I could never do that. I’m not smart enough. I’m not strong enough. She’d never go out with a guy like me. That college degree is too much work. They won’t hire me for a job like that. I can do this, but I can’t do that. I see it in myself. I see it with my students in the classroom. We all have tapes we run, expectations for ourselves and others. We can make or break our lives based on these messages.
Of course, sometimes these messages are spot on. If I’m a hundred pounds overweight and live in my grandmother’s basement, spending all of my waking hours playing World of Warcraft, then, yeah, it’s not bloody likely that superhot super model is going to go out with me. If I’ve been leading a sedentary life and expect to jump on a bike one day and hammer out a hundred hilly miles, then, yeah, I’ll likely crash and burn very early in that century ride. A realistic knowledge of one’s abilities is essential. The “I can’t do that” message in these cases is perfectly warranted—at least in the short term. It is downright silly to adhere to the platitude that we can do anything if we just put our minds to it. Sorry to break this to you, folks, but everyone can’t do everything, regardless of how hard we work, how much we want or think we deserve it. In that way, life really isn’t fair. The world cares nothing for our longing. And it doesn’t care how hard we try.
So Joe Blotto in the basement with his X-Box isn’t going out with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, but he can drop his game controller, start eating veggies instead of Cheetos, and get his big butt off the couch. Maybe he can know the touch of a woman before he steps into a super-sized grave. The message Joe repeats to himself that he can’t get a date is the belief system we need to understand. This is the type of thinking that limits our lives and starves the soul. I, too, play these tapes. I ran up against one unexpectedly yesterday on a little climb in the high desert of the eastern Sierras.
I’ve never been a great climber—nor do I expect to break into the ranks of the elite anytime soon. I’ve worked hard at it, improved, but injuries off and on, and nearly fifty three laps around the sun mean that Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold have nothing to worry about. I’ve recently been upping my game a little, working out, pushing myself in ways I haven’t since I was a younger man, but still I have some ideas about my limits, so I pick my fights where I’m pretty sure I’ve got a chance. And so it was on a blustery February day when my wife, Jodi, and I stepped up to Alabama Dome and the impressively named “Blockade Runner,” a 5.10c face climb in the Alabama Hills, a fantastic Dr. Seuss playground of weathered cliffs and boulders in the shadow of Mt. Whitney. Hardly thirty minutes before I’d been talking to another climber about this route. He’d done it “four or five years ago” and couldn’t give me any information. “That’s okay,” I said. “That route is at my limit, and I don’t think I’m ready for it. I want to go for the on-sight. I’ll wait until I’m ready.”
Belief system firmly in place, I gazed up at the wall. We didn’t have the guide book and thought at first we’d do the easier buttress to the right, a route we had climbed before. Still, there was Blockade Runner calling from the steep face above. Without the guide, I dismissed the blank looking route to the left as too difficult. To the right, however, before the buttress, were some promising looking flakes and edges, a line of bolts. Yeah, this is it. Maybe? I stared up the wall and stared down my earlier self-limiting statement. Why not? I might take a fall, but Jodi could catch me. I trusted her implicitly. I looked over at Jodi and asked, “Do you mind if I try this?” I felt a lump of fear in my gut, the wall in vertical shadow looming over me. “If you want to,” she replied, giving me no escape route. All right then, chump. Lace up and have at it.
Making the first moves on a challenging climb is much like stepping into the cage with a fearsome opponent. Will he ground and pound, or will I get the upper hand? I had to stuff my uncertainty as best I could and get to work. I chalked my fingers, grabbed rough edges, and moved up, savoring for an instant that moment when gravity and muscle and will settle into the conflict, the outcome in this case deeply uncertain. It was a 10c, after all. I don’t climb at this level very much, do I?
