Climbing from the Heart

Climbing from the Heart

Jun 4 2018

On New Year’s Day 2013, sitting at my dining room table with my friend Kathryn, I realized I was super curious about bringing yoga into the world of climbing, and my climbing in particular. It seemed like something with infinite creative potential. And for the past five years now, this has been happening; the more devoted I become to embodying yogic principles and lifestyle, the more my life changes, and my climbing along with it. On every climb, I turn to my breath to relax and focus. Last year I experimented with bringing incense and offerings to the crag. I’ve started to seek out solo time at the crag, not climbing, just being with the rock. I view each climb as a moving asana, with its unique features and characteristics. I love considering how the rock might feel about cuddling with us humans (we don’t generally ask first). And yet, I would say that all of these things still feel a bit like “window dressing”. They haven’t really addressed the thing that most influences how I climb: the WHY. Why do I climb? Why have I given so much of my life to climbing? Why am I climbing today? Why am I getting on this specific climb at this particular moment?

While I don’t really take the time to contemplate or record my answers to these questions on a daily basis, I do track these things, pretty much constantly. And, because in climbing we do have this (somewhat pesky but very useful) rating system for describing the difficulty of a climb, I am also aware of how I “perform” on rock climbs. (Did I “send” that climb or hang dog my way up it?) So I’m always curious about which motivation for climbing is emotionally healthy, spiritually evolved, feels good, is genuine, fun, not at all tied to what other people think, free of competitive vibes, AND gets me to play at the edge of what I think is even physically possible. Yeah, that’s what I have been looking for. And I’ve been pretty convinced that yoga, and specifically this ashram lifestyle, can help me find it. I’ll get even more specific. My hardest “send” to date is (as I previously wrote about) Mercy the Huff, 12b. And by the end of this season, and/or this calendar year, supported by yoga and spiritual practice, (instead of any nutritional or physical training program) I’d like to have sent a 12d.

Even writing out that goal gives me a feeling in the pit of my stomach that I don’t like. Because whenever I focus on the grade I am climbing, this can easily bring me back to an old mindset, the one where how hard/well I climb is attached to my self worth. And as many of us have experienced this mindset feels good at first, when we are making steady “progress”. But when we reach a performance plateau and encounter our own self-limiting beliefs and shadows, this becomes a draining and tumultuous mindset for climbing.

I had to leave that mindset behind years ago, and have tried on many others. Last year, my daughter Veronica pointed out that the only motivation I needed was just to make sure I was having fun. Yes, so true. Aaaand of course, being me, I’m still digging for that deeper purpose.

I got a clue about this a couple of seasons ago while watching a young man on a climb called “Hip to the Jive” at Chocolate Factory. It’s an 11b climb, and the last three clips are the hardest, right as the route gets overhung and pumpy, since most of the bodyweight is held with the arms rather than the legs AND the good holds can be easily confused with all the “sucker” holds on the route. This guy was shaking as soon as he pulled onto the overhung section. I watched him climb, thinking that a fall was coming at any moment. He kept shaking and “chicken winging” (a posture where your elbows stick out because the body is trying to use shoulder muscles to compensate for the already depleted forearm muscles) as he advanced to the second to last clip. I was amazed he hadn’t fallen yet. He kept hanging on, looking even more insecure as he approached the last clip. He could barely pull up the rope to get it into the carabiner. He missed the first time, leaving a bunch of slack and a potentially epic fall, and then pulled up the rope again and made the clip. I was stunned. By this time, everyone at the crag was watching him, even though he wasn’t yelling or even grunting that loudly or doing anything in particular to attract attention. Then, miraculously, he made the last moves to the finishing jugs, using the most desperate looking movements I have ever seen a climber exhibit. As he clipped the chains, sending the route, it seems like there were about a dozen of us, strangers and friends alike, cheering for him. When he came down, I told him that was the most inspiring climb that I had seen in years, maybe even ever.

Since then, I have told that young man’s “Hip to the Jive” story many times. Climbing at one’s physical limit is vulnerability in action. It’s vulnerable because so much is unknown... will we succeed or fail, how our bodies will respond, what will happen if we fall, will we get injured? We are exposing our unknown parts to ourselves as well as to our belayer, and anyone else who is watching. If we aren’t clear on why we are making ourselves that vulnerable, or if don’t feel fully emotionally resourced and supported, we are a lot less likely to go to that vulnerable place.

A few days ago I was climbing with my friend Amy at the Miller Fork Recreational Preserve here in the Gorge. I had woken up that morning feeling inwardly still, quiet, melancholy. Even after a lovely meditation and asana practice with Ceclia, the mood continued. It was mostly brought on by the days and weeks of intermittent rain and the sense of hopelessness about the pervasive mold that was flourishing in the petri dish environment of our tents, stored clothing, beds, towels, everything that wasn’t alive and moving. As I headed to the crag with Amy, I was wondering why I was climbing that day. I wasn’t in the mood to climb. I wasn’t in the mood to do anything, really. It certainly didn’t feel like a day for any life changing insight. As we hiked in, climbing felt like a practice: enjoying Amy’s company, breathing, moving, taking in the rocks, plants, birds and Amy’s dog, Stella. Our warm up climb, a 5.8, felt like a 5.10 to me. Then we walked over to a 5.11c that I had been on previously and had found challenging. I did a burn on it, resting at a couple of bolts, but quickly getting through all the moves. At 95% humidity, even though the holds were all “dry” on this route, I could still feel that I was overgripping and feeling worried that I would slide off unexpectedly due to the extra layer of moisture. As I prepared for my second burn, I could feel that my mood had begun to shift. Standing with my knot tied, my chalked hands resting on the rock, my face turned up towards the route, a few bees buzzing around my knees, I inwardly groped for my intention for the route. Why am I climbing this? What am I hoping for on this climb? Why am I here? It sure would be nice to “send” this route, it’s pretty far below my limit, but on a day like today, that would require some effort. Where was I going to find that motivation?

As I listened for an answer, what came was simply to climb from my heart. Climb from the soft, vulnerable place of enjoyment, pleasure, focus, fun, and devotion to the pure beauty of the place and the rock itself. To climb from this place means to leave behind the thoughts about the grade of the climb or my performance. Yes. This felt like exactly what I needed that day. I pulled onto the rock, breathing, focusing, and enjoying. I climbed up to the part where I had previously felt pumped and instead of taking (resting) I kept climbing, took a nice fall, got back on and finished the climb.  Half an hour later, I did another burn and again one-hung it, taking another gentle, fun fall. As we hiked out afterwards, I noticed my mood was completely different. No, I hadn’t accomplished anything remarkable in terms of climbing performance, but something even bigger had happened. I learned how to climb from my heart. Instead of telling myself that I don’t care about “sending”, I could be honest that yes, it would have been nice to have climbed that without falling. And here I was, feeling equally happy with the falls, and how I took them, since they came from my unprotected heart, a pure and simple form of nature herself.

Photo credit: Andrew Robertson