“I got this. I am strong. I am strong.” I spoke these words out loud as my fingers hesitantly eased their way into the crack. I twisted, weighted the finger lock, and moved my feet up. “I am okay. I CAN do this”, I said, my heart pounding, the length of rope leading to the belay device below useless in its flexibility. My muscles tensed. I dug deep. I stopped thinking. And I just climbed.
This was a far cry from some similar experiences I had had on the trip so far. The words coming out of my mouth and circling through my head were positive, encouraging, instead of the hateful, self degrading negativity that had been plaguing so many of my climbing experiences recently. Even on top rope, following a climb, when I was very logically safely attached and unable to fall, my body and mind seemed to be acutely aware of the amount of air around me. The minuscule connection that my body had to the vertical rock face that I was climbing, and how easily it could be severed. I would start shaking. I would start breathing much harder than I needed to. Tears would start streaming down my face. I was panicking, while doing the one thing I supposedly loved more than anything, in beautiful places, on a trip of a lifetime.
It's funny how you never really leave real life, even when on vacation. Emotions don’t vanish just because you are in a new place, in fact, sometimes they can be heightened by changes in routine. Sometimes it seems like we can get away from it all, but traveling doesn’t mean leaving behind what is going on in your own head, the things you are struggling with, dreaming about, and running away from.
This trip in particular started in a strange place. I had injured my ankle and my back a few months earlier, and the ankle in particular was slow to heal. I did not feel comfortable leading, because I was afraid of falling and re-injuring myself. So I followed, and top roped, and only led climbs well beneath my physical ability. On top of that, I just didn’t really want to climb that much. Sure, I wanted to be in the desert. I wanted to be traveling, and I didn't not want to climb, but there was some innate drive, the perpetual climbing psych that just seemed to be missing. But I was on a climbing trip! We were here to push ourselves on sandstone cracks, to climb as much as possible for the time that we had, before going home. There wasn’t time to sit around and paint pictures because we should be climbing from dawn till dark! Or at least this was the internal voice I was hearing.
There is a sort of elitism in the climbing community. Nothing is as good as fifth class technical rock climbing. Hiking is only a way to get to the climb. Scrambling is only what you do if it’s raining. Its not fun unless you are trying your hardest and scared. These are things that I have started to actively unroot myself from. Sure, I honestly love pushing myself hard, both physically and mentally. It is often where I learn and grow the most. But sometimes you just want to have fun and get up high on some super easy route. Sometimes you don't even want to use ropes. Sometimes you don't even want to climb at all, and wandering through the desert for a few days painting with watercolors and reading interpretive signs is much more soul-warming than getting scared on hard finger cracks. Sometimes, I just don't want to climb. And that can be hard to admit when it is something that I have built so much of my identity, my goals, and my career around.
The best sort of napping/painting/do nothing kind of day
But what I have realized is that the reason I climb is not to get in as many pitches as possible. It is not to achieve high grades, it is not to be the best. It is to learn. It is to put myself in that place of discomfort, and work through it. It is to be in beautiful places with good friends and get uncomfortable. Climbing is vulnerable for me, and the partners I climb with regularity get to see a side of myself that doesn’t come out in public. The side that might be having a panic attack on top rope because that is what makes me uncomfortable at that moment in time. The side that might get scared leading 5.8 despite knowing that I am physically capable of climbing harder. At that time that is all I need to do to feel that whole body awareness that signals the departure from my comfort zone. And that is not something to be ashamed of, and it's not even something to ignore.
Maybe its not the same for everyone, but I have a feeling that for a lot of people, climbing is about pushing themselves. Pushing themselves to the edge of their comfort zone, and maybe a little bit past it. It has nothing to do with what form that takes, whether it is climbing in a gym, or in the mountains. Whether it is V0 or 5.14. Its about the feeling after it's all over when you feel like you really did something, even if it was something that really means nothing to anyone else. Personal growth is what we all strive for.
So that’s how I found myself putting my fingers into the sandstone crack that formed my first 12- on gear. I had realized the day before that I wasn’t getting the challenge that I needed with the climbing that I had been doing, and belaying Matthew for hours on end on his project was not helping. I needed my own project. So we started searching for a nice, short, 12- finger crack with feet. And thats how I ended up on a sandstone ledge beneath "flight time”, ready to top rope.
The first time up the route, I felt it. The panic rising in my throat, the negative voices singing in my ears you’re not good enough, you’re not strong enough, you can’t do this. I embodied those voices, their words coming out of my mouth in my voice, convincing myself that it was all true. I came down from the climb feeling like I had failed. Feeling like I had not given it my all. Feeling like I hadn’t even tried. So up again I went, this time consciously focusing on the internal voices and what they were saying. Halfway through it all shifted, I started consciously changing the tone and words they were saying. I am strong. I can do this, I told myself. When I got to the top I knew I had to give it one more try, to feel that strength and confidence the whole time I was climbing. To just climb and not listen to the voices. I don't even remember if I sent (on top rope), but I do remember the feeling of pure flow, the feeling of trusting my body, and feeling my strength. I was ready to get on lead.
This brings me back to the beginning, starting up the route, on the sharp end, a rack full of .4s and .5s lightly dangling from my harness. My body knew what to do, and my mind needed to stay out of her way. I spoke encouraging words to myself, telling myself out loud that I could do it, that I was strong. And I did. I didn’t send, although I was painfully close. After a few tries, I knew I wasn’t going to get it that day, and it was the last time we had to devote to that route for that trip. But I climbed. I pushed myself, and I learned from it. I learned about the support that I must give to myself to be able to get to that place of discomfort. I learned that I need to leave my comfort zone to feel fulfilled. I am learning that there are lots of ways to get there.