The Power of Disbelief

This weekend I sent my third 5.13a, and I sent it on my second go. I understand that this isn’t how climbing is supposed to work.

Remember folks: don’t believe everything that you think.

Russ Worley messaged me somewhat out of the blue, all stoked about a trip to Lower Leda. “This place has tons of 5.7 to 5.10, and there’s this 5.13 roof that YOU’RE GONNA LOVE!” There’s a common misconception here where folks think I enjoy climbing hard when really I obstinately try to avoid it. I mean, I like being able to climb hard, I’m just not stoked on actually doing it. I like it when climbing feels easy, and I save my try-hard for the fingerboard. Regardless, Russ has this outrageously infectious stoke level that reminds me of myself at age 19, so I grinned and shook my head, already knowing that I was going to get on that damn thing simply because he was so excited.

All week long I had been in a funk, low on mojo, disinterested even in my own training sessions, and then Russ messages me out of the blue and gets me stoked on the one thing that I actively try to avoid: hard climbing. I couldn’t help but feel uplifted by the good mojo vibes he was sending my way!

That’s one hell of a guy, ya know?

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Even when it’s 30 degrees and wet, this guy is still stoked!

After flailing on a 12b, and then on a 12a, I was fairly discouraged, and kinda just wanted to quit and go home. So when Russ popped around the corner to ask what I thought, I think my response was “That route is a chosspile from Mt. Bullshit!”

“Oh no, the 13 was no good?”

I felt bad, realizing I had just spoken very poorly of the adventure he had inspired. Oh yeah! The 13! “Uh, Idunno man, when I looked from the side I couldn’t see anything that even vaguely reminded me of a hold, so I haven’t even tried.”

“I know, those moves look CRAZY! IT’S GONNA BE AWESOME!”

Fuck. What could I do? So with an unexpected sense of optimism, I tied in at the base of the route “Alright man, I’ll go ahead and hop on it because I’m quite sure that I won’t get far enough to get in trouble.”

The route is an extension to a 5.10a which ends at the base of a large roof and has a double-bolted ring-anchor there. The next bolt is in the middle of the roof and can be clipped easily from the end stance of the 5.10. The next bolt was just barely over the lip, and I knew I could yank on the roof-draw to retrieve my gear and retreat from the anchors of the 5.10 once my attempt failed. There was little investment due to ease of bailing.

So I tied in and racked up. I clipped both the anchor and the roof bolt with short quickdraws. I was so convinced of my imminent failure that I didn’t bother to plan for rope-drag. Over the lip, I couldn’t find any holds… so I yanked on the roof-draw to clip the bolt over the lip, and retreated to the stance at the end of the 5.10. Great. Now I’ve got a toprope!

I paused here, contemplated life, and recovered my forearms, then launched out into the roof. Reaching over the lip, I found a rounded quarter-inch crimp and  ran out of belief, “TAKE!” Almost immediately, I saw a terrible divot that could work as a heel-hook. “CLIMBING!” In desperation, I pawed the wall with my right hand, and it sticks on something. The hold is so bad that I don’t even other looking at it. I hit a juggy undercling, clip. “TAKE!!!” What the hell. I was not supposed to get this far. I looked down and couldn’t figure out what my right hand was holding on to…  Rather than think about it for too long, I rally and climb like a trash can to the anchor while fighting a sumo-wrestler worth of rope drag tied to my harness.

 

Looking back, this certainly was not the best way to manage rope drag
As I lower off, victory music starts playing through my head. This thing is about to go down. Holy crap. Click here for a short explanation of what was going through my head, the guitar riff when Bonamassa throws the hammer down and starts playing hard says everything you need to know.

Oh but that rope drag… it was the only thing that could sink my ship… Well, that and the fact that I had no idea how to clip the bolt after the lip. Luckily, I had brought a rack of alpine runners with me. New plan. Four-foot runner at the base of the roof, two-foot draw in the middle of the roof, skip the bolt on the lip. Running a body-length runout 45ft off the ground is hardly risky. Game on.

I tried to rest up properly, but after belaying Maria on one of her leads, I was too antsy to sit still, so I tied in to fire it off. In the roof, I replaced the draws from my resting stance and clipped them. Now the lead-line flossed the sky and would run right past the lip of the roof without contacting rock anywhere on its path. I paused, contemplated the 2ft extension of my draw, contemplated the clip I was about to skip, contemplated those poor crimps, contemplated life, turned off my brain, and fired out to the lip. Immediately my foot popped off the divot, but I cored up and stuck it back on. Whelp, that’s it, I’m screwed. There’s no way I have the strength left after that mistake to hang this crimp with one hand and make a move.

