economics professor who knew I skied asked if I wanted to learn. I was in a summer class he was teaching, and we would meet a few hours early and go to Scarborough Beach. He had an extra wetsuit and nine-foot surfboard he let me borrow. On the first day I couldn’t even sit on the board without tipping over. I spent the whole session trying to figure out how to balance so I could watch for waves coming in. I didn’t catch a thing. Surfing was so much different than skiing, so much different than climbing. It was completely new — I had no relatable experience to draw from — and I was not good. I’d taken up other things recently, road biking, for example, which I’d picked up two years before, but on my first day cycling I didn’t fall off my bike. Surfing was a wake up, but instead of getting discouraged by my failure I reveled in the feeling. Being so unfamiliar, so awkward, gave me the chance to forget myself, to forget my ego and self-image, and just concentrate on finding balance. It was freeing, a chance to be a child again. I loved it.

I still surf. I can stand up and even occasionally ride a wave today. I’m barely proficient, but I’m no longer falling off my board while sitting. There are other things, however, I still suck at royally.

I can’t dance. I’m the classic white kid, with no rhythm. I’m not sure how many people actually can dance, but I’m not one of them. I’ll occasionally get out on the dance floor (like this past September at my brother’s wedding), but not often. It’s something I’m bad at and embarrassed about, so I don’t do it.

It makes me sad and at the same time laugh when I think how often that happens: how often do we say “I’m bad at that so I don’t do it,” and therefore shut ourselves off from ever learning the thing we think we’re bad at. Embarrassment is a fear without risk, and yet it so often holds us captive. THAT should be embarrassing.

This winter I took a jazz dance class specifically because I wanted to grapple with my discomfort with the fact that I can’t dance. I sashayed around a Portland dance studio in yoga pants and bare feet, doing my best to move in time with the music and failing miserably. I was bad, really bad. I was awkward, uncoordinated and looked silly. There was nothing dancer-esque about me. I discovered (as I already knew) that I look 100 times more graceful ascending overhanging rock than gliding across a wooden floor.

But who cares? Just like in climbing, no one starts out ready for the stage. I cringe at the idea I might have backed off climbing because I was too embarrassed to ask someone how to place gear. It took me a decade of practice to move through vertical terrain with the ease and confidence I do today, and that decade is full of fantastic stories and memories. My failures were my opportunities for growth, my ignorance was my opportunity, and it still is. Embarrassment should play no part in it.

I intend to go back to dance class. Wednesday nights, 7 p.m. Thursday night is hip-hop. I want to try that too. Movement is movement, and learning is learning. Don’t ever be too good, or too embarrassed, to try something new.

In that vein, I’m trying to learn to play Rubin and Cherise on the guitar, another passion I’ve poured less time into than climbing. Unfortunately I’m embarrassed by my lack of proficiency, which in this paradigm means I should put it out to the world and dispel the tension within myself. There is no risk in embarrassment. There is only the risk of not trying. So…

Here is what I’m shooting for:

And here’s where I’m at:

And let’s not get into my singing, that’s way too embarrassing…

I’m doing my best to be willing to suck. To do otherwise would be to endorse holding myself back. So instead I’m doing my best to be willing to do that which I don’t know how to do. It isn’t easy, but unlike soloing rock or ice there is no risk. What would failure mean? Nothing. There are no consequences. The only risk is to my ego. Failure is a chance to try again.

Never stop trying. Never be afraid of being embarrassed. Embarrassment is just another hindrance to life, that precious moment you lose the instant you spend it and never get a second shot at.

A Moment Forever

Yesterday I cut out of work for an extended lunch to meet my friend Majka for a two hour session at Humphrey’s Ledge. We got four pitches in, and it was so nice I got sunburned. When we finished I went back to work, but when 5 p.m. came I found myself driving back across the Saco River, this time aimed for Cathedral. I coud see from the parking lot much of the cliff was wet, but not everything. I changed back into my climbing clothes, pulled on flip-flops (perfect for Cathedral approaches), and scurried to the base of Funhouse, the classic 5.7. Dry.

As I’ve said before, I do not have much experience soloing. Before this winter I’d never climbed anything harder than Pinnacle Gully without a rope. On rock my only solo was Pinnacle Buttress, which I have always felt has enough ledges to mitigate the risk. Yesterday, however, I chose once again to lean into the discomfort of being ropeless. I wanted to clear my mind and move upward deliberately, something clouded by a harness, belay and gear. I got to the base of Funhouse, tied my rock shoes, opened my chalk bag and sat. I closed my eyes, rested my hands on my knees and breathed deep. With every exhale I pushed the thoughts from my mind, clearing myself, searching for the moment I was living, that moment, the one that lasts for eternity and yet we are so seldom aware of. As I sat my heart rate slowed, by breath became calm. I opened my eyes, stood and began climbing.

