Being high up in the air isn't a problem until the wind starts blowing.
Then the dance begins -- your mind rebels, and you have to do everything you can to not get sucked down into it.
The veteran climbers at The Gunks in Upstate New York have adjusted, but it's my first climb outdoors.
We wanted a 5.3 difficulty climb, but birds were nesting. So we're on a 5.6 called "High Exposure" -- a fitting description.
Adrenalin and bravado are a potent mix, and the first two-thirds of the climb were uneventful. Pleasant, a walk in the park. I'm a natural for this stuff. If I dropped 10 kilos, I could be a a pretty great climber. This is easy.
But we get stuck behind a pair of climbers going slowly, and must wait.
Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting is interesting.
Dr. Seuss warned against it, The Waiting Place.
It sure is nice up here, though.
Birds circle below us. Peter, my friend and guide, points out that one is a peregrine falcon.
The peregrine circles effortlessly on its broad wings, riding gravity gently downwards before flapping its wings a few powerful brushstrokes to rise again.
It's enchanting, and I'm entirely absorbed. The logical and critical mind is dissolved, being up here above the birds, with rolling green and waterways below stretching off towards eternity.
The rest isn't coming without a price.
Muscles stretched and warmed, that right mix of taut and limber, are fit to scramble up a mountain.
But muscles lose their elasticity when cold, and I feel my flexibility decreasing.
Worse is the post-adrenalin state.
Adrenalin is peculiar. Like a scene in a movie, things slow down, the mind speeds up, and you get access to a reserve of energy that man so infrequently claims.
But there's no biochemical free lunch, and receding adrenalin leaves one comparatively weaker than before.
I feel a vague awareness of this and a vague sense of worry, but I don't dwell on it. The first two pitches of the climb went smoothly as could be, and now it's time to get to the top.
The way clear, Peter scampers up the rock, setting the safety gear which I'll pull out as I follow him up.
The third pitch of High Exposure requires a bit of a tough move to get on it, and right away I'm having some difficulty. I have ever-so-slightly-less flexibility than I need to get my foot to about chest-high to push upwards onto the climb, and I'm struggling.
It seems to take ages, but it was likely under three minutes, and I'm ascending.
Things are going smoothly enough, until I hit the tough progression that Peter warned me against.
There's a hunk of rock overhanging the next part of the climb. While standing on an incredibly exposed cliff face, you have to reach up above your head and grip with your left hand -- and this involves both coordination and trust.
I approached this the wrong way, and I'm face down instead of face up on the ledge. I can't reach my left arm up and around without risking falling, and Peter can't see me due to the overhanging cliff to coach me through it.
He tries, and I listen, and it's a struggle.
I eventually get up and over.
Everything is more difficult than the first two-thirds of the climb, and next I need to reach widely to my left to pull a piece of safety gear out of the rock.
It's meant to expand into a crack in the rock and hold strongly, and I'm balanced precariously on the side of the rock while using only my left hand. My forearm clenches hard for seemingly a long time and my left arm is feeling depleted, until I'm able to get the gear out of rock and clip it to a loop on my harness belt.
I keep ascending, and I need to traverse left before going finally to the top.
I end up in an awkward position, not seeing the hand-holds, being too tired to do a move with a lot of brawn to get through the next part, and then in the worst possible place -- holding still where most of my weight is distributed into my arms, and not my legs or on the rock itself.
You don't want to rest in unrestful places. It's a recipe for disaster.
I'm holding as tight as I can with my hands -- not a good thing -- and a worry gets me. My grip is getting weaker; I could fall.
I've never fallen before outside. I've never fallen from high. I didn't practice it. I should have practiced it.
"Peter, my grip strength is failing!"
What's going to happen?
He yells back, "Relax! You're fine."
"Peter! My grip strength is failing! I'm losing it!"
I'm 250 feet above the ground, and the wind is whistling through my hair and tickling my ears. I feel the life draining out of my hands and forearms, with a very unproductive sort of dread mixed with stubborn will to hold on.
My hands, my god-forsaken hands, why are they doing this? I can't hold on. They're slipping. Why are they slipping?
I never quite think I'm going to die, but I'm not entirely sure. It's very high here. What's going to happen? Why is this happening?
My mind is racing, and my thoughts leave the productive problem-solving space to one on the verge of panic as I try to will my hands to hold. It's a losing battle, I'm not thinking of moving forwards or upwards, merely trying to will my failing grip to not fail.
I curse my hands, betraying me like this, at a time when I need them. Don't they realize how important this is? Why are they failing?
"PETER! I'M LOSING IT!"
My left hand is not on the rock.
Surreally, I don't consciously remember letting go.
I was trying to will every fiber in my body to not let go; and yet, there it is, my hand is not on the rock.
And there's gravity.
