Wednesday, April 6, 2011

the view of Red Rocks from Turtlehead Mountain just outside of Las Vegas

Lately I've noticed an interesting correlation. It seems to me that the more profound of an experience I have while climbing, the more cliche and trite it sounds when I try to share it with others. I think that this can often be the case when we try to relate personal experiences that have effected us in subtle yet powerful ways. When we try to put words to aspects of life that are outside of the logical and verbal realms of our mind, so much is lost in translation. So although I realize that many of the breakthroughs and reflections that I've gained through climbing will remain fully understood only by me (and even that isn't guaranteed!), I'm still going to continue trying to communicate at least some small part of why climbing is such a potent force in my life.

So here I go.

We're all familiar with the idea that our moments of greatest growth occur when we don't get what we want. It's something everybody has heard from a well-intentioned friend in a disgruntled moment, usually when it's the last thing we want to hear. Then later, after hours or days or weeks have passed, we can see that in truth the undesirable circumstance really did force us to push against the boundaries of our hopes and fears, desires and aversions. In a nutshell, that's what I experienced climbing at the infamous Virgin River Gorge during a month-long stay in Las Vegas.

Jonathan Siegrist crushing at the VRG

Located near the borders of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, the VRG is known to be one of the highest quality, most difficult crags in the country. Overlooking the roaring lanes of traffic on interstate highway I-15, the limestone cliffs offer a variety of brilliant, difficult climbing.

It didn't take long for the VRG to stir up some really unpleasant emotions in me. It first began when I looked around me and noticed that everyone at the crag was strong enough to warm up on whatever I would end up projecting. Having learned to climb around superhuman climbers, this is something I should be used to, but my ego just hates being the worst at anything. Regardless, I decided to try High Flames Drifter, a 12c that everyone agreed was difficult for the grade. If I were to succeed, it would be my one of my most difficult climbs to date.

me on High Flames

After days of one-hanging the route, I felt entirely confident that I would redpoint on my next try. I climbed through the crux feeling poised and strong, with only a clip and then one more hard move and remaining between me and success. But when I went to clip, due to some minor shift in my body position, the rope got caught behind my leg (this can be very dangerous because it can cause you to flip upside down and hit your head on the wall). Being so close to success, I fought to get the rope out from behind my leg so that I could make the clip. My arms quickly grew tired from grasping such small holds. My grip weakened, my fingers slipped, and then I was upside down, falling through the air, colliding with the wall. Luckily I had a very experienced belayer who helped keep me from hitting my head, and I escaped with some bruises and cuts, and a rope burn on my leg that is now a purplish scar.

After taking this pretty scary fall, I just couldn't get my head right. With the knowledge that I was leaving the area in a few days, I tried the route a handful of other times, but it was always with a sense of dread and trepidation. Before getting on the route for the last time, I had a mini-emotional breakdown, crying because I knew that I didn't have what it would take at that moment to send.

Andy Mann photo

Somehow, failure in climbing touches the most vulnerable and insecure part of me, a place that nothing else can reach. In that moment of accepting failure, I felt such a wrenching sense of disappointment and defeat. My deepest feelings of self-doubt were activated and my most painful wounds of feeling worthless or unworthy were probed. It was shocking to look into myself and see such feelings that I usually keep successfully buried.

I'm going back to try the route again in a few days, with hopes of being able to successfully clip the chains this time. Whether or not that happens, this route has affected me in a way that goes beyond the physical act of climbing. Through failing, I was able to break through innumerable layers of walls and boundaries that I usually keep between my awareness and those deeply buried feelings. I was able to see a part of myself that I didn't know existed, a part that needs to be acknowledged so that it can heal. In the end, I'm glad I took that upside down fall instead of sending like I'd hoped. Failing gifted me the opportunity to know myself in a more holistic way than I previously had.

While I love the social and fun aspects of climbing, it's experiences like this one that have ignited a passion and commitment to the sport in me. Climbing provides a painfully clear mirror in which I can see myself reflected, allowing me to learn and grow. And that's what it's all about in the end.