Friday, March 8, 2013

the night before climbing

'Twas the night before climbing, and all through the house, the sound of metal clanging against metal was damn satisfying. The first climbing pilgrimage to the New River Gorge of 2013 is about to begin, and I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. I won't be waking up to a decorative spruce tree flanked with presents. I will, however, be waking up to a weekend of 50 + degree temps and a fresh rope that has yet to see a whipper.

The night before climbing is always filled with intensity. Whether it's mentally preparing for a single big climb, sending a project, or just a day of fighting through moderates after a climbless winter, the feeling is electrifying. We all experience it. Pros, hardmen, weekend warriors. It's in our blood. It's the reason we get out there and do this seemingly pointless sport. We are 'conquerors of the useless.' Yvon Chouinard proclaimed, "It's kind of like the quest for the holy grail. Who give's a shit about what the holy grail is, it's the quest that's important. The transformation is within yourself, that's what's important."

This transformation, however, comes with a wide range of emotions. The night before climbing is often accompanied by a feeling of invincibility; staunch optimism that makes you twice as strong as you are. You picture the moves. This crimp, that undercling, the final reach to clip the chains. It all goes down so seamlessly in your mind's eye. But motion pictures are often deceiving. The following morning is, no pun intended, rock bottom. You wake up and realize that it's here. It's time to perform, regardless of the quality of performance. Anxiety. Fear. Failure. These feelings flood your veins from the second you creep out of your tent to the moment you rope up and grab the first hold. We've all experienced it. And it keeps us grounded. Going into a climb with reckless abandon carries no style points. Cockiness holds no place between bolts. The route doesn't respect an ego and will drop you in an instant.

One of my climbing heroes, Royal Robbins, portrays this feeling quite eloquently in the first volume of his My Life autobiography series, To Be Brave. While Robbins is preparing to do the first solo ascent of the Leaning Tower in Yosemite, an incredible feat even by today's standards, he confidently ponders the climb over wine the evening before. One could attribute his confidence to his demeanor, or perhaps the wine. When he wakes up, however, the Valley is a different world. It's snowing, it's cold, it's desolate. The realization that he has to complete each pitch three times (one to free it and set anchors, two to pull his haul bag, and three to clean it) makes the climb a monumental effort. This hits him when he crawls out of his tent. While I've never done anything remotely close to this epic climb, it's comforting to know that our heroes, the ones who seem completely fearless, experience the same range of emotions and self doubt that we mortals do.

In the end, the climb is what you make it. Failure is defeating, but it comes with love from friends. The climbing community is forgiving and supportive. Success, however, can be accompanied by sadness from the immediate realization that everything you had built up for that ultimate moment can be boiled down to one second when the carabiner gate snaps the rope in securely. Click. It's over. That big wall, that project, that road trip. Everything comes to an end. When you're up there about to rap down, you have to pause and reflect. Did the end justify the means? Did the means justify the end? That's why we do this useless sport. Because if you can answer 'yes' to both of those questions, you have transformed.