I hope you fail, a lot

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!

Petzl Prom party at 2015 Ouray Ice Festival. A reunion of old friends and a few new ones, too

Petzl Prom party at 2015 Ouray Ice Festival. A reunion of old friends and a few new ones, too

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.

Erick Barros does the dance, and the dude does abide. Photograph by Kendra Thompson-Eliason

Erick Barros does the dance, and the dude does abide. Photograph by Kendra Thompson-Eliason

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.

Taking a big one on the Dude Abides (5.11c). Photograph by Zack Slade

Taking a big one on the Dude Abides (5.11c). Photograph by Zack Slade

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.

Ted on the beginning of Perverse Intentions (5.10a/b)

Ted on the beginning of Perverse Intentions (5.10a/b)

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).

Success is: completing my pizza project at Miguel’s. Twice I hung, red point on the third attempt. I never have to go back to Kentucky.

Success is: completing my pizza project at Miguel’s. Twice I hung, red point on the third attempt. I never have to go back to Kentucky.

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.

Ted and Kendra Thompson-Eliason, worked and ready for pizza. Love that light! And those smiles

Ted and Kendra Thompson-Eliason, worked and ready for pizza. Love that light! And those smiles

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.

Climb it like a rock climb!

I think that for a little while, I was starting to feel like the things I used to enjoy were becoming almost mute in my life. The things that used to take the edge off of other stresses were slowly becoming…….not really anything. It’s a pattern I’ve repeated in my life since I was young. I think that most people experience this in their own way: burning out on something and moving on to the next.

I’m three weeks into in my travels (after three months on the road with a two week break back home in the northeast). Am I burned out yet? No, but I have been taking my climbing days more casually – much more than I ever have before. It’s kind of nice to take my time, planning and mapping out the whens and wheres of my brief stint down south and not driving through the night to rush to my next destination. (No more driving through endless nights, but still blasting Gin Blossoms and old Saves the Day.)

And if I start to feel like I’m burning out for a day or two, I have to set my mindset right and shift it into a new gear; if you don’t try to restart your system, a new garden will never grow.

Contemplating Apollo at the Coliseum. Photograph by Rana Quandri

Contemplating Apollo at the Coliseum. Photograph by Rana Quandri

Recently, I’ve begun wondering if I’m doing what I’d always said I’d never do: fixating on climbs to be able to tick them off – another notch on my belt. I certainly have a big list of projects and routes all around the country at this point. It’s my “If Your Dreams Don’t Scare You, They Aren’t Big Enough (-Ellen Johnson Sirleaf)” List. I go back and forth between thinking that this is wrong, and then justifying it with reasons of “personal growth” or something blah blah.

I don’t think that aspiring to be a stronger climber is wrong. Think about when you first started climbing and how much you dreamt of conquering your first V-whatever in the gym. You tried and tried over and again, until your fingertips bled and skin became calloused – your first climbing callous! A milestone of hardened, taped up skin that when reached, you waver back and forth between pride and embarrassment (at least, I did. Whenever I went to hold somebody’s hand, I would shrink back with unease because my hands were rougher than his).

(I don’t do this anymore – get embarrassed, I mean. I’ll still hold hands; you just have to ask nicely.)

These are what (my) happy hands look like. My happy face, too. Photograph by Peter Hoang

These are what (my) happy hands look like. My happy face, too. Photograph by Peter Hoang

I’m a big believer in becoming a stronger climber, mostly because your physical strength and mental strength grow parallel with each other. Climbing hard is important to me, sure. The motivation to push past whatever grade you are climbing comfortably at into a grade you are slightly less comfortable with is the same for everybody, whether that number is 5.5 or 5.15. I personally enjoy the thrill of challenging myself and especially pushing past a wall when I hit it. However, the importance of climbing smarter is increasingly growing for me and I’m beginning to understand the affection for a greater objective rather than a greater level of difficulty.

Mark Pugeda on “I don’t even know what wall this is!”. Mark so badly wanted to lead his first outdoor climb and boom. He did it! Photograph by Markus Bergvind

Mark Pugeda on “I don’t even know what wall this is!”. Mark so badly wanted to lead his first outdoor climb and boom. He did it! Photograph by Markus Bergvind

The day that Paul Brenner sent Puppy Chow (5.12c), he recommended Trojans (5.11c) at the Toxic Hueco area.

“I have a good feeling about this one for you.” Paul said in that naturally calm tone of voice of his.

