“The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun!” ~Alex Lowe
I am not a strong climber. I can top-rope .10 on a “low gravity day.” My trad leading abilities top out at about 5.6 and I can’t even get my ass of the ground of V1 sit-start.
Of course, when I started climbing, I had big dreams and big goals. I wanted to be a 5.10 trad leader and a 5.12 sport leader. Now, I’d settle for 5.8 and 5.10 respectively. But since I’ve been stuck at the 5.6 level for the last 3-4 years, I’m beginning to question even that. I’m physically strong enough to pull off harder leads, but haven’t figured out how to slay my fear dragon yet, so I stay on more or less comfortable terrain. But that is a blog post for another day.
I use to get really down on myself for not climbing harder. I didn’t train enough or didn’t know how to train properly. I was too lazy to work enough at it. I just didn’t climb enough to be that good. I had a bajillion internal conversations with myself about why it even mattered anyway; its not like “she climbed hard” was going to be on my epitaph or anything. Whenever a climber is killed in the mountains or passes away, people always remember what kind of person they were- the deceased’s endless energy or megawatt-smile or how they encouraged new & struggling climbers. I have yet to read the obit of a climber and see any reference to what grade they climbed. (Although to be fair, if they had the first ascent of some proud and classic lines, they might be referenced.)
Yet I couldn’t seem to give up my focus on climbing harder. I tried to justify my obsession; I wanted to travel to other climbing areas and climbing harder was a necessity for enjoying more of the terrain instead of hunting all over the place for the few entry level lines. At my home crag in the Gunks, there are plenty of fun moderate routes, but if you’re climbing on the weekend, expect to spend most of your day waiting in line to climb them. I told myself that I wanted to climb harder so I could climb more. The funny thing was, the more I focused on not being good enough, the less fun climbing became, the less I wanted to climb and surprise, the more I sucked at it when I did go! On more then one occasion, I contemplated selling off my rack and just giving it up altogether.
Many times when I would bemoan my quandary to fellow climbers, the above quote would be thrown back at me. It got to the point where I hated that sentence. I hated the sentence because I got to the point where I no longer knew how to have fun. I know that sounds strange, because why would you get into a hobby that involves hanging off the side of a cliff in potentially life-threatening conditions if you don’t get something out of it? But seriously, there was a time when every climbing outing just resulted in disappointment and frustration. I wanted to have fun, but I just didn’t know how.
Then I figured it out.
You don’t focus on what you don’t want to happen (having a bad day), you focus on what you do want to happen- to have fun- and then you just do it. When I started going out without any expectations and instead, just focused on having fun, well, hot damn! I had fun and I found myself climbing harder. Then I wanted to climb more because it was fun, and by climbing more, I also noticed my climbing improved. I was feeling more confident on lead, climbing stuff on top-rope I didn’t think I could do- it was Zen and the Art of Climbing.
I didn’t realize that I finally figured it out until this past weekend. I had the opportunity to take an ice climbing clinic with the fabulous Zoe Hart at Adirondack Mountainfest. I was nervous about looking like a totally gumby in front of Zoe. And the cold! We had our coldest day of the year on Sunday- our local guide Jack told me later that the high was probably 0 degrees in the canyon where we were.
Going into the clinic, I was initially afraid of the cold. In fact, I almost missed it because I stopped by EMS to rent a pair of double plastic boots just in case. I had packed just about every layer I owned. But when I finally met up with my group, my fear suddenly changed. Maybe their coffee hadn’t kicked in yet, but those folks looked serious and I started to doubt that I was going to be able to keep up. These folks looked totally badass and when Jack said we were going to go to Positive Reinforcement, I felt myself gulp hard. (In retrospect, I may have confused Positive Reinforcement with Positive Thinking, which is a much harder line.)
I’ll spare all of the details because in the end, what matters is, I had a great time. I remembered that Zoe is a guide, not a talent scout, so it didn’t matter if I failed, only that I tried. It didn’t matter if everyone in the clinic was better then me, all I could do once I walked in that room was try my best. And instead of fearing the cold, I decided to take it on as a challenge, to see if I could dial in my system and stay toasty is the coldest conditions I have been in yet. I surprised myself with how well I climbed, not compared to anyone else, but just for me. And I had so much fun dancing to the songs in my head as a belayed- a fantastic way to stay warm. I felt I met the challenge of managing the extreme cold pretty well and learned some areas where I could improve as well. I met some great folks, traded some emails and will hopefully have some new climbing partners in the future.
And when it was time to leave, as I steered my little car back on to the Adirondack Northway and pointed her south for home, I continued the good vibes by having my own little dance party in the car on the way home. I had a smile from ear to ear. In that moment, I realized I was the best climber in the world.