Challenge by Choice

The sun radiated through the pines as my mom and I walked up a dusty trail. The smell of dried pine needles and the abundance of PCT hikers, climbers and bugs told us summer was already here. We had afternoon plans to climb our first trad/multi-pitch together—Graham Crackers, a two-pitch 5.6 in Idyllwild. We were disappointed, but not too surprised, when we saw people on it and every other 5-fun nearby.

The woman on Graham Crackers geared up as her partner spoke for her, seemingly insensitive to her obvious unease. He reassured us she would be only be leading up to clean their top-rope and would rappel down in a few minutes.

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In the next half hour, four different groups showed up and the area became swarmed with people. Soon there were parties on nearly every route.

We ate a fig bar while we watched the woman carefully meander on the loose blocks and clip a pre-set piece her partner had left for her just beyond them. When he told her to “untangle the rope,” she began yelling at him, confused to her core as to what he could possibly mean by this. She got stuck out of fear about 25ft up when a nice guy wearing lots of Patagonia clothing climbed up to her to talk her down.

Instead of getting frustrated and making it more difficult for this woman, we considered other options because it didn’t look like the route would be available any time soon. Everyone has their own challenges, and it doesn’t help when others discredit them. I’ve learned not to judge myself based on others’ abilities so why would I judge this woman based on my ability? Shit happens.

As we discussed our choices, Patagonia guy’s wife quickly entered our conversation and recommended we try out Etude, 5.11a. A bit appalled we would jump from 5.6 to 5.11, and a bit honored she assumed my mom and I would be up for it, I responded, “I do love that route but we’re looking for something easier.” The woman looked at me surprised and responded, “You’ve climbed it?” With this response she suggested that either she expected us to on-sight it, or that she simply said it to measure her climbing ability against ours. I calmly told her I climbed the route last time I was here and my mom added in, attempting to be helpful, “she TR on-sighted it.” She went on to tell me that doesn’t count, and she would love to see me lead it.

I didn’t feel comfortable leading Etude yet. The crux is thin and I didn’t have very much small gear. There was a lady on a climb next to me nearly peeing her pants. There were at least 10 grumpy people waiting around to climb Flower of High Rank, the climb just next to it. My mom would probably be terrified belaying me. There wasn’t a single reason I should have wanted to climb Etude that day, but for whatever reason I did want to. But I knew it wasn’t my voice telling me I wanted to climb it, it was someone else’s.

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We ended up waiting only a few minutes more for Graham Crackers to open up. We climbed only the first pitch and had a great time.

Chris Kalman of Fringe’s Folly asked in Some Thought on Alex Honnold’s Free Solo of El Capitan, “The question any soloist [or any climber, really] must ask his or herself, at some time or another, is: ‘Is it worth it?’ My question is, exactly whose voice is it in their head when they hear that self-gratifying answer, ‘yes.’ ”

I heard a jealous lady’s voice telling me “yes” even though my own voice told me “heck no.” This 5.11 was not the Northwest Ridge of K2 or a solo of El Capitan, but it was high(er) risk climbing for me and something that I was not comfortable doing.

Since then I’ve noticed how often people push their goals (or insecurities) onto others. If someone has a true intention to do something, they will do it rather than spraying about it. In Brendan Leonard’s words, “it’s easy to sit and drink beer and talk about doing shit. It’s hard to do shit.” If you have a goal to try climbing indoors, try it! If you’d like to climb outside, it’s great! If you’d like to climb 9a, or even free solo Freerider, by all means it’s your decision. If you want to do it, and you do it, I think that is pretty cool. But please don’t tell me what I should do.

It’s cool to see people who were in my beginner or intermediate climbing classes out there doing it—crushing V5 or leading their first trad route, heck, I’m stoked when I see they’re still just enjoying climbing whenever and wherever they have the chance.

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I think it’s cool when people have a desire to do something that scares them, riding that line just beyond comfort, beyond the conventions of routine. To many, climbing of any capacity is just that. However, since this sport is growing like wildfire and 5.13 has become the new 5.10, for many being outside enjoying yourself is just not enough anymore.

There have always been harder climbs and pressures to be greater. The pioneers put themselves in some pretty crazy situations to expand boundaries and establish themselves as prominent climbers. Today many are still doing the same. However, I’m not trying to establish myself as a Stone Master, I just want to climb.

I wouldn’t be able to keep up with John Long anyway (he did the first free ascent of Etude). If I wanted to—back in the day, way before I was conceived—I would have had to climb super hard, set deliberate goals and do the thing. Talking about climbing or sitting around denouncing other climbers would get me nowhere. In fact it may have gotten me killed—those cliffs are quite unforgiving. I’m unsure of who said “if you’re not doing it for yourself you are a fool,” but I think they are right.

As consumers of these current climbing crazes, we must keep our egos in check and our personal goals close to us. Alex Honnold didn’t spray to all about his solo ascent of Freerider for months, he just did it. And that was his goal.

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Now what we can do is move forward—from this amazing accomplishment and toward our own ambitions (ideally not free solo ones)—such as climbing El Cap naked?

That day at Suicide my objective was to climb a multi-pitch trad route with my mom, not prove to an insecure climber that I was more ballsy than her. I reached my goal, something that few climbers get to experience, and I’m thankful to have an adventurous mother who would have supported me even if climbing Etude was the adventure I sought.

A couple months later when the air felt lighter and I was ready, I went back up to Suicide and made peace with Etude, on the sharp end, with only my good friend Monica and a ton of mosquitos eating my flesh and cheering me on as a reached a height I wanted to reach.

I thank my partners and the climbers who have inspired me through your unique styles, on and off the rock. This is an immense encouragement to those around you, wherever you may be in your journey of ability. Please keep embracing the uncertainty of possibility and allow yourself, and others, the stillness to make these choices for themselves.

Climb on!…if you want.

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