Hey TSU followers. I realize I've been absent from the blog for a while. I felt like doing some deep thinking this morning so I typed up this short piece about rock climbing and what it means to me. I'll try to post some reports about the incredible summer I had in 2011 soon. For now enjoy this piece of rare deep thinking.
Out of Darkness
As I half balanced, half clung with desperation to a finger lock and knee bar, I reached up to clip my rope into the quickdraw that Brendan had managed to get into the bolt but failed to secure the rope through. My entire body trembled and I knew that I was going to peel if I didn't clip. I made an effort but my finger lock gave out and I tumbled backwards calling out "falling" as I did so. I came to a bouncing hault after a fall of about 25-30 feet and I couldn't help feeling disappointed. But at the same time I felt exhilarated.
I tried to clip the rope several more times but each subsequent attempt took more and more out of me, and was followed by a long whipper. It mattered and yet didn't matter.
Brendan and I had spent pretty much the entire afternoon working on this one route, a 5.10 plus called "The Ram" located on the "Bank Rob Wall" at Shelf Road just outside of Canyon City, Colorado. Brendan and I were dedicated weekend climbers but both of us wanted to be better. So on our last trip to Shelf Road two weeks prior I'd made the suggestion that we just grit our teeth and attempt to lead a 5.10. We debated on a 5.10A or a 5.10 plus. And for some reason we chose the 10 plus.
That first time we'd only made it up to the seventh bolt (out of nine) and had felt too nervous going for the eighth, because we were both nervous about falling. But on this trip we were both determined to "slay the Ram". We both made several gallant attempts before Brendan finally managed to clip the rope through the eighth bolt. But then neither of us were strong enough or had the guts to go for the ninth bolt.
I felt disappointed with myself for not being able to complete the climb, but I vowed to come back and "slay the Ram" at some other point. But in the subsequent weeks since attempting the Ram I've come to realize several things about myself and climbing. It took some examining of my past, present and future and shoot it's still not all clear to me, but I more understand myself because of climbing now.
When I was six years old I lost my sight to Retinoblastoma (cancer of the eye) and I thought that everything was just not going to be okay. Fortunately for me, I met Erik Weihenmayer (a world class blind athlete and climber) only about a month or so after I went blind.
Erik and I talked for a while and Erik just told me that I needed to live my life and not be afraid. He made a suggestion that I go ahead and try rock climbing. It was a scary but truely exhilarating proposition. I wondered if I could have the guts, the strength, etc to climb a vertical wall.
About a year after meeting Erik, I climbed for the first time at our local indoor gym. A family friend and I developed a system so that I could locate the holds by using my hands and feet as if they were the hands of a clock and the wall a clockface. David would call out where each hold was by telling me positions on a clock.
As I began going to the gym more and more, my confidence grew. My family got into climbing and it became our family activity. After a couple of years, my parents signed my sisters and myself up to compete on the competitive climbing team that was getting started up at our gym. I took to competitive climbing with a passion unlike any I've had before. My sisters, teammates and I were at the gym almost every day whether it was a scheduled practice or not. Our coaches gave us techniques and exercises to do which we strove to master. Hangboard competitions became fiercely competitive among the team. At one point I could hang straight armed for more than three minutes from two decent jugs on our gym's hangboard.
When the competition season rolled around and my coaches and parents began to battle with officials on whether or not I would be able to compete because of my blindness I didn't much pay attention. Finally, the officials relented and I was allowed to compete. I climbed hard at every comp, taking fifth in my first comp and placing as high as second. I was invited to nationals to compete but I was so cocky and the trip was too expensive that my parents decided that I wasn't ready to compete at the highest level.
Instead we went on a two week camping and climbing vacation around the southeast. We camped in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. I onsighted my first 5.11"A during this time, as well as flashed numerous other 5.10 and 5.11s. I returned to the gym and climbed hard all summer, but when the school year came again getting to the gym became harder. I was now in middle school and in a new division. Slowly my family and I fell out of climbing.