My right hand is pulled off the rock as I fall backwards into weightlessness.
The rope catches me, a consolation, but I slam and bounce into the rock and slide across it leftwards, since the closest safety gear is above and left of me.
My legs and knees take the worst of the abuse as I skid and bounce across the rock face.
Shocks run through my body and I reach slowly forwards trying to put my hands and feet on something -- anything -- so I stop swinging like a pendulum banging into and scraping the rock.
From above, loudly, "You alright, Seb?"
I manage to halfway push my feet onto the rock, putting some of my weight on it and some distributed onto the rope.
"I don't know! I'm... I don't have anything."
"Okay. Relax a while, rest, get stronger."
"How safe am I down here?"
"You could hang a car from that rope. You're fine."
Peter can see me now. The fall brought me dead even with the final last part of the climb.
I notice something, call up, "My knee is bleeding."
It was bleeding.
"Not so bad, I guess."
"Can you rest there?"
"I'll try... I'm cooked, my upper body strength is cooked. I don't think it's coming back enough to get up."
Peter is relaxed about everything, having been through this plenty in his decade plus of climbing.
My mind is still reeling below, and it looks impossible to get up the sheer cliff face. I feel a sense of desperation and defeat, not seeing much way out.
I didn't know that he could pull the rope quickly whenever I made any progress, ratcheting it in, and I could make it up that way. Eventually that's what we did.
Rather, I thought I'd have to climb the last part of it, and it seemed impossible in the state I was in.
For a few minutes, I hit zero out of one hundred on the humanity scale. I haven't had my mind fall apart like that in a long time, but it's hard to reconcile that in real-time. I was there, it was terrible if I remember correctly, but then it was gone.
When I finally made it over the last part of the cliff face, I took ten paces forwards onto the beautiful green mountain top, and promptly collapsed onto the grassy rock in exhaustion.
We would rest a while before rappelling down, an adventure in and of itself.
A few days later, my back is sore like it's never been before. My legs, too. The cuts are patching up quickly, and the bruises will fade in another week or so.
But most importantly is reflecting on the quality of my mind when my grip was failing.
I didn't have the grip strength to stay on the rock after the day's events. Just, didn't.
Is that a moral failing?
I think not. It was just where my body was.
I couldn't have tried harder or willed myself through it, at that exact moment, in that point of my development.
I could have lifted more weights at a previous time, done grip strength exercises, dieted and trained to a lower bodyweight, practiced more in the rock gym, or done a different easier climb.
But at that moment, with that mix of events, I was falling. There was no getting around it.
Most people can get their mind around this; are sympathetic to the body reaching its limit.
Why, then, do we prosecute ourselves so ruthlessly when the same things happen in our mind?
When confronted with procrastination, poor money management, losing one's temper, communicating poorly in an important meeting...
...are these moral failings?
We're taught they are. Losing your temper is moralized, judged, and seen poorly. As is managing money poorly, or procrastinating on important work.
As wonderful as our minds are, they're not entirely perfect. In a given moment, given your training and strength, maybe you're going to fall.
You could have trained more in the past. True. You ought to train more in the future. Yes, that's true. But why the prosecution of self and others for failing given your current mix of ability and situation?
Should you be perfect already? That seems... unrealistic, a little bit unrealistic.
Perhaps your mental grip strength will fail sometimes. Falling is unpleasant, and you'll get bruised and bloodied. But why layer psychological damage on top of it, given that's the capability you had?
You'll fall sometimes.
It happens when you climb.
Does that make you a bad person?
A weak person?
An immoral person?
Should you prosecute and make yourself feel worse for falling?
Or is falling just another part of climbing?
Does that make you a bad person?
A weak person?
An immoral person?
Quite the opposite.
The fact that you were even willing to attempt something for which failure was possible speaks to your courage. It describes strength, not weakness. The failure itself is irrelevant if you consider it part of your greater goal of personal growth.
Even if it was entirely a failure of the mind, it'll only make you stronger the next time you try. As for prosecuting yourself after the fact, I believe that's useful only to the extent it motivates a useful change. But emotions aren't so easily controlled as that. At least not for me
Also I liked your allusion to Dr. Seuss.
Are you going to BM? I will look for you and BTW my girlfriend and I just spent an hour loving your stuff! Paul and Kristen
Did you disable up votes Sebastian? I wanted to give you a thumbs up... Well anyway, I'll just leave a comment instead to say this was an awesome story and a fantastic post!
Great story. But the lesson is even more helpful. I've never considered the morality of failure like this before. As I was reading, I was thinking about my conservative religious upbringing. I wonder how much of what people consider "bad" or "evil" about our human situation is just the way our our brains evolved. You're right. We're often too hard on our selves. For a lot of things, we don't we judgement. We need to forgive the past, plan better for the future, and act better now.