I didn’t move fast. I was methodical, taking my time, letting the movement flow naturally, letting the moment carry me. More than once when I felt my mind speeding up, my thoughts racing, I stopped, closed my eyes and went back inside, searching for myself, my trust, my strength and my conviction. I was going up. Everything was OK. This was life — LIFE. Death wouldn’t disappear if I chose to stay on the ground, chose to ignore risk. If that was the path I chose death would still find me, it would just find me withered, spent. That is not for me. I choose to meet it ALIVE. I kept going up.

I was alone when I reached the top, an experience I’ve never had on Cathedral. I smiled, turned around so I was facing the valley below and sat down. I softened my eyes and took a breath. The moment was there, sitting next to me, caressing me. I was ALIVE, and I knew it. It wasn’t alive in a “I just braved death” sort of way, but in an “O Capitan, My Capitan” sort of way, in a moment of presence sort of way. I stared out, breathing even and deep, the heat of my exertion washing over me. Alive, and free. Alive and free.

The Fear That Isn’t Mine

A life well lived includes risk. It includes lessons and failures, dangers and setbacks. It is those moments, I believe, where people can rise, launch, and shine. Such a life includes fear, but fear is just another emotion, passing over us like cloud shadows on the earth. Fear is often tied to our decisions, something we accept and embrace or reject and walk away from. But not always.

About six years ago my best friend since I was five, the man who introduced me to climbing, went to Iraq. I don’t remember how or when I learned Bryan was being deployed, but the news spawned a weight in my stomach, my heart and my soul reeking of blackness and tar. I had no control, and I knew it. There were people there intent on hunting him, on doing whatever they could to kill him, and I could do nothing to protect him. I loved him, but there was nothing I could do to keep him safe. Life was about to come at Bryan full speed, and I was powerless to help. My only choice was to trust he was ready to meet the unknown, no matter what that meant. I sent him a package with everything I could think of that he might need, but otherwise I was left waiting. I sat was a feeling I’m not sure my brian will let me ever fully remember, but one I also won’t ever forget.

I am reminded of that feeling, however, every spring and every fall — every time it’s climbing season in the big mountains. Bryan completed his tour and now lives in Texas with his wife and children. Today expeditions, not deployments, revive that weight. When my best friends leave for Alaska, Patagonia, Pakistan and Nepal, the blackness, the fear, returns. The love and the loss of control I felt when my best friend put himself squarely in harm’s way comes rushing back, renewed, fresh and alive. It’s something I’m not sure I truly acknowledge until its over, until the moment has past, but until everyone is out of the mountains I’m not sure air ever reaches the depths of my lungs.

As I said yesterday, Michael, Bayard and Elliot are out. They were in Alaska to climb Mount Deborah, but now they aren’t. Since they got back I’ve texted with Elliot and talked to both Michael and Bayard. I told them how happy I am they returned safe, but I’m not sure I’ll ever get across in words how it feels to have them home. I love them. They are astronauts, best friends. I want them safe always. I want them in my life always. But I don’t get that, no matter what I do. Nothing and no one is static. Life overtakes us all, even those willing to step into its depths and scream into the blackness. Bryan, Bayard, Michael and Elliot will all scream until they are horse, until all they have left are whispers. I would never ask them to do otherwise. My fear, my feelings of loss of control, is not worth them stepping back from the brink, not worth backing down from Iraq, Alaska, Patagonia. That drive, that passion, which at times may border on recklessness, is what makes them spectacular, what makes them astronauts. Death is a side effect to life, unfortunate but unavoidable, a possibility in all things. Sitting at home isn’t safe, and even if it were I wouldn’t wish it upon these people. They stepped into life intent to live it at full speed, and it is that passion that endears them to me. That reckless beauty is what makes them exceptional. I, in turn, have to release them to love them. I must give up control, take pleasure in the risk of loss their friendship allows. I don’t get to keep them anyway. They aren’t mine to lose.

In a community like mine there is always someone “in country.” It’s a risk of surrounding yourself with passionate people, particularly with a passion that has real consequences. The weight never fully goes away — when Bayard is home, Freddie is gone. Or Peter. Or Silas. Or Kevin. Or Jimmy. And, if I think about it, I guess I wouldn’t want the weight to disappear. That would mean a life without risk, a life without passion, a life without life. That is no way to live.

