“How did you do?” my friend asked.
I needed a fair way to tell her I sucked – but rocked it!
How – in front of three longtime climbers who found every hold with easy grace – I frantically scanned the rock for handholds, footholds, any holds. Then when I saw something that looked big enough to cling to, I clawed and leapt and fell on the rope.
I didn’t know the term then, but I was hangdogging like no dog had hung before. Plus, I lost the route and ended up on the other side of the rock until my belayer told me that I needed to head left. Which made me grumpy. I had finally begun to ascend with fragile confidence, finding what I later learned were called big jugs on the route I wasn’t supposed to be on.
Spewing a string of creative curses, I returned to the correct route, scrapping and scratching my way up. Then when, finally, gasping for breath, forearms aching (later I learned the term “pumpy,” though I learned its meaning that day), I topped out on the sport route. Even then I was a mess, grabbing a bolt in dumb triumph. Which was quickly dashed. “Don’t ever grab that!” my belayer called up.
Despite all my noob mistakes, pure joy permeated my soul. I had done what I didn’t know I could do. I had climbed – a feat I had always believed was for someone else. Someone braver. Someone stronger. I had never imagined that I could be brave or strong.
So, answering my friend’s question about my first climb, I said, “If I were someone else, I would have sucked. But because I’m me, I was awesome!”
Despite the common use of the phrase “personal best” in America, I know few people who authentically challenge themselves to comprehend the depth of its meaning. But for people who have pushed themselves harder than they imagined they could, it is the definition of ecstasy.
Reading “The Self-Coached Climber,” I came upon a passage discussing how in the United States, many people are just chasing numbers, not refining their ability. As soon as they send a climb of one rating, they are chasing the next higher number. They don’t care whether they understand how to move efficiently; clumsy brute force will do as long as they can move on to the next rating. No one wants to be a 5.7 climber.
That’s who I am; that’s where I am. And I am proud as hell.
Two months ago, I was a 5.6 climber. Six months ago, I had never climbed.
When will I be a 5.15 climber? Probably never. But I’m not chasing numbers. I am chasing myself. My best self.
Perching on tiny nubs that once looked impossibly small fills me with pride. Getting to the next hold on a gym route I couldn’t figure out how to reach during my previous practice makes me ecstatic. Understanding why a gym hold is placed a certain way – meaning that I’ve finally used it efficiently – puts a wide smile on my face.
The only person I’m in competition with is yesterday’s me. Even then sometimes I suck – comparatively. Sometimes I can’t find my groove, my mind is chatty and undisciplined, or I’m tired, cranky or hungry.
Seeing people taller than me (most people older than 11) easily maneuver holds that I have to bust my brain to figure out how to reach – maybe making two moves to their one – I used to get frustrated. The old “It’s not fair!”
But now I think, “Yeah, walk up that wall, you tall drink of water. I’ll climb it.”
So many moves for me are grand achievements. The 5.7s that my short self have figured out bring me happiness those tall reachers will never know. If they understood how I have to connive, ponder, twist, dyno, reach, bump up just to get where they can go without thinking, they might be jealous. “Man,” they might say, “that girl feels so much joy every step of the way. It’s not fair.”
For more from Sarah Jane Alexander visit her website: time2climb.com