I’ve often said that one of the great gifts of rock climbing is that it teaches us to deal with failure, but when climbing serves up heavy doses of failure, it can be harder to stomach. I spent the last three weeks in the Red River Gorge, ostensibly rock climbing, but what I was really doing was failing at rock climbing.
I don’t mean to sound pessimistic here, but the reality is that we can romanticize about failure as part of a process toward success. But when it is only failure without a pay off, it is hard to feel much other than disappointment. Disappointment’s edge is only sharpened by the accomplishments of others, especially when they’re under five feet tall. What did I do wrong?
Here’s how it went down. September: train. Long sessions in the gym, laps on routes and boulder problems, then hangboarding to failure. Sometimes this all occurred after a day out climbing. At the same time, I spent nearly as many hours undoing the damage this training did to my joints. Loads of icing, massage, visits to physical therapy, stretching, fretting over when my tendons might just give out entirely.
Then, I led a two-week backpacking trip for Colorado Mountain College. Yep, I worked, as crazy as that sounds. Really, this was a great set up. I spent two weeks in the mountains and canyons, truly magically beautiful places both, teaching excited and fun-loving students how to live in the woods comfortably. And I got paid for it. The added bonus: I rested my body. My tendons restored, knotted muscles loosened, and psyche increased. I was ready for the October throw down.
And throw down I . . . tried. That’s the kicker. My lack of “success” wasn’t for lack of trying. In fact, I was really close to sending lots of things. I’d have to use both hands to show how many times “success” was only one more hand hold, one more attempt, or one more rest day (and then one more attempt) away. But, at the end of it, I left Kentucky empty handed.
There are a lot of ways that you can perform well as a climber. You can climb something first try; you can almost climb something first try. You can link hard moves together; you can make easy moves harder by not doing them efficiently (which is only marginally cool as long as you don’t fall off). You can make hard moves feel easy. You can climb a lot of hard stuff, or at least try to. You can climb things in bad conditions like heat, rain, snow, high altitude, whatever. You can place less gear (or, more apropos to the Red, clip less bolts), or place more. You can climb something without warming up, or when you’re really tired. You can get on routes that are too reachy/scrunchy/crimpy/awkward/wrong style/wrong size for you. When it comes down to it, the challenge in climbing is highly circumstantial, and good performance is couched within a wide gray area, but we as the climbing community – well, the sport climbing community, at least – have distilled success and failure into one dimension: sending.
Call it what you want, onsighting, redpointing, doing, climbing, ticking, projecting, blah, blah, blah. It all revolves around one thing: sending. The send is what we all seek, albeit at varying levels of commitment and obsession. The send is climbing the route, bottom to top, by means of the climbers’ physical ability and without unaccepted artificial aid. I say “unaccepted” because there are plenty of artificial aids that everyone uses to make climbing easier. My point here isn’t to critique style in that way. You can send a route using a kneepad, which is fine, really. Or you can send a big wall with lots of nailing and jugging ropes and such. Sometimes we just need a bit of chalk, sticky rubber, and a patient belayer to hold us while we work out the moves.
Most climbers have goals of some sort or another. These goals are defined by some combination of standards (like a grade) and a style (like redpointing). We usually pick the standards based on our previous performance, like “The hardest I’ve ever climbed is 5.__.” Then, we adjust our current goal based on our relative fitness, the style required, and what standard would still challenge us. There are plenty of folks out there who choose to climb really tough styles, say on a remote high-altitude big wall, or who sport climb without ever working moves. They tie in, leave the ground, and let the adventure begin. Some folks don’t give a shit about the standard; they just want to go out and have fun, and their style is whatever is the most fun. Some folks just want to achieve the highest standard they can, and they approach routes (usually boulder problems or sport climbs) with little worry about style. The send is all they are interested in. The point here is that a goal is about a special mix of standards and style that create a challenge for us. In one way or another, we seek a sweet spot of challenge – something to stretch ourselves into unknown ground – that just might still be possible.
When I went to the Red, I had goals in that sweet spot. I had some standards (well-adjusted for the fact that I hadn’t spent much time there in the past and that I’d spent most of my summer climbing granite cracks), and I was ready to commit to a style that would lend itself to the send. I wasn’t greedy; I was really hoping for one or two “hard sends” with several easier ones. This is why I failed. I got really close on several hard routes. I climbed well; I had fun. But I didn’t send.