I glanced at the first several feet of sketchy blocks before the initial crack began as I racked gear to my harness. Carefully tiptoeing up to the base, I awkwardly straddled the rock and sat in a puddle as I punched in my first piece. Clipped and ready to go, but why not throw in another nut for safe measures?

If I could give Trojans more stars, then I would (in addition to several thumbs ups, cookie-cakes and smiley emojis as well) because it certainly deserved it. It felt like a familiar dance with careful foot placements all the way up through the overhanging crack. Interesting face holds here and there, and a stunning flared crack which puzzled the heck out of me. Eventually, the wider section spit me off and while I didn’t get an onsight, I pulled my way back up the rope to study where I’d fallen. A smallish dimple was revealed to me, and while most people would cruise past it without using it, my negative ape index just doesn’t give me enough height to reach the last few holds.

I used it and busted out to the chains.

Busting a move on Trojans (5.11c). Photograph by Peter Hoang

Busting a move on Trojans (5.11c). Photograph by Peter Hoang

He pulled the rope to rest and break for lunch and I was unsure if I wanted to work that hard again for a redpoint. Knowing I could wretch my way to the top the first time was enough for me.

Paul was so psyched for me that I’d finished it and asked, “Are you happy?”

And I was.

And then there was something in me that stirred. Maybe it was watching Peter Hoang attempt and then redpoint it afterwards, maybe it was because now it wasn’t about the onsight or the grade, or maybe I just really loved how much Paul believed that I could do it.

When someone believes in you so much, you start to do the same. When someone believes you can climb anything, sometimes you do.

Paul Brenner shoe-ing up for Trojans

Paul Brenner shoe-ing up for Trojans

Paul told me that it was easy, now. He said to put in the gear and take a deep breath (maybe two), and then: climb it like a rock climb.

Trojans isn’t a route that I’d say I redpointed just to redpoint. It’s not going on a list of things I’ve done (or didn’t do). I did it the second time because I knew that I could (it’s so easy for me to say “I can do that too” and then not actually do it). It’s something that inspired me to give it everything I had in me that day, and when I’m starting to grow weary from the road and climbing in general, I think of that day. It became apparent to me, then, that I’m not chasing a grade, but more of a feeling. The grades matter less and less. The onsight, too.

That’s how I restart my system; that’s how I regrow my garden.

As great as I think onsighting things can be, in the end, it still matters very little to me. I try to go into things with the idea that if it goes the first time, that’s awesome as hell. I can’t be upset if it doesn’t. (I won’t be upset if you don’t onsight things, either, but I’ll be stoked as hell when you do.)

First burn on Apollo in 2015. NO IT’S NOT AN ONSIGHT. But damnit, what amazing rock to climb. Photograph by Rana Quandri

First burn on Apollo in 2015. NO IT’S NOT AN ONSIGHT. But damnit, what amazing rock to climb. Photograph by Rana Quandri

A lot of times, conversation can revolve around how hard or what grades people climb – which is fine. It’s good to have knowledge of what kind of level the people you’re partnering up with climb at. I had the great pleasure of meeting Becca Droz and Sam Sommers from Restoration Climbing in the Red last week, and Becca asked me how I like to start conversations when I meet new partners on the road. I really like to ask people when I meet them: what styles of climbing do they love to climb? What gets them most psyched and how has climbing changed them?

Pretty psyched about meeting Becca and Sam and learning about the amazing work they’ve been doing. I’d say that about 89 percent of the time, I carry out trash from the crag (sometimes that crinkled water bottle is just a little too far down the hill…..) Now I’m at a solid 94 percent. (Kidding. 100.) Check out Restoration Climbing for more!

Pretty psyched about meeting Becca and Sam and learning about the amazing work they’ve been doing. I’d say that about 89 percent of the time, I carry out trash from the crag (sometimes that crinkled water bottle is just a little too far down the hill…..) Now I’m at a solid 94 percent. (Kidding. 100.) Check out Restoration Climbing for more!

Who the f cares about onsights when there are sunsets LIKE THIS

Who the f cares about onsights when there are sunsets LIKE THIS

My days in the south are slowly dwindling down. Now, dreams of the Monument are in my head (thanks to Peter) and the wildness of Wyoming is calling me this summer. On to the west, no longer questioning my reasons for certain things and no longer feeling burned out, but simply full of hope and a new fuel to try and take this energy from me and create: I want a splash of vibrance on a warm, desert afternoon and I think Utah is calling my name.