The crack split the rock beautifully, creating a perfect space for climbers to dig in.
The relentless gash was intimidating. But so alluring.
I knew that route, Lena’s Lieback, would most likely spank me. It was two grades above my climbing level – in Yosemite, where the polish on many routes makes them treacherously slick, and sandbagged.
But I wanted that crack.
“I’m next,” I said when Multi-pitch Matt was off belay.
"Yeah!" he said.
“Yeah!” Matt In The Hat said.
"Yeah!" I said.
But I was feeling more like "no! no!" as in "no breath" and "no rest in sight" about halfway up.
"I'm gonna hangdog," I shouted down, so new that I didn't know a single-word command for: “My lungs are gonna explode if I don’t rest! My forearms are gonna fall off! Take up the slack! Now! Now!”
"Do it, girl!" Matt In The Hat called. "There's no shame in your game."
With his help, giving me rest here and there, I ascended. When I reached the top, I was in a state of joyful disbelief.
I know a lot of climbers may say that if I had to hangdog, I didn’t climb it. Fine. Whatever. But I tried it even though I knew I was probably gonna get my ass kicked. Plus, I used my strength and technique at a level I never had before.
And I sure felt like I climbed it.
I was still catching my breath as I descended.
"Sarah, I can see every blood vessel in your arms," Multi-pitch Matt said.
The blue zigzags glowed, beautifully swollen, beneath my pale skin. I was more pumped in that moment than I had ever been before. And effusive with joy.
"You guys!" I said when I was on the ground again. "That was the toughest physical act of my life!"
My friends good-naturedly congratulated me. They were much better climbers. However, they knew how deeply pleased I was even hangdogging that midgrade route.
But the biggest praise came that night as we sat around the campfire. Matt In The Hat was ruminating about the day.
“I ought to be doing with 5.11s what you did on that 5.9. Really push myself. Work past my limit. You can grow a lot if you don’t let your ego get in the way.”
Ego. Always the enemy. In climbing or anything.
Ego is different from confidence. Actually, it’s the opposite. It is the nagging voice of insecurity. It makes you ashamed of any lack of knowledge or skill – an admission you aren’t the best there is. It makes you hide when you could be broadcasting the holes in your wisdom – and filling those holes.
One of my favorite things to say when I want help is: “Hey, I’m a noob. Can you help me figure this out?”
I get assistance every time, usually lots of it. Everyone feels good. I get to learn, and my new friends get the satisfaction of being of service.
I have seen the converse, when someone is so scared to look stupid that she stays stupid.
On a crisp-skied day in Bishop, my homegirl and I passed a guy and a girl climbing as we wove through the boulders looking for our crew. I didn’t know them, but my friend greeted them by name. When we found our group, she asked why those two were isolated from everyone else. Turns out they were from our city.
“She doesn’t like people to see her climb,” someone answered.
Her ego had deprived her of the wisdom of our whole crew. And our crew has some awesome climbers who have helped me beyond measure.
If my homies didn’t watch me and give me pointers, who knows how long it would’ve taken me to learn about matching, high stepping, drop knees? I’ve also learned by watching them climb. They’ve busted moves I probably would’ve never dreamed up. They aren’t afraid to look silly. But they never do.
As awesome as other climbers’ wisdom is their love. That isolated woman’s ego was depriving her not only of the joy of learning but the laughter, the shared snacks, the ball busting and the spontaneous celebrations.
When my homegirl and I were loading our gear into the car to head home, a congratulatory cheer of voices thick with elation rose from the maze of boulders. I knew it wasn’t for the hiding girl.
It was for someone who dared to expose herself or himself for better or for worse. That time, it happened to be for the better.
No doubt that person’s success was so much sweeter for having a hallelujah chorus from the best fans any climber could ever have – climbers they love and respect.
For more from Sarah Jane Alexander visit her website: time2climb.com