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How To Be Happy When Climbing Loses Its Joy

He had big goals. The trip was going to be a veritable sendfest. It wasn't, but it taught him an invaluable lesson 40 years in the making that can change how we view success (and failure).

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I had plans for the spring: big, epic, earth-shattering plans. After a winter of training in my garage dojo, I was ready to be in the best shape of my life. Never mind that I actually wasn’t. I’d still somehow convinced myself that I was, despite aching fingers from too many max hangs, a weird, squishy dad gut from stress-eating microwave popcorn after our three banshee children finally went to bed each night (the rhythm method doesn’t work; the calorie counts on popcorn bags are bullshit), and middling performance on the rock. It was all stark evidence of how “fit” I was that I somehow ignored anyway: Cocksureness is bliss.

First was a two-week road trip to the Farmhouse in southern Arizona, where—all trained up, allegedly—I would go on an onsighting and redpointing spree, taking down the limestone cliff. Then it was back home to Colorado, for a few “appetizer” redpoints before the main course: quick-fire takedowns of some local testpieces on the wish list. Finally, I’d move on to a few projects I’d bolted, lines I couldn’t quite do all the moves on but that seemed possible with greater strength. Which I now had, being in “the best shape of my life.”

Here’s how many of those goals I realized: zero, other than barely choking down the appetizers. Yet, in the end, it’s been fine. I’ve learned certain valuable lessons that—even after 35 years of climbing—I still need to continually come back to, to keep my ego in check and to stay anchored in the process.

Perhaps you can relate.

Goals are useful in climbing only insofar as goals are useful in climbing. If that sounds like a tautology, bear with me.

It’s good to have goals: They motivate us to train, give us performance benchmarks, and provide structure and meaning to an activity that’s inherently without purpose. Consider what our sport must look like to your average mouth-breathing tourist, sticking their phone out the Winnebago to film climbers at some roadside chosspile. Can Beulah from Kansas tell the difference between a climber taking a casual, recreational lap on a beloved 5.10 versus one pushing herself to the limit on a 5.12 redpoint? Probably not. It’s all just “climbing” to her. Any meaning we ascribe is purely subjective—it matters not a whit in the big picture whether we climb 5.6 or 5.15d, whether we climb for recreation or to challenge ourselves. We are beholden only to ourselves to meet (or not) our goals. No one else cares, or at least they shouldn’t. But we do, whatever form our goals may take.

Also Read: Long Warmups and Rest Days Suck, Matt Samet On Turning 50

I’ve chosen to have performance goals because, as I learned early on, there is no rush like the adrenaline and endorphins you get from sending at your limit, no feeling more deeply satisfactory than snagging that jug at the end of a sequence that’s eluded you for months, looking down on those impossibly tiny holds you somehow just battled up, knowing you have a victory-lap romp to the chains. Perhaps the birth of a child or the first time you have sex compare, but that’s about it. For me, sending is Technicolor; everything else is black and white.

Of course, the only way to send a route is to set the goal of sending the route; otherwise, you’d never begin. But that’s where things get thorny. Because if you’re not careful, the goal can metastasize to become the end-all, be-all, eclipsing the journey and the elegant play of climbing itself. When all you can think about is “I want this over with; I just want to have sent it,” or what that tick will look like on your scorecard, or how many likes you’ll get for posting send footie on Instagram, it’s too late. By then, your goal has consumed you; even if you meet it, the process has been blanched of all joy.