Right away my heart rate spiked as I moved from edge to edge, a side pull, a long reach, a crimp and high step. The moves were going down, one by one, and I felt physically in control. Emotionally I was coiled too tight, over gripping. Forty feet up, I stepped into the base of a shallow, widely spread dihedral and found, miraculously, a no-hands rest. Comfortably stemmed between toe holds, I let the blood circulate through my swollen forearms and fought to calm my pounding heart. I glanced down the nearly vertical wall at the rope snaking through the carabiners and into Jodi’s attentive hands. For cryin’ out loud, Scotty. Chill, man, calm down. You’re doing great. In my mind I went back to the sessions on the slack line, times when I’d nearly lost it, managed at last to turn around and struggled to stay on, the adrenaline working to unhinge my focus. Stuff the adrenaline. Breathe. Focus. Breathe. You’ve got this. I was ready to move again.
I studied the slanting line above me, the bulge where there appeared to be—maybe—a blocky hold above. Some chalked edges looked promising further out right, but the bolt was directly above the block. Which way to go? As I pulled up into the bulge, sunk my fingers into a positive edge on the left, the pump clock started ticking. I clipped the nearest bolt, stepped up again, worked an undercling and somehow grabbed the block, most of my weight at once firmly on my hands. I was now, for better or worse, committed to this hold. Like a bad marriage that you know is probably doomed, I held on and hoped things would get better. Counseling, romantic getaways, you’ll try anything to stave off disaster. I looked at both my hands and knew I had to keep moving, but how? Up high, a right-facing edge looked to offer safe passage. If I could latch it with my right hand, I might lean hard to the left and somehow lever up to get my foot onto the block. Once there, I’d have it—I hoped. Arms burning, I made the reach.
Crap! I can’t do this. It’s too hard. Bullshit. Go down swinging.
I dropped back down to the block, painfully aware that I hadn’t much time left. Gravity pulled, will waned, the rock was winning. I gave a mighty heave, threw what wattage I had left into my right hand, and contracted every muscle in my core to lift my stupid carcass another couple of feet up the wall. Slowly…slowly…my right foot came up high, toed the block, found it, and with a desperate heave I pushed back against gravity and stood up like the foolish biped I pretended to be. I let out a victory yell. Tabernacle choirs filled the air, trumpets sounded, Prohibition was repealed again, pot was legal and free everywhere, lonely guys living in basements got dates with hot chicks, and everyone scored Powerball victories.
“I got it, Jodi. I got it!” I yelled down. Oh, the happiness of it all. I scanned the rock above. It wasn’t a giveaway, but I could do it. Shake out, Scotty. Don’t screw this up. You’ve got it. Moments later, I was clipping the anchor, triumphant.
Back on the ground, my happiness was even greater as I watched Jodi almost flash the route as well. Move by move, she powered through, only hanging once, and found a way to work around the dreaded block move by climbing further up the corner and stepping back left. I was amazed. At sixty-two when most women were settling in for a slack, placid slide to decrepitude, Jodi was fighting like an Amazon, even if she was only five-three. I lowered her back to the ledge, beaming. We’d done a 10c! Having earned our beer for the day, the February shadows reaching long across the sage and granite sands, we packed our gear and worked down through the boulders to the truck.
Back at the trailer, Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney piercing the late afternoon sky, I pulled the guide book from the truck cab and studied it. Let’s see, Alabama Dome. Ah, there it is. The route we did was…there. Uh, no. What? We were supposed to be on Blockade Runner, 5.10c, but that was the route further left, the one I’d dismissed as too hard. No, we’d done Dihedral Dance, the route to the right, 5.11a—two grades harder. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d climbed at that standard on a roped climb. Only once, over ten years before, had I led a climb so hard and not fallen. I don’t climb that hard. That’s the message. That’s how I don’t roll. But there it was. There was no mistaking the route. A photo of the first ascensionist, Raleigh Collins, showed him gripping the notorious block hold, a quick draw clenched in his teeth as he fought the crux. I’d been there. I knew that hold. No, by an accident of ignorance, I’d thrown myself at a climb much harder than I’d intended, harder than I thought I could climb, and yet, and yet…I had succeeded. Viva the stupid!
I suppose, as Nietzsche feared, we are doomed to repeat our histories, a relentless Groundhog Day recurrence of the same mistakes over and over, fueled by lame reruns of our personal beliefs. Even so, I’ll try to remember that February dance in the dihedral, that time when—through silly ignorance— I went beyond what I thought I could do. I’ll strive to remember—again—that sometimes the old tapes and the worn out messages need to be left behind.