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The Despondency Point: When Hopelessness Helps You Send

"In a sport that prizes youth and energy and boldness and good health, it is, I realize, anathema to confess to any sort of weakness..." But sometimes embracing your weakness can help.

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Ed note: This column originally appeared in 2017. It’s being refreshed because we think it’s as awesome and relevant as ever.

April 2017: I sat slumped on a rock, staring down at my shoes, palms turned up and arms loose at my sides. My muscles burned, I couldn’t draw a full breath, and two times out climbing in the 10 days preceding I’d had heart palpitations and low-blood-pressure issues at the cliff; somehow, I needed to set all this aside to climb the six bolts of overhanging black sandstone above without falling.

It all felt like too much.

My friend Ted and I, both reclusive, both dads in our forties with full-time jobs and scant free time, and both aficionados of the first ascent—if you get there first, you don’t have to deal with the bozos—were 45 minutes up a steep gully near Boulder, climbing at the topmost promontory along a castellated ridge. We’d begun hiking at 5:45 a.m., watched as the red-orange glow of dawn touched the sandstone blocks and spires we shuffled beneath, warming their upper reaches. A slight breeze sighed through the Ponderosas. I’d seen cat tracks up here earlier in the year—big tracks, from massive paws, in the snow in a little grotto. To the east sprawled the Denver megalopolis under an oily brown veneer of smog, the Great Plains obscured beyond.

“Dude, you sure you’re alright?” Ted asked me.

“No worse than any other day,” I said weakly, trying to make a joke.

“OK, then—well, I’m ready when you are.” He tugged on the rope in his Grigri to confirm it was loaded correctly and looked at his harness buckle to see that it was doubled-back. Still, I slouched there, immobile.

Ted and I have climbed together since 2008, and he knows about my health issues. Due to iatrogenic damage to my central nervous system sustained more than a decade ago, I still deal on and off (mostly on) with a nightmarish suite of neurological and systemic issues. On good days, my symptoms are background noise—a distant train whistle passing in the night. On bad days, I’m tied to the tracks and the engine is bearing down and all I can do is grip the rails and watch that lone headlight grow bigger and bigger and bigger. This was a bad day: I wheezed, my limbs felt heavy, my balance was off and vision fuzzy, and my thoughts were saturated with darkness. The hike in had felt like the last mile of an ultra-marathon. From 2007 to 2013 I’d been on a steady climb back to health; in 2013 I overdid it with climbing and caffeine and plunged back into hell. Nearly four years later, I’m still trying to extricate myself. I have moments of feeling like my old self, but then they subsume beneath a tsunami of pain.

This rock, like all rocks, doesn’t care if you live or die. So you might as well climb it anyway, while you’re still living.

Should I even bother lacing my shoes? What difference does it make? I’ll still feel this way when I come down, even if I send the stupid route. What am I doing up here anyway? What’s the point?

My thoughts were airless, devoid of hope. Yet they were also grounded in a certain reality: that I am chronically ill. In a sport that prizes youth and energy and boldness and good health, it is, I realize, anathema to confess to any sort of weakness of the body or “psyche” (whatever the hell that is) or of the mind, to be anything less or to be perceived as anything less than strong and fearless and setting out for the next “sick” destination that you’re so amped to visit you and your starry-eyed followers on social can barely absorb the effluent of your boundless enthusiasm. Of course, we all have off days and of course we all get scared, and I’m certain that I’m far from the only climber to persist at climbing despite health issues, or busted or nonfuctional body parts or senses, and the limitations conferred. But the fact remains that this is a young, healthy person’s sport, often marketed as such, perhaps because the best athletes at the top of their game, who figure foremost in the media, fit that demographic. And I’m a 45-year-old guy with two kids, a mortgage, a full-time job, and chronic health issues. I’m not really what most people think of when they think of a climber. But still, I climb. I still love it. On good days, climbing provides some relief from my symptoms, disrupting them, and gets me out of my head. Plus, I’ve been doing this for 30 years: My body craves the movement and the exposure and the endorphins. On bad days, however, climbing revs my symptoms—and I don’t usually know which way the day will go until I’m out at the rock.

There is truth to the old saw that the less you care about redpointing a route, the more likely you are to succeed. I’ve heard from other climbers (and experienced myself) that their first burn of the day is often useless, because they overgrip due to nerves and flame out, because they want it too badly. It’s usually on the second burn, when they’re feeling looser and caring less, or even the third burn, when they’re growing tired and figure nothing good is going to come of it, but I-might-as-well-give-it-a-shot-anyway, that they send, slop and sweat and botched beta and cramped forearms and everything. This shows just how mental our sport really is.

That day in April, I perfected a new, next-level redpointing technique: the “Despondency-point.” Not only did I not care about the outcome, about sending the route; I didn’t actually care about anything. You should try it too: By emptying yourself completely and letting the void flood in—by embracing complete and total nihilism—you shut down all mental activity, thus freeing up your body to climb. You leave the ego behind and embrace just how puny and insignificant and replaceable you are in the grand scheme of the universe, and so, Guess what? I may as well climb this rock for the next few minutes to pass the time until my inevitable demise, which is the only thing in life I’m certain of anymore anyway.

At the base of the climb, sitting on a rocky platform, I tightened my shoelaces, my mind totally empty, and just climbed. At the third bolt, my body automatically tucked into an elegant drop knee to make the clip, a move I hadn’t done before on other burns. That’s odd, I thought. Who’s driving this bus? At the crux, blowing power exhales and whooping for air, I set up on a tips undercling and drove by to a two-finger pebble. This time, unlike the previous burn, I held it. Just keep going, a little voice said. You might as well. And so I did.

At the chains, I fought for air, still breathing too heavily but wheezing less than I had been. The sun arced high in the morning sky, blazing down to illuminate the city, burning off some of the smog. I lowered back to the ground, for those precious few moments unaware of the pain I would feel as soon as I landed. My mind had drifted to some other place, away from suffering, which ultimately might be the biggest gift of climbing: those temporary moments of simply being, in which our cares and pains drop away and we are like children again, at play in our vertical castles.

Matt Samet is freelance writer and a former editor of Climbing. When he’s not at the gym or the rocks trying to stave off the inevitable performance decline of middle age, you can find him in his basement playing Xbox.