Also, this reminds me of the book The Power of Full Engagement (I heard about it from Ramit Sethi and Josh Kaufman). That's where I first encountered these ideas of training more than just your body. Anyone else read that one?
Definitely something I struggled with for a while.
I might be projecting upon others, but people these days focus on their mental skills since we're mostly knowledge workers. A lot of us are really in touch with our thoughts and ideas but disconnected to varying degrees to our body. Unless you do some physical activity that pushes you to your limit such as rock climbing. So often, it feels like a body is something we have, but our mind is who we are. Isn't that weird?
The body failing on you feels like something that just happens to you from the outside. But one's procrastination, one's mental fatigue feels like a judgment on our identity.
This is the best blog post I've read in a very long time :) Love the parallels with life and your climbing experience is a fabulous read in itself.
Hey Sebastian - Thanks for writing this! I've never done High Exposure at the Gunks, but have done many other climbs. I enjoyed your perspective about the terror of falling, but then realizing that it's a necessary part of climbing.
Until recently I worked at one of the largest climbing gyms in the nation, and introduced a new curriculum that walks all about dealing with the (very natural) fear of falling. I love helping folks feel more comfortable climbing (that's a big step to getting BETTER at climbing) so I wrote an article about it.
It is all in the context of lead climbing, rather than top-roping, (You were top-roping, your friend was leading) but the process of dealing with the discomfort and fear of falling can apply to any situation. Small, systematic steps where failure is safe, but not catastrophic.
Feel free to give it a read: http://joshdthompson.com/2013/06/06/climbing-in-decking-range/
A couple months ago I was minding my own business, reading a book, about to go to sleep. I give twitter one last check on my phone and see a message from my friend Jenna telling me of a deal to go to Lima, Peru for $380 round trip. I have no particular reason to go to Peru, but I decide to start booking it and make the decision as I go through the steps. The deal is about to go-- it's disappearing from different booking sites one by one. Hey, might as well go, I think. For how long? Well, I can't think of anything off the top of my head in Peru besides Machu Picchu (which I already decided I had to see before I died), so I play it safe and book eight days, figuring that will give me enough time for Machu Picchu and maybe one or two other things.
After booking, I begin to do a little research. The thing to do is the Inca trail, which is a four day hike from the Cusco area to Machu Picchu. You have to go with a tour group, and you have to book far in advance. I booked too late for that. The standard alternative is the Salkantay trek, which is typically a five day trek. It's harder than Inca and has better natural scenery, but no ruins along the way and doesn't lead directly to Machu Picchu like Inca does. I try to find a good tour group going there, but none of the published dates fit into my short window in Peru. Fine, I think, I'll just go solo.
I order a lightweight tent, sleeping bag, and mattress pad, and that's the extent of my planning for over a month. With a week before I leave, I figure I ought to see if I need train or bus tickets. That's when I learn that Cusco is almost 24 hours away from Lima by bus, and that getting to the trail from Cusco takes several hours as well. Long story short, it looks impossible for me to Salkantay. But I've had it in my head for a month now that I'm going to do it, so I don't give up easily. Finally I find a way I can take a bus to Arequipa near the end, and then take a flight from there to Lima just in time to catch my flight. The problem is that this leaves me only about 3 days to do the trek, and less than 24 hours to acclimatize.
A week later, my trip begins. I'm overjoyed when my tent stakes make it through TSA security. Actually getting to the hiking trail is contingent on several fairly unlikely assumptions, the first of which is that the titanium stakes will make it through. The flight to Lima is long, but I somehow manage to get an exit row seat to Panama, and a whole row to myself to Lima. I get the best plane sleep I've ever had.
"Life is suffering," said Buddha. His plan? Release your attachments to this world and end your suffering.
I'm not with Buddha on this one. Give me strife and suffering. And once I have grown stronger, tempered, hardened by the strife, give me MORE.
Life is strife, suffering, struggle. Your body and mind are kept alive by a series of violent chemical reactions, your heartbeat, the acid in your stomach, the cells constantly breaking apart and dying as new ones are created, the battle towards homeostatis with different bacteria and cells combating each other, all inside your body.
Your mind - your thoughts - may come into conflict, especially when you're trying to do meaningful things. It's easy to feel the pull of distraction and ease, and to choke up and pause in fear when you look at the mountain you're set to climb. The mind is not in harmony, especially at the beginning. Struggle, strife, conflict, suffering.
I say - give it to me! But not so fast that it will break me. I must be pragmatic. We must be pragmatic. We have our limits. We can expand them over time. It's not brave to go into the gym for the first time and try to lift 400 pounds. It's foolhardy, unrealistic, stupid. Being pragmatic, aware of our limits takes its own sort of courage.