Lessons from the School of Rock
I keep my breathing slow and even. I'm clinging to the rock, fifty stories up, toes perched on a quarter inch thick flake of dark, desert-glazed sandstone. My fingers have no more purchase than my feet. I came up by way of a central crack, but now I'm working steadily out onto the leftmost of two rock faces that meet at an acute angle. None of this is a problem.
The problem is the approximately hundred feet of free hanging rope trailing down from me. That represents a potential two hundred foot swinging fall into the opposite rock face. And unfortunately, I'm betting that the next piece of protection, or "pro," slotted in the rock down there won't hold that fall. In which case a slip now would likely be fatal.
I hadn't planned it this way; I'm not an idiot. I'm just stupid. It's different.
It's earlier in the same climb. I'm moving well. This is a crack climb at this stage, and I'm jamming my hands and feet into the seam solidly. Might as well be climbing up a ladder.
The rock is warm, but not so hot it makes my hands sweat. The blue sky sun shines on my back and the view, when I look over my shoulder, is hard to describe if you haven't been there. Ice box Canyon and its dry stream bed fan out far below. The red and grey cliffs play out around me in repeating geometrical harmony like a Bach fugue. And off across the desert, the towers of the Las Vegas strip are visible in the distance.
I'm not thinking about them, but there are people over there right now, in dark smoky casinos, betting their life savings on a roll of the dice, quite literally. Meanwhile, I'm up here betting my life on me. I'm betting on my ability to read the rock, and to keep my head, and to make the next move flawlessly. Had I thought about it, I would have judged them the fools taking unnecessary risks.
The route isn't very challenging at this point, and the temptation, which I've given in to, is not to sew up the crack with lots of pro and slings. I haven't put chocks in every five or ten feet and run the rope through them like a shoelace through eyelets, because I know I'm not likely to fall here. So why slow down, why tire myself out hanging there while placing extra pro, right? Wrong. It was a mistake that would soon threaten to kill me.
I continue up smoothly and quickly, but the crack runs out about eighty-five feet above my last pro placement. It just stops here several hundred feet from the top of the cliff, which is not what my guidebook told me it would do. Somewhere on a lower pitch I must have gone off route. Crap and damn. But I don't want to give up on topping out this climb. Not yet.
I look out there to the left face of the dihedral. Maybe twenty feet away there appear to be some protrusions and indentations, climbable features that extend all the way to the top of the cliff. The challenge would be in getting out there, because that stretch of rock face between here and there looks a bit thin. I put a chock in at the top of the crack and start on over.
Steady and light. It is thin out here, and getting thinner. I don't think about falling, because that's an indulgence I can't afford right now. Get tense and your legs start to shake. Sewing machine legs we call it. And it'll strip you right off the rock. I Zen out, thinking of nothing but the moves. I am one with the rock. I'm a spider. I tug on the rope, and the chock pops out. There's a hundred feet of run-out now.
I'm a scared shitless spider.
I hadn't placed a lot of pro down there earlier because I knew that a fall wasn't imminent. It's not arrogance, by the way, this knowing you're not likely to fall at any given time. It's what allows you to climb. When you're up on the rock, you're making a running assessment, both of the climb and of your abilities, in order to determine whether you can go on or not. Whatever the verdict, you obey it. Period. Because you can't con the rock. The rock will teach you, among other things, honesty and humility. It will teach you or it will kill you. In that way, the rock is just life distilled to its essence.
In life most big problems result from combinations of smaller mistakes. Same with climbing. That I had neglected to protect opportunistically was the first mistake. The best time to save money is when you don't need money. The best time to build a shelter is when the weather is fine. And the best time to put safety gear into the rock is when the climbing is easy. Because later on it might not be. I hadn't learned any of that yet.
The second mistake: I hadn't protected my chock placement against rope drag. Rope drag was something I was entirely ignorant of the time. When you traverse, climbing sideways on a face, the rope tugs on your gear where you made the ninety degree turn. If you haven't slotted the chock in so it's also braced against that sidelong force of rope drag? Pop. Out it comes. And that's exactly what happened.
When you take an action, you have to consider not just doing it, but the having done it. Because that's where it will sit, its effects radiating out for the rest of the climb, or the rest of your life.
I keep moving out, then up. But the holds aren't any better here. I can't reverse course, because the moves I'd made to get out here on the face were dicey enough with the threat of a thirty foot fall. With a fatal fall at risk--no way. Couldn't do it. So I move on in the hope that what's farther out here on the face will be better. As I said, climbing is life distilled. You find opportunities by moving out into the unknown. It sucks, and you hate it, but you do it because there really isn't any other way.
I'm at the very edge of my climbing ability now, and can't tell with any confidence if each new hand or foot placement will hold my weight. It's a bad place to be. I keep my breathing slow and even. My fingers, amazingly, are still dry.
Fiction writers will tell you that painting characters into tight corners is the best way to reveal what they're made of. Now here in real life I have just painted myself into a potentially fatal corner. That's when something happens that in retrospect horrifies and amazes and saddens and ultimately instructs me. It's one of those moments you don't ever want to forget. It's why I'm writing this.
I get the idea to let go.
It's insane. The fall will not only kill me, it could very well yank my climbing partner down there off the rock too. The idea couldn't care less. It's powerful and determined, it grabs my mind in a vice grip. Let go, it says. Give up. Anything is better than this fear. Anything.
It's a familiar old voice. And that's the problem.
There are skillful and unskillful ways to deal with fear. Focusing on the handle of the knife instead of the blade--that's a skillful tactic. Do that long enough and it becomes a habit.
Unfortunately I had formed a very different habit in my life. I ran away. I quit. Or I avoided any challenge that might generate too much fear. That last strategy wasn't an option now, I was here and that was that. So giving up is where my mind turned to, my default habitual choice. Only I couldn't give up. It wasn't a real option.
And what was so bizarre and ultimately instructive about this moment was that I still wanted desperately to give up. I wanted to let go. Even though the result almost certainly meant death, I would rather die than continue to feel this afraid. I would rather perish than push on not knowing if I would make it or not.
I had learned a twisted lesson early in life, partly as the result of growing up in an abusive home. Mistakes were not acceptable. Failure was not an option. And the way you avoided failure and mistakes was never to take on something you couldn't whip. And when the going did get hard... you quit. You run. And you pretended that this was a perfectly reasonable choice. Even though what you were running from was any chance for a rich and satisfying life.
I could and did con myself, though, into believing that giving up didn't really equal dying on some level. I convinced myself that it would all turn out for the best. We all have the capacity to do that, regardless of level of native intelligence. Everyone is just exactly clever enough to fool himself.
But that day on the rock, in the bright, hard sunlight, the illusion couldn't survive. I couldn't fool myself into believing that giving up and running away was a real choice. For the first time in my life. The immediate closeness of death, its stinking breath cold on the back of my neck, could not be ignored.
The rock teaches. You can't con the rock.
I push on and up. I keep my breathing slow and even. For a series of moves, the holds don't get any better. I might die at any moment, and I know I might die at any moment. So be it. There is no other real choice but to keep moving up.
And then the holds become more substantial. And they continue getting better. Finally I reach a two-inch ledge that feels like a six-lane highway to me. Another crack appeares and I slot in a hex nut, and belay off that, back down to my partner.
We have to leave that top hex nut up there on the cliff. And that's all right. I think of it as a tribute to the rock. A tiny payment made in return for an enormous lesson learned.
Thank you teacher.