“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett
Before getting out of of dodge, I spent a few days in the Red. Kendra and Ted Eliason joined Erick, Zack and me, despite the bleak weather forecast. It had been raining buckets days before, and amazingly enough, the weather cleared up and offered us a couple of blue bird sky days.
I met Ted and Kendra during Ouray Ice Festival this January. My long time partner in crime, Connie Magee, had met Kendra the year before and invited everyone to share a condo, telling me that she was basically one of us. Kendra is a kindred spirit in many ways and probably one of my new favorite people to climb with. You could hear random bursts of excitement coming from about halfway up a route as Kendra shouted, “Whoo hoo! I love the Red!”
And what’s not to love? Classic pockets on ferociously overhanging walls that test your ability to hold onto jugs while fighting the inevitable pump, and ridiculously aesthetic lines that make your jaw drop. Every visit, I still meet travelers from climbing meccas out west because the rock climbing is just world renowned (and there is something so sublime about east coast cragging).
Years ago, when I first visited the Red, I watched climbers warming up at Solar Collector and was immediately in awe at the grace of a girl climbing Buddha Hole (5.11d). She danced her way up the slopey rock with such balance and style, it was like being at the New York City Ballet (but with PBR).
It’s become apparent to me over the last few years that climbing is more of an art than anything else. I’ve never been artistic, and in fact, I’ve spent my childhood years growing up with best friends who were creative beyond my ability, leaving me in the dust with my Exploding Dog-like stick figures.
I guess sometimes it takes people longer to blossom than others, to find their artistic endeavor. (For me, it was a few decades). On our way to the Phantasia Wall, Ted and I talked about how even though climbing continues to change over time, what hasn’t changed about it is the ability to really ferret out creative expression. Movement has become art; the climber has become the artist.
This was a good trip for Ted, because a couple of months ago, he’d taken a fall this past winter on the Rigid Designator in Vail. I think that, like most falls, it can spook us and mess with our mental game and it really got me exploring that side of climbing. The fear of the unexpected downward momentum makes sense. It's an unnatural feeling and let's face it; we're all much happier when we're sending things rather than falling all over them.
But after hearing Ted's story, it made me to dig a little deeper and question why falling is scary. There are a lot of reasons, and the physical consequences of a bad fall are more than enough to cause fear. I started questioning the psychology behind that fear and why it's my number one enemy.
I started thinking back to a few of the more heady climbs I’ve been on the sharp end for recently, and how I’ve begun to really question myself in moments on lead, above my gear and getting my Elvis leg on. We all deal with uncertainty, and as much as I try not to let those feelings dictate what I do, I keep finding myself in the same stance: feet wavering, fingers shaking and that quiver of doubt shooting through my heart and head, causing me to yell “Take!” below to my belayer.
I thought I’d conquered the fear of falling years ago, after taking my first lead fall on the Dangler (5.10a) in the Gunks. I was with Jon at the time, who wasn’t expecting me to fall and had given me a fairly relaxed belay on the GT ledge that day. Despite words of encouragement, after climbing three quarters of the way through the traverse, I decided I was NOT going to make it all the way to the roof and started down climbing to my first piece of protection. Turns out, down climbing to my piece was harder than I’d anticipated and I whipped a good one.
After that, it became substantially easier to push myself on gear. Looking up at that .75, I smiled and thought, “Hey! That stuff works.”
And maybe I did conquer my fear of falling three years ago, but it’s the kind of process that isn’t like taking a test, graduating and moving on. You don’t do it once and then never think about it again, and I think that, as climbers, we go back and forth and revisit those “don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall!” moments of panic (at least, I do). I also think that it’s a good thing – I don’t like it, but I’m trying to understand it better.
The first few (when I say “few” I hope that implies twenty, thirty…maybe fifty) times of falling, I became empowered with the courage to push past the very rational fear of coming off the rock. I began acknowledging the dangers of a bad fall, assessing the gear I was placing and practicing better placements when available.
After several months, what I’ve come to conclude is that I am more afraid of the failure than the fall. This was a hard pill for me to swallow. It’s easier to tell people that I’m worried about falling off and gear ripping (which is still true) than admitting that I take pride in giving an appearance of someone who swallows her fear and dives in, head first (and there is danger in that, too). The ego identifies too much with this – with how people see us, and limits any growth.
If I can’t let that go, then I’m not doing this for the right reasons anymore. I might as well go back home to the east coast right now, retire my gear and start making rugs out of all of my ropes (I might do that, anyway).
So the important question I should be asking myself is why am I afraid of failing? It’s not as if anybody is rooting for us to lose (and if they are, maybe we need to reevaluate what kinds of friends we are climbing with). It’s just time for me to realize and accept that I am NOT my success, nor my defeats, but they are always going to be a part of me. And the sooner I can accept that I am going to fail – and hopefully, a lot – the sooner I can move on (onward and upward).
Maybe I put too much pressure on myself (I think we all do), and maybe I’ve fooled myself into thinking that other people are putting pressure on me, too. For the most part, nobody cares one way or the other. If we take a few steps back mentally and honestly ask ourselves the right questions, I’ve found the answers are more forthright than we expect.
Up until recently, failure always meant the following:
I’m not the climber other people think I am.
I’m not (and never will be) good enough.
My dreams are all pipe dreams, and I’m a just crazy person for thinking they could come true.
I think the message I’ve been missing is that with every setback comes a new set of skills we can use to accomplish our goals. If we didn’t experience setbacks, we wouldn’t be able to recognize opportunity the next time around. Failing one time isn’t the end of the world, because there is always going to be a “next time”. However, opportunity often masks itself from the naked eye and doesn’t come wrapped in paper and ribbon; it won’t shout out “Surprise! Here I am.”
Experience and time help reveal these moments.
Climbing with Ted and Kendra that weekend really helped put a lot of the chaos in my head into perspective. After a twenty minute rope rescue (that’s another story for another day, I’m afraid), I came down from the chains of Twinkie (5.12a) and in our goodbyes, Ted hugged me and said, “Strong work, girl.”
Ted is going to keep climbing and working on his mental boundaries, and I’m going to follow his lead. I’m still afraid of falling (and failing), but I’m recognizing that it’s my responsibility to define what “failure” really is. There’s value in it if we choose to see it as something great instead of something that holds us back.
So, I hope you fail, a lot.
I’ll forever have these kinds of hopes for the people in my life that I love, and for myself as well.