I fixed my eyes on that jug only 48″ away, to avoid thinking about the holds I was on, let go to move my right hand up and pawed it blindly onto that invisible two-finger crimp. It’s like that moment where a cartoon character runs off the edge of a cliff, but they’re able to stand there until they look down and suddenly gravity remembers that it’s a thing. I knew I couldn’t hold those crimps, but I figured as long as I didn’t look at them, then maybe gravity wouldn’t remember to pull me off.

It worked.

Folks say this isn’t how climbing is supposed to work, they say that you have to believe in yourself to try entirely, and you have to believe that you can do it to find success. I didn’t believe in myself for a single move on this entire route. Even after I fired the crux, I felt sure that I would adrenalize myself off of the finish with the “I can’t believe I just did that” jitters. Luckily for me, my fingers don’t care what I think.

I think that’s true for most people.

I have a chronic inability to believe in myself, especially in the face of hard climbing. If I’m honest, that’s the real reason that I avoid it. Somewhat ironically that’s the reason that I solo so often. My lack of belief sends me in search of “easy” moves, and I can believe in myself while climbing easy things, no problem, so I just do that all of the time.

This focus on positive thinking is a heavy burden. We are told that we have to believe to achieve, and we believe in that axiom as if it is a law of physics. Given that, it’s only natural that failing to believe leads to a failure to even try. Every now and then I’ll have folks like Russ who believe for me and enable magic to happen, and for that, I am ever grateful. I know with full certainty that I wouldn’t have tried that route if I hadn’t been so intent on showing him that I couldn’t do it!

I get by with a little help from my friends ❤
The takeaway from all this is that we don’t have to believe to achieve. I don’t care if you believe in yourself. If you want to succeed, you need the ability to try your hardest not only at times when you are not sure that you can do it but even when you are completely sure that you can’t.

If you need a new axiom of the universe to replace “believe to succeed,” I’ve got one for you:

Gravity seems to have a funny property: if you don’t look at it, then gravity has no power over you. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in yourself or not if you can get gravity to forget about you for the one moment where you really need it, and just try your damnedest anyway. After all, your fingers don’t care what you think, they’ll still do what you tell them.

Give it a shot and see if you stick, impossible things happen every day!

punting
Photo: @rawk_tawk
Post Script:
The day after writing this post, Maria and I went into Stone Summit for climbing. I’m working on building my Anaerobic Capacity, and my general psychological ability to “try hard” so my intention was to “flail” on a bunch of 5.13’s in the gym, but it didn’t quite work out that way. My goal was simply to “go out trying” somewhere past the half-way point. I’ll usually allow myself two takes, then punch it till I pop off mid-move.

The first route I had done take-take-fall on before, but this time I immediately sent it. WTF. I acknowledge that it was soft, but it was remarkable how much better this attempt went only a week after my first try! 2nd go. sent.

The second route was one where I had previously topped out with two takes. This time, in a single push I climbed within a body length of the anchor before failing due to pump. After climbing the crimps on “Hematoma” over the weekend, all the holds on this overhanging monster just felt bigger than the last time. At a certain point, my mind gave up and I knew it was impossible to make even one more move. I fell off four moves later.

Finally, there was a Green 5.13- that a friend had suggested to me. Per my expectations,  I told Maria the plan was take-take-fall, but this route has a resting stance mid-way up the wall where sometimes the route-setters program in a no-hands rest. That gave me hope, and I managed to onsight to the resting position and regain almost full strength for the next section. It was very tenuous, but it was an actual no-hands rest.

Launching into the upper section, I was filled with the thought that “oh my god, I can TOTALLY DO THIS!” and my adrenaline rose. “No man, it’s not over till it’s over! See!? This hold sucks!” My adrenaline surged a bit more, and suddenly I felt the pump clock ticking faster. But the next hold was good, “I’m definitely going to do this! Holy Hell!!!” The adrenaline and the pump rose again.

Now a little voice of reason spoke up from the back of my head “Dude, WHAT are you doing!? Listen to your own damn advice! STOP evaluating whether it’s good or not, and just get to work!”

The adrenaline lowered, and I recovered subtly. My mind reached clarity, and the climb turned into an experiment. Instead of thinking I can vs. I can’t, or wondering if it was possible, my brain switched off, and Joe Bonamassa started playing in the back of my head again. “I wonder if I can do it?” Now there were no longer positive or negative connotations, just curiosity. What’s going to happen? Let’s find out!

I fell one move away from the top, narrowly avoiding my first onsight of an indoor 5.13-. I couldn’t possibly be more stoked. Only one year ago this was my project level, requiring many many attempts, and now…. It was one move away from being my onsight grade.

