As I dangled from the rope, suspended 200 feet off the valley floor I wondered what exactly about climbing anything, ever had seemed like such a good idea to me. As I thrutched (thrashed/clutched) my way up the widening crack in the red sandstone I realized that I was simply unprepared to climb again in Zion, no matter how much progress I had made elsewhere. Stefanie and I had lived here for a year (2010) and climbed here before, but somehow none of that seemed to matter and I was as green as could be. I traded the few inches of upward progress I had just made for an undeserved rest as I sank my weight onto the rope. I felt the familiar waves of self loathing sweep over me–falling is failure but it is at least spectacular–going out with a bang, with a bit of honor. Simply hanging on the rope without having climbed to the point of failure is the craven embrace of cowardice itself. Climbing is a very serious game and honor is a vital component–more so than climbing higher or faster than someone else, HOW you climb is of greater importance. It is literally a matter of life and death–not only in the obvious aspect of life vs death, but in the subtle way that it forces you to examine the life you are left with once you are back on the ground.
I was climbing poorly. I was not only failing to make upward progress, but I was quite simply scared shitless of falling and after too many attempts to sack up and send, my hands were shredded and I was on the verge of vomiting on my belayer, Rob. I was scared to go up and get tired and fall. Scared to come down and face the reality that I am not as strong as I thought I was. I have heard it said that climbing is the truth–because climbing strips away everything but the bare realities of life–the gristle and tendons and grisly shit that we would rather not see–but that are indelibly highlighted in the moments of tension and fear brought on by vertical challenges.
As the evening light faded I resigned myself to lowering off and calling it a day. I knew I had the strength physically but my mind was just running amok and it wasn’t fair to waste my friends time any more than I had already. Had I opted out due to encountering a series of moves on the climb that I physically could not do, or a situation that was legitimately unsafe, I could have walked away without giving the ordeal further thought–but the gnawing truth was that I could have done every move on that route, but I let fear stop me cold. I was utterly defeated and it felt like there was no reason to every tie into a rope again.
Zion is the type of place where humility is always on the menu and is rarely served as a side dish–more frequently as a main course. From the ground, the enormous sandstone walls of the canyon are, in the words of countless tourists, described in all manner of superlatives. When suspended from these same walls, with nothing to hold onto and all of your flaws on display, I can assure you that the experience is much different. I have always been greatly challenged by Zion. Unlike most climbing areas which offer easier routes on which to acclimate to the type of climbing, Zion holds no real “easy” routes. It is very in your face. Relentless and often times scary. There is a distinct feeling of sobriety about the canyon, almost foreboding when you climb as if “it” knows you are there and is decidedly unimpressed with your existence (not to mention your rope, shoes, harness and all of those metal gizmos dangling about).
Right about now you might be wondering why we don’t just pack up our precious little red car and move on to greener pastures. Find a place to climb that will be fun and more relaxing. Safe. Secure.
Fair enough. I spent the last couple of days wondering the same things and really searching for some resolution in light of my initial failure. Is it worth it to try to do something that you know is going to grind you down and chew you up and spit you out?
I’ll answer that question with another question: is something really a “challenge” if there is no risk, no chance of failure and no guarantee of triumph at the end of the day? I hate failing–especially when my mindset is what holds me back–but I am seeing more clearly than ever before that this is exactly what I need right now. No easy victories, but full on trench warfare–facing grim odds and dealing with them. I don’t know how this will all turn out. Uncertainty is what makes an adventure–and failure is part of that process.
Life is a series of choices when you boil it down. Sure there are some things that you don’t get to have a say about–like getting type 1 diabetes for instance. But there are 10 million other things that you can affect and that you can choose according to your desire and motivation. I know that I am frequently tempted to hold myself to a lower standard and focus on that one thing that I didn’t have a choice about (t1D). In the end though, I know deep down that if I give up in my heart, I am just going to cheat myself. I can climb every day for the rest of the project without really pushing out of my comfort zone–and no one would really know that I was taking a dive, so to speak. I could be safe in my little alcove away from risk and fear but always knowing that I failed to reach my full potential.
Or… I can choose to put on my “big-boy pants” (in the words of one Rob Schwarzmann, a character who is soon to appear on this stage in all his colorful glory) and embrace the challenge. That is my choice. Diabetes can’t take that away from me. Progress is not about trying really really hard and succeeding with maximal effort. That LOOKS like progress and it can be easy to accept that as progress–but true progress invokes the willingness to go beyond the point of success into the realm of failure–in order to raise the bar and perform at a higher level!
While it would be nice to tell you all that I have “chosen” one way or the other, this life choice is one that is circular, like a merry-go-round, you can get on and off at will and there is no seminal moment or “flipping the switch” where everything just changes from that moment forward. All there is, is a series of choices that will eventually turn into a habit or a direction that is reflected in the course of a human life.
Every day, we all wake up with a choice: be the hammer or be the nail. Which will you choose today?