Here’s how my spring season went: First, the Farmhouse wasn’t my jam. It was hot AF in Arizona in April, I was still fatigued from having had COVID in January, and the climbing kicked my ass—greasy, overused limestone smears and tiny, drilled 1990s pockets that felt tweaky for my Jimmy Dean–sausage fingers (ring size 13, basically the largest finger-ring size on the market). Back home, my plans to try an enduro testpiece in the Flatirons, Colorado, were derailed when I couldn’t find an interested partner, so I switched to Third Millennium at the Monastery, in Big Thompson Canyon, Colorado. This one started out well enough—making links, doing moves—until I was shut down yet again on a stab into another tight, tweaky, 1990s drilled pocket. (Sensing a theme? If I had a time machine, I’d go back to 1990 and tell developers, “Chip some fucking crimps—those ‘sick-ass’ pockets you created by Bosching out two 3/8” holes side-by-side aren’t gonna age well.”) I tried the move a couple days, futzing with different finger stacks, but soon my middle finger was protesting. Meanwhile, the few times I played on the projects I’d bolted, I regressed.

Send-O-Rama, 2022, had devolved into Flail-O-Rama, 2022. If there was an icon for the checkmark with a giant slash through it, I’d have been posting that shit all over the ‘Gram.

Honestly, I began to question why I climbed. At age 50, perhaps it was time to let go of big goals, give in to “popcorn gut,” and run laps on old favorites or climb comfortable grades at the gym. This is certainly a familiar middle-age trajectory: Embrace decrepitude; embrace mediocrity; embrace comfort; embrace the flab! Fuck it—we’re all going to die anyway. Might as well do some feel-good climbing while the Reaper circles.

But I’ve never been wired that way. I like to be challenged. I just needed to reframe my approach.

I realized this my final day trying Third Millennium. I was up there with my buddy Dave Hume, a Kentucky boy (and now Boulderite) who was a top youth competitor back in the 1990s. In 1996, Dave put up the 5.14b Thanatopsis at the Motherlode in the Red River Gorge, grading it 5.14a, then, in 1999 at Smith Rock, fired off Just Do It (5.14c) in scandalously few tries. He’s in his early forties now, no longer a kid—just a strong, experienced climber. That day, after I gave Dave the beta on Third Millennium, he nearly fired it second go. (Fuck you, Dave!) Meanwhile, I scrapped and flapped on the pocket move until, finally, I’d had enough. I slunk off around the corner, and being in scaredy-cat flail mode, stick-clipped up a thin, sandbaggy Tommy Caldwell 5.12d (Fuck you, Tommy!) called Windwalker, a climb whose credit-card crimps on the opening slab start to look like jugs when you reach the bulging grey-green wall above, with its gerbil-teeth slimpers and underclings.

Also Read: Pro Climbing Is Neither

“Going for a safety, eh?” said Dave, belaying as I worked the moves. “Good call.”

“A what?” I asked.

“A safety,” he said. “Like, a route you know will be in the bag.”

And that’s when it hit me: I wasn’t copping out by trying a “lesser” route; no, I was simply connecting, in a way that made sense that day, with my innate motivation to climb, my internal drive to always be sending or trying something, whatever that something may be.

The author taking the express route down on his project, a new route near Lyons, Colorado. (Photo: Matt Samet Collection)

Since that epiphany, I’ve found myself a lot less frustrated out climbing. If my main goal for the day isn’t happening, I simply move on to others. Like, if I’m far off from redpointing my project, I’ll set the goal of climbing from bolts two to four, or of dialing in more efficient beta, or of seeing how high I can climb, regardless of how I feel. And if those things aren’t happening, I’ll find another climb I haven’t yet done, like Windwalker, or even just look to repeat a climb with better technique and efficiency. There are so many options when you learn to adjust—or even let go of—your expectations. There are so many options when you embrace the safety.

Also Read: Let’s Retire These 5 Cliche Climber Quotes—Now

Climbing has become much more fun since shifting my mentality. There really are no bad days anymore. I just take what comes and climb what I can; I always have a safety. The video in this article is of an attempt last week at one of those local projects described higher in this piece. I didn’t get the route that day (look at my left elbow lifting before I fell—pathetic!). But I did tick my safety, which was “Climb as high as you can from the ground.” And I went home feeling buzzed and happy. After all, I was climbing; after all, I was embracing the journey.

Matt Samet is a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado, where he lives with his family and his pets—way too many pets.