I continued to satisfy my hunger for climbing by reading books and writing papers, stories and essays about rock and mountain climbing. In eighth grade I started getting into more hiking and mountaineering when I got the opportunity to hike the Ankascocha Trail with Global Explorers into Machu Picchu. After this trip I climbed and summitted Mt Kilimanjaro, again with Global Explorers.
After summitting Kili, the friends that I'd made on the GEx trips and I came together and formed our own climbing team, Team Sight Unseen. Together we climbed Mt St. Helens, and then made an attempt on Gannet Peak. I received my guidegog during these years as well and felt that my path would be more defined by mountaineering and hiking now than rock climbing. I was also really getting into downhill skiing, cycling and wrestling so I figured those would all keep me happy and content.
As I entered college though, I felt a yearning for vertical rock; for feeling my mental and physical strengths to be pushed to their utmost as I sthove to figure out the correct sequence of moves to det past the crux on a hard climb or boulder problem. Slowly, I found myself reading up on rock climbs and climbers, telling myself it was just a small thing that would pass. I was too busy with college wrestling, thinking about become an indoor cycling instructor and mountaineering, to pay attention to rock climbing. I had been a decent rock climber but those days were over for me.
Then I found myself reading about rock climbing techniques and remembering the drills that I used to do in training. I remembered the thrill I felt at hearing my name called for a second place ribbon at a comp. But more importantly and more vividly than anything, I remembered the pride, sense of accomplishment and the happiness I felt at completing a particularly difficult climb. And I realized that rock climbing was my passion and the thing that I was best at. Rock climbing had brought me out of a state of depression and into a state of happiness. Rock climbing had brought from the dark and into the light, and I wondered if it could do it again.
My friend had worked at a summer camp and encouraged me to apply for a job as a counselor at this same summer camp. I applied and was offered a job for this past summer. I moved to Colorado in late May, went through staff training and the first few weeks of having campers. Every time that I had "time off" I managed to find a group of people that were going climbing, and if they weren't somehow I still managed to get up on the rock. Most mornings or evenings I found myself going down to the camp's small bouldering house where I put up several difficult boulder problems...projects for me to work on throughout the summer. Working on these problems gave me the old feelings of working toward a goal, of building my confidence back up.
Soon I abandoned top rope climbing and began focusing on my sport leading ability. Brendan and I somehow drifted together and became climbing partners. We went to 11 Mile Canyon, Shelf Road, and Garden of the Gods together, pushing each other to get better. When Brendan and I went on our last trip to Shelf at the end of the summer before it was time for me to fly back to Florida, we discussed taking another crack at the Ram. For some reason though I wasn't feeling up to trying to "slay the Ram" just yet. It might have been age, it might have been experience, it might have just been the clear and crisp Colorado mountain air, but I came to the realization that climbing isn't about how hard a route you can put up. It's not about making the first ascent of a route. It's not about making money. It's not about the adrenaline. It's not even just about the compaoionship of being around other climbers, or if you're a free soloist, not just about being alone and one with the rock. It was a combination of all of these. It felt good to push myself, to feel when I got Elvis legs. It felt good to conquer a difficult route. It was awesome just hanging out with my climbing partners and having a good old time. It felt great to be one with the rock and nature. And it even felt good (after the initial disappointment) to not complete a route because it gave me something to shoot for in the future.
So Brendan and I decided to forgo attempting the Ram, and instead we just climbed. We both lead our first ever 5.10A and talked about what it would be like to climb around the world. Not necessarily the hardest things, but just experience climbing in different cultures and places. We both wanted to be trad climbers and travel. And we both wanted to keep improving to become the best climbers we could possibly be. So that's what I'm going to do. Sure, I have ambitions, hopes and dreams of doing some radical stuff, but right now I'm happy if I can just get out to the rock and climb. For there's nothing like coming out of the dark and into the light.