“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
Insert “the crag” instead of “sea” and that’s about it. I had a reminder this weekend about how complex the relationship is between your mind and climbing.
We were at Montagne d’Argent on Saturday and I was not in a great space. For no real reason: I had just been depressed for the last while. This is the kind of depressed that doesn’t really have a cause, with all the attendant stuff that entails: lack of energy, lack of motivation, and a weird background sense of foggy, indeterminate anxiety or fear that occasionally morphs into sadness. You feel weaker, less coordinated. It’s hard to focus on anything. The thought of just the average everyday stuff you have to do, like the dishes and remembering to get cat food, is exhausting. At its worst, the idea of even interacting with other people just seems like a Herculean effort.
But I was there: up early, lunch made, gear packed, and in the car on the way to MdA. (I think the day I’m depressed enough to bail on climbing is the day I get myself actually checked out by a professional.) I noticed that it seemed harder than usual to climb the stairs to the Grand Canyon area. But at least I knew what was going on: I knew it was my head messing with me. I hadn’t said anything to the others yet, except a little to Jex that morning when I picked her up.
I wasn’t about to quit, but I was worried about whether my head would be in the game at all. You never know how the day is going to go, whether you’ll be feeling strong and bold or scrabble in frustration at moves you know you should be sticking, and I was kind of dreading that last one. But I was waiting to see if the climbing would kick in. Sometimes, when I’m having a really foul day is when I’ll pull some piece of climbing brilliance out of my butt: at the very least, partway through the day my mood almost inevitably brightens. Something about being out among the trees, on the rock, working hard, with people around me who care about climbing too, and listening to the sounds of gear, which to me are the most utterly comforting sounds in the world, usually does the trick.
We picked a spot in the Canyon (which was wide open, maybe because the weather people had been going on about chance of rain) and chose some climbs. I methodically unpacked my pack, flaked out the rope, got my harness on, and got on belay for David on a 5.9 route. I climbed after him, and sent it without a whole lot of trouble. It was actually a great climb, with a couple of tricky moves over a bulge and some lovely stuff at the top where it rounded out and you had to use a series of diagonal slashes in the slab that went a little the wrong way. But when Michal said, “You didn’t really stop on that at all. You want to lead it?” I backed off.
“Maybe in a bit,” I said.
I thought about why I backed off. And I thought again about leading it. Knowing that if I could climb it clean, I knew the moves, and if I knew the moves, there was no reason not to lead it, and that I really ought to be leading a lot closer to my top rope grade.
Then I thought about how I was actually feeling a sort of vague, general anxiety. About nothing: not about climbing, not about falling, just a feeling of worry in my gut, while I climbed a couple of other routes, including a lovely crack climb that really put me through my creative paces and made me use all the different crack techniques I’ve picked up and learned to love. I climbed it, and I enjoyed it, and there was a strange disconnected anxiety in my guts all the while.
So I looked up at the rock and thought about the stupid games my head was playing with me. And when the guys asked again if I wanted to tackle that 5.9 climb on lead, I said, fairly honestly, “Not right now. The sun is right up above the edge of the cliff, and if I try to lead it now I’ll be climbing blind, and that’s at the edge of my lead limit. And I’m being careful with my emotional state right now.” And then I told them what was going on in my head: the amorphous anxiety, the sadfear, and how I wanted to be careful with how I tackled it. I didn’t want to put myself on lead into the sun: that would only end in my backing off the climb after attempting the start, or after a bolt or two, and that would be worse for me.
And they got it, which was great. No one questioned that my head and I had a problem, or that I was thinking through how to deal with it. Michal talked about having had his climbing grade knocked down once by trouble in his personal life, some of the rest of us compared times we had lost our heads for a while because of injuries or falls or life worries. I felt like I’d given myself time to think through whether I was just using my mental state as an excuse not to push myself out of my comfort zone, and I was mostly convinced I wasn’t. Or, I guess, that I had good reason to be cautious about how far out of my comfort zone I went. But I still wanted to push, carefully, through and out of that comfort zone, because I felt like it would shake my head back into place.
So I threw myself, on top rope, at a climb that was far too hard for me, and flailed hard on the crux moves. I only made it through because Michal gave me some serious “belayer assist.” But fighting that climb, and fighting as hard as I could, did do something to dislodge the sadfear and kick it out of my guts. So then I came down, and started eyeing my quickdraws, and picked up the guide to look for something to lead. Something to kick my ego back into shape.
Partly it was the way Michal had asked me, more than once, if I wanted to lead something: not as a challenge, just as an offer. Partly it was the slight dislodge I’d given the mood, with my nudge at the borderline between easy and challenging. Partly it was not wanting to end the day and have to say I’d just coasted and climbed top rope the whole time. So I picked something I remembered leading before, a route called Le Retour des Loups-Garous, a 5.8- further down the cliff, and got my stuff and a rope and headed down there with David to belay me.
Unfortunately, someone was just setting up a top rope on Le Retour. So David pulled out the guide and we moved back along the cliff, winding up at the next nearest thing, Le “speech” de Gaetan, a 5.8+. I looked it over: it looked like it had decent moves, the bolts were fairly close, and at 8+ it was graded harder than I’d wanted but not harder than I could feasibly do. And for some reason I wasn’t afraid anymore, not even the usual nervousness about leading a climb. The sadfear had headed out and taken the regular fear with it, about the same time I’d picked out a climb to lead and grabbed my draws. So I started up it.
It turned out to be a lot harder than I thought it would be, with a pair of crux sections, one requiring smeary, tiny feet (your toes on little crystals) and some faith that when you got up a little higher there would be something for your hands. When I got there, I started the move a couple of times, and rested back on the rope after a few tries because my feet were burning. Eventually, I managed to just go for the move, and with my hands on smallish vertical edges and my feet pressed against nothing but texture, I made it, shouting, past that move and to the next clip. Then again. And each time I made it through one of the moves, I’d feel the same thing: completely unaware of anything but sticking to the rock, and a slight wonder that I actually was.
Sadly, I got to the last stretch of the climb – where it rounded off and the holds were nothing but shallow bulges and I needed to do a high step into a shallow scoop and then trust that foot – and the confidence to trust the hold didn’t kick in. I tried more times than I expected to, but in the end I found myself getting my hands on the holds, stepping up onto my right foot, getting the left into the scoop, and then not moving any higher. Over and over. Eventually I thought I might have pushed myself as far as I was going that day. It wasn’t that I was scared, because I wasn’t, really. I just didn’t think I could pull that move, and I didn’t want to spend much longer frozen on it, just getting more and more tired out. So, in the end, I lowered off the last bolt before the anchor, and David seconded me and finished the climb, just as it started to rain and we all started to pack up.
But the funny thing was, because of everything that had gone before, fighting my way up to that last bolt felt like an achievement. Like I’d been slowly, inch by inch, pushing myself out of the darkness. So I was okay with falling up a 5.8+ sport lead. I was actually pretty happy with myself.
And I felt a lot better. The sadfear was gone. I scrambled a bit on the rock, I ran back and forth between our two groups to pass some messages, and I enjoyed the sun that had broken through after the rain shower ended.
And I slept much better that night.
Oh, and this was the day’s climbing earworm (I was happy to find out my friend Glauco has the same thing happen to him. I’m not alone in my madness! Maybe the climbing earworm is another of those strange things your brain does to cope with climbing. I don’t know. Anyway, at the top of the first climb was when this came into my head, and stayed there):