But it sure is nice to have a few spaceshuttles back on the ground, a few more astronauts back on Earth. Breathe the fresh air, my friends. I will join you, but I won’t breathe too deep — a few others are still in orbit. I look forward to hearing they’ve come home too.

The Failure Project

I woke this morning gripped by an idea. It seared its way into my mind and wouldn’t let go. It had me enough at 6 a.m. that I had to get up, put clothes on, go outside and say it into the camera. Maybe that was enough to push it forward, to catapult it into action. I’m not sure. But here it is:

I’ve fallen a lot in climbing. In life too. SOG is a place to be honest about those experiences. I can only reflect on my own life, the conversation within my own head, but there are so many more perspectives out there. Does everyone struggles with “the tyranny of success,” the spectre of failure? They must, I imagine, because even amidst our uniqueness we are all the same. I want to hear what others think. Time to pull out the camera and microphone.

M.W. prior to a “successful” trip.

On a separate but related note, yesterday three friends—Bayard, Michael and Elliot—returned home from Alaska. They were there for three weeks to attempt an unclimbed face on Mount Deborah. Temperatures hovered around 40 below zero, however, so they never made it on their objective. When I heard they were home, though, I didn’t care about “success” versus “failure,” I was just happy they were safe. For the entire time they were in Alaska their vissages hid in the back of my mind. I’m not sure I ever acknowledged it, but when I saw on Facebook that they were home a weight dropped from my shoulders and my heart. For a brief moment I was able to relax—one of the teams I care about had left the shooting gallery. Success? Failure? All I cared was they were alive.

Welcome home guys.

Last Days

I can’t imagine I’ll be getting out for anymore days on ice after today, but considering how good todays was I don’t really care. At about 9:30 a.m. this morning I decided to go see if Cloudwalker was in up in Huntington Ravine. I figured it was worth a solo attempt since it doesn’t really take screws anyway. I didn’t get up to Pinkham Notch until 11 a.m. or so, so I trucked up the trail as fast as I could. I got to the base of Cloudwalker around noon, nowhere near in time to climb it. There were remnants up high, but it looked like rain decimated it several days ago. So I shifted to Plan B — solo Pinnacle and Damnation. I was right at Pinnacle, so I hopped on that first, then I trucked over to Diagonal, downclimbed that, and went up Damnation. I had planned to head out via Lion’s Head, but the wind was bad enough I opted to climb down Central rather than cross the Alpine Garden. I hustled down the trail and got back to my car at Pinkham just before 4 p.m. It was a beautiful day, nice enough for my face to get sunburned. I saw only a handful of people in the ravine — one party on Pinnacle, one on Damnation, and then two skiers heading up Central. I know lots of people are thinking rock climbing (as am I), but when days like this arrive they aren’t for passing up.

I shot some video of the day, which I pulled together here:

Also, I got a pretty good shot of one pair of the four guys climbing Damnation. It was great to run into you guys! Hopefully we’ll catch up again.

Other than that, I think this officially marks the last hurrah of ice for me. I got in a few thousand feet today. It’s going to have to last me through next fall, at which point I’ll be gunning for the Black Dike as soon as it’s cold for three nights in a row. Until then.

Additional Verses

It’s currently sleeting out, which is perfect Cathedral Cave weather. I took a few burns on Satanic Verses this morning before work and shot some video. What a line. Unfortunately I did not get footage of the top, where the three figure-fours in a row come in. Next time!

Make Good Art

I stumbled on this today. It applies to art, to writing, to climbing, to music and to life.

“I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything, as long as it felt like an adventure and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.”

“I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you make mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something.”

“Make glorious and fantastic mistakes.”

I couldn’t say it better. Find inspiration everywhere. And remember, climbing is art.

Satanic Verses

“There is no god but God.”

