Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jesus, Tequila, and Guilt

A climber falls from the crux on Jesus and
Tequila. Photo from MountainProject.
It’s never spoken of in polite conversation at the crag or the gym, but there isn’t a climber on the planet who hasn’t felt it at least once. It’s a terrible, invidious feeling, and it usually starts on the approach hike, or when your partner is tying in at the base of a route. At first it’s easy to deny it; to convince yourself that you aren’t really feeling it. But then, after your partner makes the opening moves look easy and is breathing calmly at the rest jug below the crux, you can no longer plead ignorance. Your guilt starts to overwhelm you while you await his fall with gleeful anticipation as he strains through the crux sequence. But the fall never comes. Immediately, you start to hate yourself for even letting these thoughts creep in, in the first place. After all, he’s through the crux, the send is now in the bag, and you’ve started the process of acceptance. If it’s really bad, you might even start thinking up some outlandish celebratory gesture -- emitting a high-pitched bellow or maybe even playing air guitar while you lower your victorious partner, using the brake strand as a whammy bar. What better way to assure your partner that you’re psyched for his send than to overcompensate by making a total idiot out of yourself? But then, out of nowhere, you sense hesitation. You look up to see your partner’s legs wobbling as he tries to pull the final moves. Could it be? Is he coming off? You’ve seen him make these last moves a dozen times without incident on prior attempts, but lo, there he is peeling off the rock. Your jaw drops as he sails through the air. “Noooooooo!” The echo of his lament snaps you out of your disbelief as you’re yanked upwards by the rope. Thank god for the GriGri. Not knowing what to feel, you lower your partner off in stunned silence. The look of disappointment in his eyes reminds you that a deep, dark part of you was secretly rooting for this only a few minutes earlier, and you feel the guilt creep in again, stronger than ever. You despise yourself, but at the same time, you’re relieved. The pressure’s off.

Although slightly exaggerated, this is more or less the thought process that went through my mind as Dan tied in for his first redpoint burn on Jesus and Tequila this past Saturday. This route, a “right of passage for New River Gorge climbers,” has been the focus of our thoughts and training for the past month. It was the first real sport-climbing project that either of us has ever had, and we both poured a lot of time and energy into the send. When we arrived at Endless Wall on Saturday morning, we were both feeling some measure of pressure to capitalize on all the hard work and put this route to bed.

Thus, it was under these conditions -- fired in the mutual crucibles of psych, impatience, and pressure -- that my contemptible feelings emerged, loathsome and, yet, somehow essential to the human condition. I’m not proud to admit that I felt somewhat relieved when Dan fell on his first attempt. But there’s no question that, with the pressure off, it helped me perform a little better and possibly made the difference in my own success. If I were a better person, perhaps Dan’s potential success on the route would have motivated me (instead of adding pressure) and maybe even provided the fire under my chalk bag to propel me to the anchors. But I guess that’s my point in writing this. None of us is perfect. I’m sure many climbers have felt this same feeling, and as it is in climbing, so it goes in real life. Why hide it away? Maybe by examining it, something can be learned and we can become better partners and better people. Or, maybe I’ve just made the readers of this blog decide that they’ll never want to climb with me again. Good thing our readership is essentially nil.

So there you are, belaying your partner once again, having sent the route yourself just a few hours earlier. There are no more dark feelings, no more guilt. In fact, it’s the opposite. You can’t call it pure altruism, because after all, you won’t feel right celebrating your own send unless your partner also clips the chains. But nonetheless, you’re rooting intensely for him. You feel yourself straining with his every move. You mouth the beta as you watch him work through the crux. You feel like you’re on the route with him. Your forearms even feel pumped as he grabs the jug after the crux move. So acutely do you want him to succeed that your palms get sweaty and you even start chalking up. You feel an amazing sense of relief as he clips the chains. An adjacent party yells up to your partner in congratulations and the sound fills the gorge, but you only smile as you lower him. You wanted this send … maybe more than you wanted your own.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic insight! I've heard sport referred to as the dark side and you've illuminated our inner ugliness that can make it such. Sure I'll keep climbing with you, we're more the same than I knew!