New Normal

I don't climb nearly as much as I used to. Right now, I'm on the once-a-week schedule, which in the past I've found allows me to maintain but not to improve. Honestly, that's OK with me. Motivation that once used to overfloweth, as they say, is now a fleetingly precious commodity. I just don't have the mentality to gruel away on a hangboard, even though I recently spent $120 on a pretty blue one. I throw down some 'push muscle' opposition workouts on the gymnastic rings now and again and I go scrabble around in the mountains and get scared. I still love climbing, but it's in a state of relative dormancy right now for me. Either that or I'm lovingly crafting an intricate excuse for simple laziness. Maybe both, who knows.

The reason I see fit to muse about this on the interblogs is a conversation I had with my buddy Jens. Though our climbing disciplines have diverged a bit, I've lately found that our outlook is in the same ballpark, sometimes even on the same wavelength. Even though for perhaps different reasons, we both seem to find that the motivation that once drove us to abuse ourselves ceaselessly for various and sundry climbing goals has been, to use the terminology, problematized by, if not age, then at least by time. Now to be clear, my friend is a diehard climber of the nth degree. Where my interest is generally myopically focused on short, hard sections of dry rock, Jens is a man of the mountains with the lofty goals to match. He works hard to pay for expeditions and he gets shit done out there on the big peaks of the world. I have all the respect in the world for that ambition, but generally I drive to the crag and hang around on a rope: to each their own.

But the aforementioned common ground is that what we get from climbing has changed over the years. In fact, it's changed so much that it seldom resembles what it was before. What once was largely fulfilling and self-defining is perhaps not always so, and perhaps never so much as it was. Jens describes this feeling of fulfillment as a sense that he's doing exactly what he should be in that moment, the moment of success on a climb or even of a failure, the moment where being out there and trying hard is enough in itself. Then that moment shifts into something else: a waste of time; an undue risk; a moment too many other things are hanging over, covetously waiting to devour that sense of ease and belonging.

In a different way, I've felt the same drain on my commitment to climbing regardless of the chosen discipline. Objectively, it's easy to understand how something so wholly fulfilling and, moreover, something so self-defining could be problematic in the long run. That's a lot of pressure, a whole ton in fact, to put on any activity and the tendency for it to be crushed seems intuitive. It creates an expectation that becomes gospel, a belief of a peculiarly religious intensity. The mountains and cliffs that are altars to the gods of climbing are magnets for such starry-eyed supplicants and perhaps, sometimes, flames for moths.

At least, that's the way it is for some of us. That's the way it was for me in my 20s, but my lure was simply any hard rock climbing. I just wanted to try hard and immerse myself in the movement. It was enough for a long time. I came out of high school with little ambition, found climbing and found myself elevated by it to the extent that it defined me as a person. Only later would there be any fallout from this arrangement and only then because I had trouble not questioning its worth and, by extension, my own. For me, the real burnout came in the form of injury, however. I'd long since come to grips with the fact that climbing wasn't me, or at least not all of me. But the ligaments in my fingers were unaware of or at least unmoved by any self-realization I might've been having. I wrecked my finger on one of those days where I didn't care whether I got injured or not because I was burnt out and shouldn't have been climbing anyway. Seven years later, the scar tissue is still in there waiting to tear again. It's a constant reminder of the schism between the previous carefree days of total commitment and the relative flirtation of today.

A further confounding factor is that injuries cause clear physical problems, sure, but also a whole slew of convoluted mental problems. An injury requires extra care and, when so guarded, provokes a whole array of adjustments and altered reactions. The body moves differently at first because of pain, but soon the mind programs the body to move differently always and for all time, regardless of the state of the injury. The finger injury makes it hard to commit to moves. Sometimes that's good, because there's a real chance it might recur. Sometimes, though, the mere act of halfassing a move or not grabbing a hold with confidence is in itself a huge injury risk. Then it starts to seem like injury is the new normal; if it's not a finger, then it's a shoulder. I tore the labrum in my shoulder dring my last routesetting stint at the gym. Or the ankle. Or the knee. It's always something, or at least it starts to seem so.

This is apropos because chronic injury spells doom for that unwavering commitment to something. It rudely interrupts the worshipful fervor with a huge serving of doubt: doubt that it's worth it; doubt that one can always rely on one's body; doubt that one can recover enough to continue; doubt that the injury will ever be the same. Often, these things can heal back to 90% or more. Sometimes they can't. Sometimes they can but only if the healing process is correctly adhered to. Sometimes that's hard to do. In any case, the doubt cast from an injury flows into other doubts, which flow together into, well, a river of doubt. Which undermines the erstwhile foundations of surety and yada yada yada. *POOF*, it all disappears.

