Loose jams: spring thoughts from the rocks

Two short years ago, I went into the summer with a rack consisting of sport draws, hexes, nuts, and two lonely cams. It was a good time—perhaps the first time I’d call myself a climber instead of just someone who climbed. I talked about climbing as a wonderful pursuit because I didn’t hold myself to big expectations. It was what it was, which felt refreshing in light of the bigger ski things I wanted to pull off. Even dreaming of something to do is an emotional investment in risking the thought of “could I do that, should we try.” Climbing didn’t feel that way for me; skiing did.

Passion has crept into my time on the rock—nobody is surprised by that. I’m now invested, the same way I was on my skis. Three summers ago, leading 5.10 trad seemed like the upper limit of what I could even conceive to accomplish. Credit a lot of help from mentors, plenty of time in the bouldering gym last winter, an SPI guide course and exam, great partners, and lots more mileage on the rock with getting strong enough to actually hit that level. I remember thinking about it as a major sort of milestone. As if it might have more fanfare accompanying each send. Yet here I type, having done some of the things I once only wondered about.


Beta: use those ski legs and stem that thing. Topping out on George and Martha at Frenchman Coulee. Photo: Emily Smith

In the last five days, I’ve fallen off two of my projects, both 5.10b trad leads at our local pile of magical quartzite, Stonehill. It would be very nice to send these. I am genuinely bummed. I think things like, “I’m better than this. I can climb this grade. I’m strong as I’ve ever been, and know things that I never did. My mental game is way better. Why can’t I pull it together?

The answer, of course, offers a few different paths. Those of you who have read The Rock Warrior’s Way will recognize much of what follows. If you haven’t dove in, and you want to improve your experience of any activity were risk and growth go hand in hand, do yourself a huge favor and pick the book up right now.


Excellent crack technique on the crux of Delirium Tremens at Smith Rock. Photo: Vinny Stowell

Now back to “why I can’t pull it together”:

#1. Climbing is not only about climbing hard; it’s about learning and exploration of both the physical world and personal abilities. It’s easy for me to focus on goals when I’m invested; it’s easy to get attached to the achievement reward of sending a climb. Diving into the redpoint mindset of trying to achieve a benchmark places that success as the highest goal, rather than learning or giving an honest effort.


Stefan styles the ankle breaker section of Stonehill’s Supercrack shortly after I fell off of it. Photo: Jed Hohf

It’s important to zoom out, in the case of success or failure, and see what it means in the broader scope of what I want to do outside. And thus:

#2. Climbing should not always be hard; such an attitude ignores the fun that comes with enjoying all of the activity. Skiing, and all its wonderful facets, has taught me that it can be fun to play in the terrain park, or ski 20 degree trees, or ride lifts. Once in a while, it’s good to do the work to access big, steep faces deep in the middle of nowhere. But it’s the sum of those parts that matters—value in skiing doesn’t derive only from the hard, scary things that look impressive in photos. Whether I’m guiding, cruising 5.6, or chasing my strong friends up the hard stuff, my climbing needs to be informed by these lessons from the snow.


#3. It’s easier for me to climb with good mindfulness when it’s well within my perceived “ability range”. But my old habits often take over when I’m climbing something that’s nearer my limit—I tense up, overgrip, don’t breathe as well as I should, and generally let the pressure get to me. So rebuilding my habits when I can dedicate more mental and physical energy to doing it right, ie on climbs where I’m less near my limit, will yield better practice that should translate to better climbing when it’s hard.

#4. Getting better at any mountain activity and participating in the community of that activity means spending time at every level: learning, hanging out with peers, being mentored. Coming into the spring, I felt like my fall had been spent doing things that rarely pushed me super hard. I was teaching. I was mentoring. I worked on being a supportive, helpful peer in the mountains. And I was doing important work, but it was time for me to chase some mentors up hard rocks.


Harry heads up on his first trad lead of the season at Stonehill. 

That shift in mindset carried me away into focusing on achievement and comparisons, rather than honest effort and learning. Knowing this now gives me the mental weapons to shift the way I think about it next time I jump into the deep end.

#5. Trends of success are less important than trends of learning and giving a good effort. I find this particularly poignant now: my first climbing trip of the season to Frenchman Coulee saw me send a 10a lead that bucked me off last year. I managed to send 10b a few weeks later at Smith Rock, and felt pretty dang proud of that.

Some 10d bolts leads here at home and Smith had me thinking that 10b trad should be doable—when the send trend was broken, I got frustrated. It felt like I was slipping backwards, or somehow missing the boat. It felt like the effort I invested had been a sham. Instead:

#6. This is the biggest takeaway: in falling off, I didn’t fail. My success streak didn’t end; it just meant that learning shifted from “oh wow I can do this” to “it’s time to analyze and get better.” It’s good that I fell, because it emphasized the particular area I need to improve. See #3.


Topping out on Zebra/Zion at Smith Rock. 


Grades. I obsess about sandbagged grades and benchmarks, as only a kid who had his apple juice measured to make sure I was getting as much as other kids can. But the bigger thing is that I’m sick of my ego getting involved in my athletic pursuits. I don’t want to compete with anybody but myself. Grades make such competition easy. But what kind of fulfilling joy comes from turning climbing into a constant opportunity to try really hard to keep up with other people? Or to get down on myself when I’m not constantly improving? Repeat answer #6.

Addendum #2:

My last post talked about how I need to blog as a method of thinking through emotions, thoughts, experiences outside of paid writing. This is an exercise in that kind of writing-as-thinking. It feels like navel-gazing, somewhat. However, my bet is that other people may see themselves in this kind of experience. I also want to showcase my own frustration and process; I don’t want to preach the value of struggle while somehow pretending that I’m above it.

Addendum #3: Dear partners, please take more pictures of me falling. They’re highly relevant to posts like this.

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