Thursday, September 22, 2011

First Send

We were finally there, atop the Winnebago-sized boulder at the base of the route, heads fallen back, walking our eyes through the moves up the orange grey wall, reconciling the untold hours of visualization with reality.

It had been three weeks since our last trip to the New River Gorge in West Virginia.  Three weeks of ruminating on every move on Jesus and Tequila, our First "Project."  Three weeks relishing the prospect of unlocking a new level in our climbing.  Now we were back, with perfect Fall weather.

I gripped the stone and began my warm-up.  The start felt just as I remembered.  Then the crux.  I felt more controlled in the crux than ever and became giddy.  I was certain my hopes were about to come true.

I finished and put Alex on belay.

Alex worked the first part and refined how he'd clip the second draw.  Then he worked the crux.


There was an eerie, "Cheep! Cheep!" that made Alex spring from the good stance and fall onto the rope.

"There's a bat in the slot of the good rest!"

He got back on the wall, pulled quickly to the next holds and finished the route.

My turn.  I would mount the wall and do a little climbing.  No pressure.  But there was the giddiness, and my breath stuttered in anticipation.

I donned my shoes, tied into the rope, cast off my shirt, and assumed the starting position bridged from our boulder to the wall. Don't forget your two breaths. I relaxed, took two steady breaths and went.

The first part was burly as usual, but familiar, and I quickly passed through the strenuous positions. My heart pounded at the first stance, but I knew I could get it to calm. Then the crux.  I got the pocket (half the battle), set the high toe and cranked on my right hand.

You know if you're going to succeed within the first second of trying that move.  Either your torso locks tight like the sections of a tent pole or it starts to quiver like a noodle in boiling water.  I knew I had it.

Now for the bat hold where I needed to rest.  I was a little worried--rabies and all that--but I'd used a hold with a bat in it once before.  It didn't wake or fuss in any way.  I would use the slot in a calm manner, exude peaceful vibes and ignore it as much as possible.

A climber on the beginning section of Jesus and Tequila
I crept my fingers into the hold, shook my free arm, switched hands, shook again, letting my blood-swollen forearms soften. With my heart rate down a couple ticks, and the feeling in my arms starting to come back I couldn't resist. I may as well have a look. I tipped my toes and peered.

Is that? I saw a pristine set of needled teeth in full attack pose, an inch from my finger tips.

Really? I doubted my eyes, which hadn't adjusted to the darkness in the nook, but then it shrieked.  The horror was real.  I stabbed my foot to the first edge I spotted and launched to the jugs on the overhang above.

It's not everyday you face such a monster, but there was no time to dwell.  I had to outrun the returning pump, move confidently through a couple big throws, and precisely on the small holds between.

Then I was at the rest below the final corner roof crux.  It was the first rest position good enough to relieve the strain from my upper body, and the first rest good enough to allow mental space for non-action thoughts.

You made it. Focus for the last part. This is what you've been waiting for. Keep it together for the roof. You never fall from this part.

I stepped from under the roof, reached for the sloper out left, spotted my target and bumped up to the rough sidepull 12 inches higher. I peeked down, switched my feet and raised my left foot to the rounded edge at my left hip. I pivoted onto my toe and reached across my body for the poor, but good enough sloper. It didn't feel good enough. Alex does it with his other hand. I switched hands and tried another hold. That's not right at all. I switched again and went big for a further hold I was to use later in the sequence. I hit it, but my body shuddered trying to stick the stretched-out, off-balance position. I threw my other hand to match.

"Noooooooooooooo!"  I was off, plunging 20' before whipping to a stop on the rope.

No way.

I blew it on the last move. It sounded familiar. I'd done the same thing on my gym project a few days earlier. Isn't that what you always do? With everything. All the ability in the world and then...blow it. Such thoughts popped into my head like smoke bubbles in a hookah.  The resulting cloud hid all reasonable dispositions from me.

It was Alex's turn.  He stepped onto the wall and performed.  When he hit the bat hold, he moved through without pause and flowed to the last rest.  Then he pulled through the roof to the top. That's what I was supposed to do.

"Dude, we can stay here all day.  You definately have this thing."  Alex assured, no doubt in his mind that I'd get it.

We joined our friends, Mark and Vicki, to catch up on what they'd been climbing, then returned with them to Jesus and Tequila.

I stepped back to the wall with hope that the widened audience would give me a little extra drive.

Arriving at the first rest, I just felt hot and impatient.

Then I was to the crux. I pulled hard on the high edge, pushed with my right toe and slowly reached for the pocket. It didn't feel natural like before, I had to fight. Fight for it! I got it well enough and proceeded to the set the high toe and crank. My core balked and I knew I was done.

On the ground, I became dour. That was it. You gave it everything. You won't be able to recover and do it this weekend. Maybe tomorrow morning, but you can't commit the whole group to coming back.

We left the draws hung on the route with my uncertain promise that I'd be back in the afternoon to give it another go, and left to find other climbs.

I blasted my way up the traditionally protected Autumn Fire.  Then I led the short bolted sport route Exoduster.

The ascents helped clear my head, but I felt drained of emotion and energy.  The fog was thinning, but in its place was just quiet fatigue.

No matter my state, I had to get back on Jesus and Tequila to remove our quick-draws.

Atop the starting boulder one last time, I flapped my arms to thaw my limbs and stuck head, velcroed my shoes, and threw my shirt.  No thoughts or inner coaching this time.  I just went.  No milking the steep jug this time.  I kept on.  Then I was at the first stance below the crux.

It was much cooler now, the sun was low and hidden by clouds, and there was a breeze like an cool silk sheet being pulled across my body. Out of the blankness came a whisper. This is going to go.

I continued in mental silence, through the crux, through the bat hold, which I dared not glance into, and found myself, again, below the roof, thankful to have another chance. I had it. I needed to stick to the sequence I knew, stay loose, hang low on the slopers. Be present.

Then I watched as I placed my right toe on the white sloping edge above the roof that ends the whole unstable dance.  Two easy steps up the weathered stone of the top and I was clipping the rope to the anchor.

Jubilation, exhilaration, and relief brimmed inside me.  I was about to howl in celebration, but it seemed cheap in the moment.  The rush washed over me in silence, sweat cooling, skin tingling.  A couple passers by and Alex cheered from below.  I grinned down and gave a big thumb up.

A sign on the climber's shack in Patagonia
The beer and pizza were satisfying that night--satisfying in that primordial way you get only after a successful, calorie robbing effort--and we all had a blast hanging out, telling stories and jamming to the notably good playlist at Pies and Pints.

But I couldn't stop reflecting on how I'd handled the day.  As Dave told me later, I should have just "tossed a wobbler" (thrown a tantrum while dangling from the rope) and been done with it.  Why did it affect me so?  First I was upset, which I knew was unreasonable, then I become upset that I was upset, which fed back into a dizzying hall of mirrors.  I think the whole affair reminded me of how far I have to go to be great both in climbing and life.

Trying is half of it, then you have to keep at it and not be thrown when the potential for a moment's glory passes or in the wake of failure.  Perfectionism is a trap.  Hard work and patience.  Chop wood, carry water.  "It's like a marathon," as Mark says.

Who knew you'd get all this from sport climbing?

Read Alex's experience of the day in his article entitled, Jesus, Tequila, and Guilt

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