We all have bad days, right? In climbing, these days happen, too, especially since a lot of climbing is just your definition of Type 2 Fun. Sometimes you’re just a little too tired, other times it’s that you have the crap scared out of you and you can’t believe you haven’t bailed yet. No matter what the case is, suffering can be a reality, a big and overwhelming reality.
A week ago, I climbed in Moab, the desert, for the first time in my life. Beautifully massive cliffs surrounded me even as I was on the wall. The rock there is sandstone, soft sandstone that shaves little pieces of sand off onto you as you wrench on it. It’s not that normal, mega grippy, sandpapery sandstone that you find in the Midwest, instead is soft and smooth to the touch, and slick when you need it not to be. It doesn’t give, but you bet it’ll break someday, and you hope it’s not on that second that you’re cranking on that hold.
The first day, I backed off from a 5.8 layback lead. I was out of my mojo, but I was willing to adopt a new mojo to take on this funky, new rock. So I used my new crack skills, and a lot of muscles that I wasn’t used to using, and I made it up unscathed on my first few sandstone routes. Cruiser.
The next day, we took on Abraxas Tower, this dethatched, thick pinnacle that you climb around to summit. It’s rated 5.9, but I definitely was feeling a 5.10 pop out at me during the heady leads and spicy moves. It was unlike anything I have ever done before on the climbing playing field, but by the end of the first pitch, I was feeling good and ready to take on pitch two, until I got halfway through it.
It was a seemingly straight forward route to follow, up the crack, over the little ledge and then I was supposed to go right toward some chalkstones. But what stood in the way was a thigh-thick offwidth and I had no big cams to protect me. I was sketched at this unforeseen obstacle, thought the pro wasn’t there and so I had to be on the wrong route, right? I bailed of the climb, cam by cam, putting trust in a rock I wasn’t used to, until two cams from the bottom, I snapped a crimp under my hand as I lowered and that was that, my mental game was shot.
From there on out, I was skeeved out of my wits. I followed up the right way, which happened to be the path I had taken anyway, through the offwidth that my partner had a much better handle on than I, but for some reason, I was losing my marbles.
By the time I reached the bottom of pitch three, I was not having it. My mind was not there, my reason was not there, and my having-a-good-time was not there. I tried my best to keep a smile on my face, but I was terrified being anchored to just that huge chalkstone, even though there is no way it was going anywhere.
The last pitch was just the cherry on top of my misery. A chimney sprung high above me, wide enough across that I could sit in it, back to the wall, pike position, knees straight, feet flat on the opposing face. I was following, but still too scared to trust the rock, and struggling terribly to scoot my way up the chimney.
Remember being little and trying to get as high as possible on the walls of your hallway in your house before your mom and dad caught you and told you to get your dirty feet off the wall? Well, turns out I should’ve been practicing this more, because I was hurting and failing on this chimney. At one point, I got to an intermittent ledge and I had to sit there to regroup myself. I wanted to cry, but I knew it’s be useless. I wanted to bail, but there was nowhere to go but up. I had to finish, I had to summit, even though the tick meant nothing to me at this point. Instead of falling apart further, I picked myself up and got back on the wall.
Tangent. I talked about this struggle-bus climb with a friend of mine following the weekend. We talked about how mental games are hard, and how rocks break us down all the time. But we also talked about what it is to be a climber. When we climb, that’s our world. I identify myself as a climber because it brings me the closest to happiness and the closest to God. As I drown in nature and beauty on the wall, that’s my euphoria. Lots of people climb for this reason, and lots of people call themselves climbers. That’s why when it comes to backing down, we usually don’t the challenge put in front of us can only be completed by a climber, so we take it and do what seems next to impossible, by the standards of street-walkers around us. Being a climber, means we go up. It’s something in us that pushes us forward, sometimes even when we shouldn’t or when our spirits won’t let us.
To finish Abraxas, I yelled a lot. I made a lot of ugly faces. And I ripped a lot of skin off my back and forearms. I was terrified, even though the rope was above me. And when I got to the peak, and I pulled myself over the edge, my brain was more exhausted than I can recently recall it ever being. I sat there and looked at what I had done, where I had gotten, and was glad that I made it. I smiled tiredly, as my brain began to pick up its shaken pieces.
Being scared shitless just happens sometimes. It happens to everyone. It even happens to some of the greatest climbers of all time, just ask Sasha Diguilian what she does about fear if you ever get the chance. For me, I’m still working on the battle of overcoming it, and I think part of the solution is suffering through the sufferfest.
Even when I have a terrible time, I know it’s ok to break down and lose it. That’s just because I’m a human and that happens sometimes. But, if I do lose my marbles, I always try to make it a point for it to be momentary, just a moment of pressure relief, and I do my best to pick myself and have a better time following this. Bad days are mainly mental, so if you can train your mind to let go of the negativity and not let it kill your whole day, you’re golden. This is way more easily said than done, of course, but it’s a good challenge to take on.
So yes, you’re allowed to hate a route, be over a climb, get mad at a move, get scared by a route or feel miserably in pain mid-pitch. You’re not allowed to slaughter your own vibes with that, though. Positive thinking and mindfulness are still something I am working on, too, and might forever be working on. You can learn a lot about yourself though by facing your bad days head on. You have to suffer a little in order to reach great heights. Once you reach the top, you’ll have a whole different sufferfest to worry about, anyway. Rapping.