There is no such thing as success, no such thing as failure. There is only the path, the effort, the moment. Everything else falls away. Even you.
The forecast is calling for 50 degree days this weekend. I just got back from two weeks on Southern Sandstone. But when Peter texted me Tuesday night about doing a morning drytool session in the Cathedral Cave I didn’t hesitate. “7:15?” I texted back. “Sure,” he responded. Plans were in motion.
I love the Cave. It is, quite literally, my cathedral. I’ve spent years falling my way up longterm projects there, both rock (Sanctuary) and mixed (The Mercy). It is a holy place. On winter mornings the sun streams in past naked trees, transforming the dirty ground into a sanctuary. Ice may be falling all over Cathedral, but the Cave remains a safe haven. It is a place ripe for faith, and it’s where I practice mine.
Six winters ago I started making my pilgrimages. It was then that I belayed my friend Josh, one of the most gifted and visionary climbers I know, on The Mercy. Unsatisfied with the challenge, Josh kept going, linking the M9 Mercy into the finish of Work of the Devil with multiple figure-fours. He dubbed his creation Satanic Verses. I belayed in awe.
At the time, it was all I could do to climb The Devil Made Me Dog It, the first part of Work of the Devil. The Mercy had a stopper move at the beginning that kept me from even considering it. Satanic Verses looked like something from outer space.
Fast forward to Wednesday, 8 a.m. “There is no god but God.” Wearing rock shoes and holding ice tools, I worked my way through the crux moves of The Mercy. “There is no god but God.” I didn’t even think about what the words I was saying meant, but I knew they fit the holy place I was in, fit the feelings of faith, of submission, inside me. “There is no god but God.” I clipped the bolt above the technical climbing. Now it was just about holding on through 20 horizontal feet of roof. “There is no god but God.” I moved upward, shaking out, never fully feeling the rock, the moves I was making, but making them anyway. The words were filling my head, leaving me free to climb, without fear, without ego, without thought. “There is no god but God.” I clipped the chains. For the fourth time this winter, The Mercy allowed me to reach the top.
Or did it?
I didn’t let go of my tools, I didn’t yell “TAKE.” I kept shaking out, and then looked up. Five feet above me was another bolt. Beyond that a crack snaked to the lip of the Cave. Satanic Verses, outer space, was right there. I gazed up at it, and it stared back at me. “There is no god but God,” I thought, and I launched into the opening moves.
Nothing is ever finished. Nothing is ever over. Yesterday’s success is just a step towards tomorrow’s challenge, and today’s failure is a lesson to prepare you for whatever comes next. I did not float through Satanic Versus. I made it to the next bolt only after down climbing to the anchors and taking. I got to the one after that just barely, only after almost dropping a tool. I reached the final anchors by hooking a pick into them. But “success” wasn’t the goal. It doesn’t exist. The point is the challenge, and the challenge is the point. The lessons that come from “failure,” and from “success,” are why we throw ourselves off the ledge in the first place. Can we land on our feet? Do we have what it takes to survive? The point is to stare straight into Satan‘s eyes and scream, “There is no god but God!” What happens next? Can you handle it? Who knows. But that’s why we come to this holy place — to find out.
Epilogue: I got to the chains in one hang on Friday. It is amazing to be on the routes that six years ago looked impossible. Maybe nothing is impossible. I only got here through countless “failures,” and I hope they keep coming.

Lost Souls

It’s almost 1,100 miles from Slade, Kentucky, to North Conway. After two weeks in the Red River Gorge I made the drive back this weekend, alone. I stopped at my friend Ben’s house just outside of Philadelphia to spend Friday night, but otherwise it was two nine hour days, uninterrupted except by tolls. The cities and the scenery flew past. The road felt the way it always has — comforting.

I had a great trip. It was cold, but I was with an awesome group of people. I laughed and climbed, ate well and smiled. I couldn’t have imagined much better. Now I’m back where it’s halfway between winter and spring, where the routes rise significantly more than 90 or 100 feet. I’m back in the mountains. I’m back home.

I got in last night, rested from my time behind the wheel, and right away started sussing out climbing plans for today. My friend Peter, with a week left before he heads to Alaska, was free. We decided to spend a few hours playing on the South Buttress of Whitehorse.

I have to say, after two weeks of sport climbing, I love multipitch climbing. I love launching above gear in terrain where falling isn’t an option. I love looking down and down and down, past my feet, past my gear, past my belayer, to the trees and rocks far below. I love flowing upward, floating pitch after pitch. I love everything about it. My two weeks on Kentucky sandstone was meant to revive me after a long winter, and it did, but one day on Conway granite may have done more. Today I was reminded of how much I love the simple movement of climbing. It wasn’t hard, but each motion was beautifully choreographed. It was the kind of experience that first lured me into climbing — flowing upward among mountains.

The two experiences — the RRG and today — remind me of why I love climbing. It is exactly because of the differences and the same-ness. They were both climbing, but in one I faced my deepest fears while in the other I got to swim in the soothing presence of the rock. I spent two weeks screaming back into the darkness that threatened to overhelm me in the RRG, if only to prove that I was strong enough to find my voice. Today I abandoned that primal version of climbing and instead danced, coaxing the rock to permit me skyward. It was a different moment, a different experience, and yet the same. Today the rock became like the road — comforting. It rock shepherded me through the darkness rather than forced me to face it. It led the way home. It was home.

I’m not sure how people live without the mountains. They are my shepherd. They keep the compass pointing north. Without them I’d be a lost soul. Instead, I dance, and my dance brings me home.