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Does Your Ticklist Really Matter (When You’re Dead)?

When you reach the Pearly Gates or the banks of the River Styx or Nirvana or wherever, no higher power is going to deny you access because you only sent 29 5.13s instead of 30; there will be no angel with a golden abacus tallying up your 8a.nu points to make sure you merit entry into the Promised Land.

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As concepts, Sendtember and Rocktober make good sense—well, superficially anyway. The days are cooler, humidity drops as the monsoon fades, and you’re fit, with good “rock sense” from all those pitches, road trips, and endless summer days out. Meanwhile, condies are “perfect.” Everything should be tilting toward putting your dream projects down.

At least, this is what we tell ourselves in our mad dash to the crags before winter comes.

But do these concepts actually reflect reality, or do they just create undue pressure to send “before the season ends”? And are they lazy shorthand for certain deeper, unexplored topics, representing man’s futile race against the inexorable passage of time and the icy breath of the Reaper?


In my forty-eighth year, I was seized by a terrible angst, an existential panic that has only slowly unclenched its jaws but that still rears its head on occasion. I don’t know how or why this dread came on, only that it did so suddenly, an uninvited guest. Some might call this a “midlife crisis,” the distant war drums of mortality finally drifting within earshot. Others might call it “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” I’d prefer to call it an awakening.

I drove alone from Colorado to Wyoming that September of 2020, following tight, winding dirt-and-gravel back roads through the Big Horn Mountains to reach Ten Sleep, a piss-yellow sun beating down through smoky skies while some invisible demon hovered in my peripheral vision. In the canyon, the phantom came and went; as I climbed with my friend Kathy, I did my best to be present even as my teeth vibrated in my skull and limbs trembled on the rock and I felt like every hold was going to shear from the wall. The dread felt contagious, like a virus. I dared not vocalize what I was feeling, so I bottled it up instead.

My friend Will and I returned to Ten Sleep that October, sneaking in a day at the crags between autumn snowstorms. Fluffy powder coated the upper reaches of the canyon, blanketing river stones and evergreens, melting and flowing and soaking the rock. We climbed on warmer walls down low, alone at the cliffs in the crisp autumn light. Toward the day’s end, we hiked into a side canyon, Leigh Creek, to try the overhanging pocket climb If Dreams Were Thunder.

Contouring along a towering limestone bluff, we neared a border where the canyon dropped into shadow, the sun plunging behind the rim opposite. The sunlight had a sharp, binary “either it’s there or it’s not” quality I recalled from the cross-hatched etchings in a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales I’d had as a child, where bright meadows abutted perilous, ghoul-haunted forests so dark it seemed that light had never penetrated their depths. Then it hit me: My inchoate dread was the fear of death, a quotidian terror that had descended on the cusp of my final year in my forties, soon to be followed by 50—an age at which you can no longer kid yourself that most of your life is still ahead of you.

I’d realized my life, as unremarkable as it is among the billions on this planet—yet still precious to me—had the same binary quality as the autumn light. At some point it too would be consumed by shadow, by nothingness.


I don’t know what happens after we die (and neither do you), but I do know this: You can’t take your ticklist with you.

When you reach the Pearly Gates or the banks of the River Styx or Nirvana or wherever, no higher power is going to deny you access because you only sent 29 5.13s instead of 30; there will be no angel with a golden abacus tallying up your 8a.nu points to make sure you merit entry into the Promised Land. And yet, by putting pressure on ourselves to send with the mad, pre-winter Sendtember/Rocktober rush, we pretend otherwise. It’s the dying season: Winter is coming, the plants are wilting, the leaves are dropping, we sense our own mortality even if only on a subconscious level, and we begin running around like beheaded chickens. We act like we must climb these stupid routes, ignoring the fact that it ultimately doesn’t matter or that we can always come back. Since not one of us will ever be able to climb all routes everywhere in a lifetime anyway—no, not even Adam Ondra—what difference does another climb make, more or less?

I suppose when I say “we” I actually mean “me,” since this is a lesson I’ve finally learned after decades of climbing. I used to be manic this time of year, reaching out desperately to partners to lock them in for “one last burn” or heading to routes I knew deep down were going to be too cold in the shade or too hot in the sun in the vain hope of sending. (That’s another doozy about Sendtember/Rocktober: At least in the Intermountain West, September is now mostly too hot—it’s just a continuation of August—and then October gets cold and wet, without enough stable, high-pressure autumn days.) I’d grind away at Sendtember/Rocktober projects, most often failing due to all the self-inflicted pressure, until I’d bled the joy out of climbing, swapping process for goal in an inversion of what our sport should be.

It began to happen again this autumn, with a fierce little route we found in August in the Front Range foothills. The climb is bouldery, crimpy, and gently overhanging on the same granitic patina as the Buttermilks—in fact, it looks like the famous highball Ambrosia, though this climb has seven bolts instead of zero, and the crux is at the top; I can think of no amount of crashpads that would make it safe. I began trying the route in early September, but it was still too warm and I’d ooze off the crux. Finally, it cooled off and I began trying again: on warm days, windy days, cloudy days, days with epic hailstorms, falling over and over off the same, low-percentage move.

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Soon I slipped into old, bad habits, frenetically checking the forecast, texting everyone on my partner list to line out a belayer, obsessing over the route day and night, picturing the beta when I laid my head on my pillow each night. Damnit, I needed to send! And yet, I continued to fail. I was in panicked Sendtember/Rocktober mode, and it needed to stop. So I stepped back: Last time I was there, with numb fingers on yet another icy, windy day full of failed attempts, I asked my belayer to lower me, then we went to the gym. Pulling plastic is always somewhat of a consolation prize, but this time it felt nice to be inside, to be warm and getting pumped—to be climbing again for climbing’s sake.

As I write this, it’s October 4. I plan to head up to the climb one more time this season, if nothing else to pull the draws so the raging Chinook winds don’t bat them against the rock all winter. I’ve given up on sending. If it’s a warm day and I’m feeling good and it happens, great; if not, that’s fine too. There’s always next summer, and—I hope—more seasons beyond that. I know I can’t take this tick—or any—with me to the grave, so I might as well enjoy the process. I mean, really, what else is there?

Matt Samet is a climber of 35 years, and a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado.

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