Fear, Climbing, and Life Lessons

“On days that I couldn’t manage, since I really wanted to do coke I would just look up all the sections in the Bowie biography that I had, in the index where it says cocaine, and then just look up all the parts about cocaine and read ’em so that I’d feel like I’m on coke, you know? Well yeah I just like looking at the pictures. That’s him and Iggy Pop. They think something’s funny.”

“Why did you wanna be on coke so badly?”

“Cus it’s great, just it made me feel great”¹

That’s from an interview with a young John Frusciante. If you like Red Hot Chili Peppers it’s an interesting watch, made a little less sad by the fact Frusc came out the otherside.

Minus the crippling mental and physical anguish that accompanies cocaine withdrawal, this is how I feel about climbing at the moment.

Revisiting ‘The Dawn Wall’ on Netflix (‘Valley Uprising’ has been taken off) :(, Climbing a table, and writing, are my ways of looking up ‘climbing’ in the index of life, and finding where I can get a taste of it again.

The Wisdom of the Wall…

If these walls could talk, they’d say… hands off my jugs you filthy perv!

I just made that up and I’m really proud of myself. A jug is a type of hold in case you didn’t know, I can’t have anyone in the dark on this joke.

I’m the kind of person who whenever I do anything remotely cool or impressive, I’m looking around to see who saw it. I love attention, and positive affirmation is like meth to me. So when I get down from one of the most difficult and scary climbs I’ve ever done and nobody saw it, it’s a weird feeling.

The particular problem I’m thinking of was a slab. These are my favourite problems, because they take strain off your muscles, concentrating the wall into these intricate movements, that focus on being able to expertly shift your centre of gravity carefully between each hold. When done correctly, you resemble a leaf falling from a tree in reverse, up to fuse itself back to the branch.

The fear I feel on a slab is different to any other climb. On any other climb it arrives when you’re approaching the crux², extended to your limit. It’s the fear of what you might hit when you reach the ground, which is always the mat, so really there’s no danger.

However on a slab, the fear doesn’t come from hitting the ground, it comes from what you might hit on your way to the ground. Not a bird, or another climber, it’s usually another hold. Your face is about as close to the wall, as God’s finger is to Adam’s, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, so when you fall you can imagine being uppercut by a sloper.

The crux of this problem takes place standing on a pretty looking hold shaped like a flower. The first session I attempted this was with 4 other climbers, one of whom worked there. We stared at this unique hold, all equally perplexed. It had a ridge so thin if you used it to pull yourself up on, it would cut your fingers. A thorny flower, a rose.

When ascending the route, I allocated most of my weight to other less sharp holds, allowing me to put less pressure on the flower. Once at the crux, I would use the flower once more, this time with my left foot, leaving my right behind on the previous, more friendly hold. I paid for my caution, and fell on the final move every time.

I knew I had to match feet at the flower hold to avoid overstretching, but this meant taking my foot off the friendly hold, and for a moment, almost all my weight would be on one foot, on the flower.

Back at the top and ready to send the route. I employed my new strategy, but didn’t have enough strength left. I was at the point where my hands just wouldn’t grip like they did an hour ago, and it was time to head home.

The thing about indoor climbing is, when you leave the gym with an incomplete project, you surrender to the mercy of the route-setters, and the possibility of never seeing those holds in that order ever again.

At least the Tibetan Monks get to decide when their sand mandalas are destroyed, and they get to do it themselves. With a project, I might not even be there when it’s taken down.

The following week I came back to see my route waiting for me. It was not my time, and the route-setters had chosen another wall. I’m all for learning lessons about the impermanence of the material world, but I’d rather complete my project.

I warmed up a little, project always in the corner of my eye, as if it could run off at any moment and I was the parent responsible, so after some half-arsed pulse raisers, I approached my project.

First attempt was a shambles, not even passing the second move. I let someone else use the wall for another route, my friends who tackled the problem with me last time nowhere to be seen.

I drew myself back into focus, and tried again. With the muscle memory from last session, combined with the strength of a new set of limbs, there was no way I could fail. I cut off ties to the friendly hold, who wasn’t even a friend because they only kept me from achieving my true potential, and I committed to the flower hold.

With two feet firmly on the flower, I reach out with a shaky, left hand. I’ve got it! Repressing my excitement I continued to send my right hand in an arc over my head to join my left on the finish hold. The fluid transition gave an impression of composure, whilst blood pounded my eardrum and my head became hot.

I did it.

A slight relaxation is all it takes for me to fall from the wall. I land perfectly fine, look around, and walk away. There’s a childlike expectation of applause from others whenever you do something kick-ass, but adult me realises this is not always the case, so I congratulate myself and move on.

If these walls could talk, they’d say stop putting so much energy into avoiding confrontation with a scary reality. You continue to bump up against it and become paralysed. It’s not about eliminating fear, it’s about being scared but doing it anyway.

They’d also tell you that nothing in this world is guaranteed. Just because you worked hard for something doesn’t mean you’ll get it, there are no medals for participating in life. A route setter will come and change your route, whether it be a few holds or the whole thing. Maybe you haven’t started yet, and all you have to do is rethink your strategy, but sometimes you’re midway through. Massive dick move right? But if you don’t react quickly, you’ll fall, and there’s not always safety mats in life.

Jimi says it best:

A little Indian brave who before he was ten,
Played war games in the woods with his Indian friends,
And he built a dream that when he grew up,
He would be a fearless warrior Indian Chief

Many moons passed and more the dream grew stronger, Until tomorrow, he would sing his first war song,
And fight his first battle, but something went wrong,
Surprise attack killed him in his sleep that night

And so castles made of sand,
Melts into the sea, eventually³

  1. Here’s the link to part one of the interview, you can find the rest if you click on the guy’s channel who uploaded them
  2. Crux: the hardest part of a climbing or bouldering route
  3. There’s no recordings of Jimi Hendrix’s version on youtube so here’s the Red Hot Chilli Peppers playing a cover: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JBXcS6TLy0

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