At the start of the session, I knew that I was going to flail and take all over these routes. I suppose that bumper sticker was right… I really shouldn’t believe everything that I think!

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Free-soloing isn’t cool, and neither am I

I’m worried this might come off as elitist, but my intent is quite the opposite. This post is born out of the fact that I have one single belief at the base of everything I do: There is only one thing which is more awesome than climbing, and that’s “More Climbing.” Climbing is supposed to be the most awesome and fun thing in the universe, as long as you hold on to that you’re doing it right!

In other words, the purpose of this article is not religious indoctrination, but rather a message that gravity is the great unifier, and we are all equals on the walls, boulders, and cliffs.

Despite that, those of you who know me well have probably heard me riffing on bouldering and boulderers to make fun of them. It’s not because I have some deep-seated hatred of bouldering. Actually, I consider myself to be a “multipitch boulderer.” We’re basically the same! It’s just that bouldering is an easy target for humor, and boulderers are usually good natured about it. I don’t make fun of trad climbers very often because getting hit in the face by a #6 Camalot really hurts.

You show me a climber who knows the “one true way” to life on the rock, and I’ll show you a climber who has missed the point. The point of climbing is to put a gigantic grin on your face, and the perfect route is one that makes you feel more awesome than you are. Just temper that with the fact that nobody feels awesome in the hospital, and you’ll have a great life!

I don't want anyone to slap me in the face with these items, that's why I avoid giving hell to trad-climbers. It's much safer to get hit by a crash pad!
I don’t want anyone to slap me in the face with these items, that’s why I avoid giving hell to trad-climbers. It’s much safer to get hit in the face by a crash pad!

Folks want to act like they know the “proper” way to rock climb and lambast folks for taking “unnecessary risk.” Every single rock climber is an unnecessary risk taker. The thing that matters is that the preparations you make are commensurate with the risk which you take. It’s not like you have to rock climb to catch food.

On the polar opposite side, once I was climbing along on another bout of multipitch-bouldering, and I heard this:

“DUDE! That is hard core! You’re so brave man! How do I get into that!?”
-Random Kid at the crag

Every word of that is terrifying. Not many things induce fear within me, but that scares the shit out of me. It’s precisely the kind of thing that I’m afraid of every time I go out soloing. I don’t want to inspire some kid to kill himself.

There are so many scary sentiments in that statement, and it really freaks me out.

On the point of cool-factor: It’s fundamentally impossible for anything to be cooler than rock climbing (except for MORE rock climbing), seeing as soloing is just a subset of climbing…. It is no more awesome than Top-Roping or Trad Climbing, it’s just significantly lazier. That’s the thing, well thought-out laziness is the driving force behind the majority of my climbing decisions. I like being able to climb hard, but I’m not the biggest fan of actually doing it. It’s just too damn hard, and I’m quite lazy. Most of the time, I just want to ramble around and climb loads of easy stuff. In reality, all of the crazy training that I do is designed to make my definition of “easy” into something quite ridiculous. I train like a masochist so that I can climb easy things, all the time.

Because of that, I don’t see myself as hardcore because there’s nothing hardcore about being lazy and sticking to easy stuff when you are capable of more. Maybe my training is hardcore, but by definition, I’m not allowed to solo anything hardcore because that would be suicidal. If you solo things to feel hardcore, you’re an idiot, and you are going to die. When you’re soloing, everything should feel absolutely chill.

I mean…. I don’t want to come across like I know the “one true way” on this, but there is some logic behind that statement: Human brains are amazingly adaptable. In much the same way that driving a car on the freeway once felt frightening to the student driver, and years later it comes to feel normal, if something feels hardcore now, someday it will feel like any other Tuesday if you do it enough. So if that “hardcore” feeling is what you were after, you’ll have to work progressively harder every day to find it, and someday it will bite back.

Art in Motion. That's climbing! Photo: Andy Toms, a true artist
Art in Motion. That’s climbing! Photo: Andy Toms, a true artist

Chill climbing isn’t scary. It’s just plain fun. So that makes me question the label of “brave.”

brave (brāv/ )
adjective
  1. ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.
    “a brave soldier”

I’m deliberately avoiding anything painful, and courage can be defined as “the ability to do something that frightens,” but I’m not doing anything that feels hardcore, so I don’t feel frightened. We humans feel afraid and adrenalized when we sense that our life or wellbeing is in peril. Even though I frequently eschew the use of safety gear, I do everything I can to make sure my life is not in danger during those times. That goes back to ensuring  “preparation commensurate with the risk you take.” I’m not into that whole danger/adrenaline thing, so I’m never facing down something that I find frightening. Soloing is objectively dangerous, but so is the rest of climbing. So is driving your car, but we don’t call the other drivers on the freeway “brave.” Usually, we call them “idiots,” at least during rush hour. I suppose that’s something which drivers and soloists have in common: we’re both idiots! So it seems there’s more to “brave” than just the danger aspect.

