I fail a lot.
Yesterday, for example, I climbed Heather, 12b trad. Or more accurately I fell off Heather. A lot. After the initial crack things get thin, the protection gets small, and I started flying. I jammed so hard I took chunks out of my pinky and ring finger, left blood in the crack. I eventually pulled through the first crux on gear after repeated whippers on a slotted microstopper. The jams were so painful they left my knuckles aching. Onto the second crux, a series of sport climbing-esque slaps up an overhanging wall above a fixed pin—I backed up the pin with another microstopper, but on my first whip the rock around it blew. The stopper and quickdraw scurried down the rope to my hanging waste. The pin held, so I yarded back up and placed something else nearby. I took a few more whips and then lowered.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have the finish in me. It was that I was finished. I’d hung enough, my head was spent. I was just tired of being scared. I wanted to stand on flat ground. I was over it. I’d failed.
That was yesterday. Two days before I lowered off Confederacy of Dunces, a crimpy “sport climb” that requires as much gear as quickdraws. Earlier in the day I’d fallen off Promise Land, a route I’ve climbed a bunch before.
Before that it was Astroman, the classic Yosemite 11c. I’ve been up there four times with two different partners, and everytime I’ve retreated. Even the Steck Salathe, a long Yosemite 10b, I had to hang on this trip.
Coyne Crack. Sanctuary. Mean Streak. Fat Lady. Flesh for Lulu. Tight Rope. The Prow. Women in Love. White Eye. The last pitch of The Underground. There are more routes out there I’ve fallen on or backed off of than routes I’ve sent. A lot more.
I fail a lot. A lot a lot.
The last few years this has been particularly acute—my drive to push has ebbed and surged in waves. One day I’ll be fixated on a route, and the next I won’t care about climbing at all. Until I’m standing at the base, until the route is towering overhead, I have ZERO gauge on where my head will be.
Yosemite, for example, three weeks ago: I was feeling lukewarm about the huge projects I’d set out for myself, Astroman and a one-day ascent of the Nose. But then we came through the tunnel and I saw the towering bulk of El Cap. We pulled over, parked with the rest of the tourists, and snapped a few photos. I could feel the excitement rising from somewhere deep inside me. Suddenly I was jumping up and down, eyes wide, my hands on my partner Andre’s shoulders. “Let’s do this!” I shouted, energized, alive. “LET’S CLIMB THAT BEAST!”
We didn’t. We failed. We tried Astroman three times but never reached the top. Even climbing the Sentinel was a close one. We never even got on the Nose.
I remember as a beginning climber backing off everything. I could practically downclimb as well as I could ascend; almost every route wound up including a retreat. The first time I tried the Whitney-Gilman Ridge I backed off three pitches up; I had no idea where to go, and I was too afraid to get stranded. I didn’t have the confidence in myself, the sense of adventure required, to continue. It was the same feeling that came flooding back yesterday.
I also remember when I stopped failing, stopped always backing off stuff and started getting to the top. It felt like a victory, a gaining momentum, like I’d crested some hill and the battle that had ragged for years was finally turning in my favor. Call it confidence, call it whatever, but there was a tipping point and it allowed me to start sending. The foundation was built and it was now time to climb.
There is a power in possibility, power in believing in yourself, believing you are successful, can succeed, power in believing the next hold WILL show up, the next piece of gear WILL be bomber. There is Truth in that. And yes, you might get stranded, there may not be any gear, but most times it will work out. Climbing has the power to get you killed, but when you climb with openness and possibility, when you ask the question “How do I use the holds before me?” rather than “When will the holds get good?” the best of us shows. We meet the challenge with our all. And suddenly you find yourself at the top.
But that doesn’t happen every day. Not in climbing, or elsewhere.
I fail a lot. And not just in climbing. I tried writing a book once, a guidebook to Western Maine rock. I never got past collecting topos and building a website. My “career” is a handful of fits and starts, nothing to write home about, a small town writing gig that keeps going with some adventure on the side. And I was married once. That didn’t work out either. Life has a way of handing us failure, adversity, reminders we are imperfect, routes we can’t seem to get to the top of. Our best efforts of the moment aren’t enough to crest the hill. The summit might just be out of reach. Life has a way of reminding us of that.
I failed yesterday. A lot. It came at the end of a week marked by failure, and a trip marked by failure. At the end of a few years marked by failure.
And in the midst of those lessons on failure the failures can compound. They can transform from a single moment to a storyline, from one climb to climbing, from event or sequence of events to a life narrative.
But each of those moments are single moments, blips on the screen, instantaneous and individually inconsequential. “Failures” in name only.
As I bailed off Heather yesterday my friend Pat walked past on his way to Airation, a Cathedral finger crack. I’d seen him working the route a year ago, but he’d fallen at the crux.
“I’m getting back on it,” he said. “I’ve still got to send it.”
Not a failure, an ongoing challenge.
Life does a lot of smacking around. It is about mistakes and missteps, confusion and corrections. Climbing is a stupid, pointless way to spend the weekend. And I love it. It has a tendency to mimic the rest of existence, remind us of the challenges we face every day.
Today my fingers hurt. And my abs. I’m thinking a bike ride, or a trail run, fits more than climbing; I’m thinking I need a mental break from falling, fear, and visions of failure.
But yesterday as I walked down the descent trail after retrieving my gear I turned to Nick, my climbing partner. “Thanks man,” I said, “today couldn’t have been more fun.”
He smiled. “Yeah,” he said, “that was awesome.”
Failure can still be worth it.
And I’ll be back. I’ll be up there again, fingers jammed to the bleeding-point, gear smaller than I want disappearing below me. No matter how many tries it takes me it won’t truly be a failure, just an ongoing challenge, just one more route I have yet to send. And there are lots of those. I’ll never send them all.