But the melodrama belies the truth which is that burning out doesn't mean quitting. Jens and I have gone climbing together twice in the past month, which is actually the most frequent, I think, since our respective climbing foci diverged so long ago. Both times, we went up to Washington Pass on the North Cascades highway to try a route on Liberty Bell called Liberty and Injustice for All. It's a route that Mikey Schaefer established last September in eight days by himself, including an impressive rope solo of the first free ascent. The route weaves a path to the right of Thin Red Line and joins that route below the short .11+ punch-in-the-nuts pitch that's the final crux of TRL. It's a good route for climbers who are feeling a little burned out. It's a route where you sometimes have to climb above your gear but never so much so that it becomes terrifying. It's perfect, really: you get to climb until you feel the air beneath you without the crushing terror of then having to cheat death. From other experiences on Mikey's routes, he doesn't lure you out and leave you hanging on the brink of annihilation. Which is nice, of course, for those times when you're barely able to climb without being crushed by various other forms of nervousness.

On our attempts, I certainly experienced said nervousness. The first trip out I hung on pieces on the first crux, dizzy with near vertigo and unable to focus. "Take!", I called out again and again in shame, refusing to give up but also unable to commit to much more than ten feet of climbing at a time. Then I watched Jens float the pitch whilst following and, pressed for time, we rappelled, gratified by the effort but humbled all the same. Or at least I felt gratified and humbled: I don't spend as much time off the deck in the mountains and what's edifying and a bit terrifying for me is perhaps a bit boring for Jens. The second trip out was more fortuitous, although Jens insisted on bringing only Miura Velcros for a granite edging route which would prove unfortunate. Regardless, we found ourselves at the same point as last time only I'd managed to lead the pitch without the crushing ineptitude that seemed to plague me before. Through fiery, screaming toe pain, no doubt brought about by the rather aggressive, downturned forefoot of the Miura Velcros, Jens danced up the pitch once again but alas, his feet were done for. I had no such alibi and decided I had to try the next pitch. I managed to tap into a disused reservoir of effective if humble mojo and reached the anchor after what felt like a bit of a journey. Once again we rapped off the East Face of Liberty Bell and perhaps having found a common muse, we had a conversation in depth about, well, climbing, that now inspires me to write this little TL:DR post. But are my posts ever not TL:DR?

It was also this conversation that made me realize it's important to be willing to reinvent meaning as it pertains to activities and things that we think are important to us. It's possible, yes, to just quit something because of being burned out; but in a way it doesn't make sense to 'quit' climbing. Climbing sometimes takes the form of a drug and in that sense it can seem like an abusive habit, one that offers a temporary reprieve from reality but that over time ceases to inform that reality in a way that sticks, requiring one to cop again and again with diminishing results: one that's better left behind. But it doesn't need to be that way: it's just a thing that we do and we ascribe the other meanings to it, imbue it with a weight that sometimes anchors us and sometimes drags us towards the bottom. Even during the lean times with respect to motivation, I still enjoy climbing. If anything, I enjoy going out and getting a little uncomfortable and intimidated even more because it sticks in memory for longer. For me, I've realized forming memories is the most important part. The high from climbing is still there, but it's been transmuted into something less tumultuous and fleeting. Even a relative failure on a route produces the desired effect for me where before such an utterance would be unthinkable heresy. More importantly, perhaps, is that now I believe the circumstances surrounding climbing are just as or more important than the climbing itself. In the mountains, at the crag or in the boulders, the people, place and situation are what will ultimately be most memorable. Good climbing partnerships are hard to form and hard to maintain; over time, people move both apart geographically and personally as their goals change and no longer mesh. But the good ones are there to be rejoined at the right time. Climbing is also dangerous, so it's all the more important to pay attention to personal relationships therein, without putting too much emphasis on objective success. It's important, of course, to have a common goal because that provides the substrate, the catalyst for the occasion: but it's just as important that the focus not become jammed up by the pressures of success.

Jens and I have climbed a lot together, especially in times past. This week he goes in for ankle and foot surgery that will hopefully mend his own 'endless injury'. He has about six months to reflect on climbing and its meaning, to reinvent it if need be. I realized, listening to him talk about this necessity and what I saw to be an opportunity, that it was also a necessity for me, that I need to make similar observations and find a way to be excited about climbing again. I say 'need' because I'm still sure that it's worth it and that it needn't be an all or nothing affair where the amount of pressure can make or break the activity entirely and throw one out of it entirely when it becomes too much. These are the kind of partnerships in climbing that are really important, that foster understanding of an activity that we share and that, for many of us, will likely be a lifelong pursuit in some form or other. This is the most important part of climbing and though it's sometimes subverted by the intense focus on goals, it's one of the things that makes the activity ultimately meaningful.