To me, bravery is the ability to do what must be done, even if you’re terrified of it. It’s not fun. It’s scary. So I can’t see myself as brave because I’m out there soloing to have fun and avoid any sort of fear. When I see a climber out on their first trip, and they’re not 100% sure how all this stuff works, but they’re eager to face fears and learn, that’s brave. Coming out to your parents when you’re uncertain how they’ll respond, that’s brave. Leaving the house to relax on easy climbs without any sense of fear, I don’t think that’s brave at all. Maybe I am brave, but it’s not for soloing. It’s for coming back to climbing after my accident, it’s for climbing 5.6’s on toprope in the gym while I was utterly terrified. Overcoming obstacles to live the life you’ve dreamed, that’s brave.

And I suppose those points bring us back to the question at the end: Getting into soloing isn’t a goal that anyone should have. Especially if they think it’s cool, hardcore, or brave. It’s so utterly dangerous that there is no real concrete reason to say “hey, soloing, that’s something you should totally do!” But some folks have this moment where they wake up one morning and think “oh yeah, soloing! That’s the most obvious thing in the universe, why haven’t I been doing this all along?” That’s how you get into it. If you think soloing is hardcore, brave, or scary, then you’re inviting adrenaline. Adrenaline is the mind-killer. As soon as it enters your psyche, you lose the ability to make well-thought decisions, and worse… Adrenaline changes the chemistry of your body. It gives mothers the strength to lift cars off of their babies, but it comes at a perilous cost: Adrenaline removes your ability to process lactic acid and recover. This means you’re more likely to pump out and fall off. That’s why soloing can’t be hardcore, the moment it is…. you’re hosed.

Feeling hardcore, swimming through a sea of lichen, on toprope
Feeling hardcore, swimming through a sea of lichen, on toprope

Finally, this brings me to a critique of my own words; The title of this article is misleading. Soloing isn’t the most awesome part of climbing, but it is a part of climbing, and that makes it cool by association. What dictates whether soloing is cool to you or not is whether it puts a huge smile on your face and makes you feel at peace. If it does, then it’s cool. If it doesn’t, it’s not, and that’s okay too! It’s rather the same as any other type of climbing in that sense. And me? I don’t think I’m cool, but if I am, I don’t think it’s because of my soloing. Not for one minute. I’m just like every other climber out there. I have my preferred style, and when I set a new personal best I’m excited to share the psyche with others! Progress is cool! And progress can be found on any type of climbing! So get out there, enjoy your toprope, sport, trad, bouldering, multiptich, big wall, ice, and aid climbing! Climbing is the coolest thing in the known universe, that’s what makes it so awesome for all of us! As long as you hold onto that, you’re doing it right!


Post Script: Often I draft posts, decide they’re awful, and then let the idea marinate for a few months before I can figure out exactly what it was that I wanted to say. Such is the case with this article. So while the timing may make this seem like a commentary on the Katie Lambert article for Climbing Magazine, my initial draft was on Dec 19th, three weeks before the Jan 9th run of her article on Climbing.com. So these thoughts were not intended as a commentary on her article; however, The timing is awkward. It seems we have similar thoughts on our minds, but the timing is only a curious coincidence. I’ve had the idea to write this article for about a year now, but never could quite find the words to make my thoughts clear until recently.

This was not posted in response to any criticisms, either directed at myself or directed generally, rather it was written in response to my own fears that I could inspire someone to do something really unfortunate. To that end, I make sure leave poorly-executed moves in the final edit of any videos that I make, and I try to post about any mishaps that happen. I don’t censor any small part of the process, no matter how ugly. Even if that makes feel people uncomfortable. Especially if that makes people feel uncomfortable. I feel that’s important. Climbing isn’t always beautiful, and I won’t pretend that it is for a single minute.

It’s a conundrum. If I get back from a weekend out and someone asks me “how was your climbing?” It would be inauthentic, disingenuous and an outright lie to omit that I went soloing. When I was a kid learning to climb, I was always excited to share my adventures with friends. Nothing has changed in that regard except for the fact that it now is called “spray,” and some folks call me “inspiring” for whatever reason, which makes me fear that I’ll inspire something unfortunate.

Thanks for listening to today’s rambling, feel free to leave any questions/comments/hate-mail in the comment section and I’ll try to leave a thought out response! #DiaryOfAMadman