“You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” —Wayne Gretzky, hockey legend
It’s the eternal struggle: how to identify and achieve our goals in climbing without getting so attached to those goals that we put too much pressure on ourselves to actually achieve them. That we became so wracked with anxiety, tension, and redpoint jitters that we get snippy with belayers and friends before each burn. That we obsess on that one climb or trip to the exclusion of everything else. That we so want to just get our project over with that we climb poorly and fall, in what with each failed burn becomes an ever-more self-fulfilling prophecy. And that when we whip (again) or things beyond our control like poor conditions or life stress intercede, we pitch a massive fit because it’s “just not fair.”
When I was 18, myself and three friends—Lee, Adam, and Jean—took a trip to Smith Rock, Oregon, that was “just not fair.” Our home crag had been Cochiti Mesa, New Mexico, a welded-tuff cousin to Smith with similar tight pockets and pyroclastic nubs. We figured we might climb alright at Smith, and maybe even get up a 5.13b—a shared, stated trip goal. (Only Jean had climbed 5.13b at that point.) In fact, we expected to, given our familiarity with the rock type and angle. The rock gods, however, crushed our expectations into so much choss-dust.
We spent our first night at Smith “bivying” under a blue tarp in the rain alongside a random country road as tendrils of muddy water soaked our sleeping bags, and all woke up with sore backs. What followed was a freakish October heatwave, with daytime highs hitting 100 F. We failed on pretty much every climb. A few days in, I slipped off trying to reach the high first bolt on Churning in the Wake in the morning sun; my heel stayed hooked in a hueco and I fell backward onto the hardpacked pumice, landing on my head, shoulders, and neck and sustaining what I now realize was a concussion but to 18-year-old me was just a “headache.”
“Shit, dude, are you OK?” Jean asked as I blinked up at white-hot skies spinning lazily overhead.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Your lead.”
One week into this, Adam, Lee, and I couldn’t take it anymore and left Jean, who was determined to make it work at Smith, there to hook up with some other climbers. We drove down to the City of Rocks, where a flurries and a bitter wind screamed across the spires and domes, pushing us out. We stopped at American Fork to revisit the Hell Cave, where we’d spent a day en route to Smith and where a snowstorm quickly spread a wet blanket over our 5.13b ambitions. Eventually we found ourselves back in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 10 days after we’d left.
“What now?” Lee asked as I unloaded my stuff from his car, to drive back to Albuquerque.
“I’m over it,” Adam said. “I’m going home.” And who could blame him? He was working on a graduate degree in geology and had a new live-in girlfriend. Returning to that life versus spending more time epicking with me, a prickly, clueless skate-punk kid from Albuquerque, and Lee, a prickly ex-hippie from Long Island, was clearly the better choice.
“I dunno,” I said. “Maybe Hueco Tanks? It’s always warm in Hueco.”
I wish I could say that I’ve learned my lesson in the ensuing 33 years, and that I now climb with the perfect balance of focus but also nonattachment that cultivates the flow state so integral to climbing one’s best, or that lets me be flexible enough to take whatever the climbing day delivers. But I haven’t. I try, but I don’t always nail it. I’m not sure that anyone does, other than in carefully curated snippets of Fake-stagram inspo-ganda. For example: “Surprised myself with a send of Wango Mango (5.16a) on the last day of my trip. Guess all it took was checking out a couple of side projects, bingeing season two of Emily in Paris on a rest day, and a chocolate donut to get my head right again. Not sure about the grade, other than ‘second go/soft’ might be applicable here LOL. ✔ WangoMango (5.16a) #sponsors.”
I figure that the best I can do is to at least be aware when I’ve pendulumed too far one way or the other—that is, have either become so attached to sending and have put in so many attempts that I no longer relish the experience, or have become so detached from all goals that training and fitness fall by the wayside, making it impossible to realize a goal (or mini-goal) even if I had one. If you’re an obsessed climber, the reality is that you will always be happier with a project—whether you’re just starting to work the moves, are close to the send, or have just sent and are basking in the post-climb glow. When you don’t have a project, you feel listless and ill at ease, as if life has no meaning. But at the same time, if you always have a project and are putting your all into it without seeing improvement, you can burn out and find yourself in limbo, wondering just why the hell you’re wasting all this time at the cliffs.
In the course of a year or even a season, the pendulum will naturally swing back and forth as we hit performance peaks and valleys. But regardless, how do you stay in that sweet spot, where you’re just attached enough to get shit done at whatever grade you’re capable of at the moment?
What’s worked best is when I cultivate an air of curiosity, selecting a specific goal (because let’s face it, we have to climb on something) but then approaching the route not as a trophy to be conquered but as a vehicle for both internal and external exploration. I’ll ask myself questions that focus more on the process and the journey: What is the climb actually like—how do the holds and moves feel? What would it feel like to finally stick that move from the ground, when I’m pumped stupid? Will I even notice that runout on the link, or will I be so focused that the fall consequences no longer matter? Will I remember that crucial thumb catch in the moment, or how do I remind myself to do it on the go? What will that view look like around the arete when I’m on the send, full of endorphins, soaking it all in? And, What might it feel like to clip the chains?
Not, I need to clip the chains. Just: What might it feel like?
These, of course, are merely a few tools among many for not getting stuck on the hamster wheel of desire. But I’ve found that engaging in an internal dialogue this way often moves the needle far enough from goal-obsession that I can relax and just climb, and the the magic happens. Another trick is to go onsight climbing—it is impossible to have expectations about a climb you’ve never been on, unless you get hung up on the grade. Hell, even gym routes work for this; do a whole slew of ’em for maximum effect.
As for that trip to Hueco with Lee, it went great. We were warm and dry, and the park was empty except for an awesome band of Swiss climbers one campsite over we became fast friends with. And I did climb my first 5.13b, When Legends Die, the famous route on the Eagle formation on West Mountain put up by Todd Skinner in the late 1980s, a wildly exposed, traversing line on slopers and potholes with a runout “slab” finish featuring the spicy “salsa move,” a 5.11+ highstep way above your bolt.
I remember my reluctance to get on Legends, the intimidation I felt at the grade and at its aura, and how I balked at the notion of even trying it. But it was Lee, an older and wiser climber, who talked me into it.
“I don’t know,” he said in his blunt-spoke New York Way. “Why don’t we go get on it? You never know what might happen.”
Matt Samet is a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado.
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