5.25.2012

Chronesthesia

Climbing still takes up an astounding amount of time in my thought processes. I always sort of knew that even while I loved it through and through, it would never really be the 'one' thing to which I would commit all my time and effort. Looking back over the past decade, however, it's hard to find any other activity I've been so passionate about or that I've put so much time into. It makes me think that maybe I was wrong when, faced with the choice, I always eventually bailed on road trips and returned home to try to 'make something happen'. That idiotic fantasy has failed so many times that I often wish I'd taken the other pill at some point and just gone for it. Is it too late? Maybe not. I'm a little more jaded at 30 than I was at 24 and maybe a little more prone to injury, but otherwise resilient. Obviously, it would be a sad state of affairs to cry over every drop of milk spilt over a twelve year period of one's life; we make the choices we make and often there is reason enough at the time. Also, hindsight is always 20/20, amongst a plethora of other such platitudes.

It's interesting to me that with these thoughts in mind and with me being at somewhat of a crossroads (jobless, restless, injured), I am finding so much joy in a return to my 'roots' as a climber: bouldering. Now, it's not like I ever really stopped bouldering. In fact, a couple of years ago I got really excited about it again but fell prey to elbow problems right when I started feeling fit again. It seems like over the years, other pursuits have relegated pebble wrestling to the back burner, whereas when I first started climbing it was all I cared about. I remember the most obsessive sessions on problems that were way too hard for me. I would throw myself at them until I physically couldn't or until somehow, against all odds, I succeeded. For the first year or so, technique and finesse came secondary to brute force and inexhaustible psyche; then it all began to change. Now I'm old and technique is paramount. I wish I had more finger strength and fewer finger injuries, but that can probably be arranged with some proper training. Old man strength and focus can go a long way, I've realized, even when the invincibility of youth has waned somewhat. Before I sprained my finger earlier this year, I threw a fair amount of indoor bouldering into my training regime and remembered all over again why I love it so much. Of course, how could it not be fun with the quality of the Seattle VW routesetting (zero sarcasm here: it really does kick ass!)? Not only is it fun, but bouldering indoors is proven to make you strong as fuck, even if you're old and cranky like I am.

Bouldering is also something I find somewhat soothing. In Joshua Tree, which contains a number of unique and amazing problems but overall is not much of a boulderer's destination, I get endless enjoyment from doing laps on the same handful of problems every time I go. The process of puzzling out sequences that I've already unlocked in the past seems slightly obsessive, but it's almost comforting that as each move becomes familiar again, the memories of all my other ascents of the problem become clearer and clearer. I often have the same experience with routes: though there is probably little value as far as increasing climbing ability, I have climbed Chronic at Little Si dozens of times because of how wonderfully familiar it is (also because it's almost always dry); it's the same with Japanese Gardens at Index, which may be my favorite route of all time.

Beyond wallowing in meritorious past occasions, there is some real value to be had in revisiting climbs. It's much akin to watching a really good TV series or movie again after enough time has elapsed so as to render it almost new. Not only is it entertaining the second time through, but it likely will have a different effect on an older viewer. There will at least be a number of nuances whose existence can only be evinced by multiple viewings. With climbs, often the nuances involve refinements in sequencing and improving economy of movement. Certainly there is tangible value in mastering a given move or technique, but beyond the tangible there is a far more meditative quality in perfecting a movement.

This past weekend I revisited an area in Leavenworth that I hadn't seen in awhile and found myself essentially attempting to shadow a younger, stronger and bolder version of myself. All I could remember from the previous day years earlier was climbing a scary finger crack with a bad landing (Reflection of Perfection, a Max Hasson boulder problem) and afterwards eking out an ascent of a zany 'bottomless arete' feature (which unbeknownst to be was the first ascent). The return to the area actually yielded a few new problems. I climbed an interesting blocky arete with an intriguing mantle (I'd like to call it 'Safe Corners' although it was somewhat clean and may have been climbed before; who knows?). Karlyn and Cortney cleaned and climbed a nice slab; next to it, we all cleaned a really nice arete with a fun low start that added a couple of good moves. The bottomless arete of yesteryear was nearby and prominent but I couldn't remember anything about it. Of course I wanted to try it again but I didn't expect to be able to do it. Appropriately, it felt improbable, almost impossible. Soon, however, a familiar experience began to unfold: after a few cursory attempts, I tried something unlikely that somehow 'clicked' with some recess of memory. Soon all the movements were causing neglected neural pathways to shake off dust and activate their synapses. Heel hook and two hands matched on start; cup arete and throw to vertical edge with right hand; pull up and thumb into other awkward facing edge with left hand; right toe on, switch left heel hook to toe down; throw for top with left hand. And with a scream of effort, it was done again. Past and present seemed to merge, if only for that brief series of moves.

It's difficult to describe the moment as anything but out-of-body, a sort of momentary timelessness. It isn't all that often that memory and present experience blend so seamlessly. I suppose we tend to call it Deja Vu although when intentional it seems to take a different form. In any case it happened again when Jens, his brother Julio and I went up the hill to look at the Reflection of Perfection crack. I wanted to cap my day off by repeating it. It didn't look so tall this time and I hadn't fallen off of it the first time, so I figured it wouldn't be a problem. With my old Cordless corduroy crashpad covering roughly 10% of the rocks sprent across the landing, I quickly changed my opinion right at the point of no return. The problem felt much harder and far less secure than the first time I'd done it, involving highstepping into rather loaded and precarious foot positions. A slip from the rather friction-dependent crux foothold, I noted this time around, would result in an uncontrolled 10-footer onto rocky ground. I almost wrote it off as unwise until Cole came up the hill with another crashpad and his legendary spotting abilities. After another false start, I finally found myself committed either to topping out or falling off from an uncomfortable height. In the event of failure, hopefully my fall would be controlled enough for Cole to keep me from dashing my ankles to pieces on the rocks. Left foot on smear, right hand into tips-sized crack; left hand into painful, small fingerlock; commit all trust into fingerlock, jam right foot and reach right hand through to jug. Pulling through to the top, I again had that notion of the timeless. My body remembered everything beyond the fingerlock intuitively; it all seemed familiar although I doubt I was shaking so badly the first time around.

It's the age, I say, that's put the fear in me where before there was only confidence and unbending intent. Not true, of course, but a tempting conclusion. Standing there at the base of the boulder amongst the wildflowers, I let the adrenaline ebb slowly away. Competing with manifestations of one's younger self is nothing new; really it's simply an attempt to live up to a personal expectation, especially when it goes beyond simple therapeutic repetition (like doing laps on easy routes or watching Twin Peaks the third time through). When it enters the realm of the daring and dangerous, it may be best to take heed, however: it is a certainty that broken bones heal more slowly the older one gets. Bruised egos, on the other hand, should only get easier and easier to placate. When the body has to start playing by a different set of rules, the mind should take care to read up on them. Yet it's still sublime, somehow, to be able to deny that for a moment or two and prove to myself that all that hard work was not for naught, that it's not quite time for me to strap on the woolen gaiters and hobnail boots and take to the slabs. There's too many fit quadragenarians around for me to complain as of yet, too many 35-year-olds running sub-3-hour marathons for me to get away with being soft. Best of all, I still love to suffer and climbing has plenty of that to go around. It has also gifted me with more memorable moments than I can shake a stick at and more good people in my life than I ever could have imagined. Perhaps that is where the true importance lies, despite the fact that I just spent a few thousand words in rather glib abandon, spouting off about moves and boulder problems and ascents. Oh well.

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