Dec 17 2017
I have been resting, cuddling people, meditating, practicting yoga, living at my Mom's cozy house nestled in here the snow in Cleveland, Ohio for over two weeks now. All the while I have been reflecting on the past seven months of climbing in the Red River Gorge. My hardest send* of the season, and also the most spiritually significant climb was Mercy the Huff, a classic 12b sport climb at Left Flank. At least four different seasoned RRG climbers had recommended that I try Mercy. It’s one of the oldest, most classic lines at the Red. The story I have heard about its name supposedly comes from a moment circa 1990 when Miguel Ventura, owner of the now iconic pizza shop turned climber campground commune, Miguel’s Pizza, walked into a room full of weed smoking climbers and exclaimed “Mercy, the huff!”. Left Flank is located in the northern gorge region, on land that is owned by the park service, which means its more pristine than some other climbing areas in the south which are perforated with oil pumps and pipelines. It is reached by driving through the Nada Tunnel, a one-lane tunnel, illuminated only by each car’s headlights burrowing through a 100 foot thick moss and fern laden rock face. At the tunnel’s exit, each vehicle is sprinkled by a gentle and steady waterfall of spring water, which always reminds me of getting sprinkled with holy water at church. This climb is only a mile’s hike away from a particular rock shelter that my friend Lila says is not meant to be visited by white people, because she gets such a clear sense that this was a sacred area for native peoples.
The first time we hiked up to meet Mercy, I had already proclaimed the day a loss, in terms of my climbing psyche. I was fighting back tears as I trudged up the trail, lagging behind my partners for the day. I had told the two of them that yes, I'd go to the crag that day, but I might not even feel inspired enough to actually climb myself. They both asked about why I was upset, but I was not willing to share with them that what was really bothering me was that the two of them were now an item, and I was uncontrollably jealous, having heard some of the juicy details of their intimate escapades from both of them. I’d like to hijack this blog post right now and just write about jealousy, and the precise flavor of discomfort of its laser-like spiritual lessons, but I’ll refrain. As the day progressed, I let myself be convinced to give Mercy a try, despite the heaviness of my heart. It felt like all my energy was leaking out of me, dripping uselessly down my limbs.
As I tied the rope to my harness, and slid my fingers around the rough edges of the sandstone starting holds, my expectations were low. At that point, I had only sent a couple of 12a climbs and I had never even attempted to climb a 12b before. My already bruised ego was not relishing the certain failure that awaited. I climbed up to the first bolt, which is literally just a couple of moves that didn’t even feel remotely hard, and yet I still asked my belayer to “take” so I could rest my weight in my harness and the rope before continuing. I would call this an “intimidation take”; I thought I needed to rest just because I was anticipating that the climb would be so difficult, even though I wasn’t even actually physically tired yet. This continued all the way up the climb. I was able to make every single move on the climb the first time I tried it (thanks in part to all the resting, and to beta spray** from my friends). By the time I got to the anchor bolts at the top, 80 feet up, my mood had totally shifted. I was smiling, cracking jokes, and feeling so grateful for being outside on a beautiful day, climbing with my friends. Instead of feeling defeated and sad, I couldn’t wait to give it another try.
Feet back on the ground, I felt enchanted. "What had just happened there?" I wondered to myself. This quiet sense of wonder descended upon me, one of the most magical feelings in rock climbing. How is it that certain climbs can bring out the best in us? Its easy to forget that this feeling exists, because it doesn't happen every day or with every climb. Most climbers call climbs that they visit repeatedly “projects”, but I call them “relationship climbs”. At that moment, I became a Mercy devotee. I committed to try hard, learn, sweat, groan, fall, cry, fail, be fearless, and continue to fall over and over again, for the sake of perfecting the movement that this climb requests.
The next time I got to play on her was a couple of weeks later. That day, again, was sub-optimal in terms of my climbing “psyche”, because there was a large group at the crag, all strong climbers, and the competitive intimidation factor was high. There were four of us who were all planning to project Mercy that day. Often, when I find myself in a situation like this, where other climbers whom I respect (but maybe don’t know that well) are watching me climb, my climbing prowess tends to go missing. It’s hard for me to get myself to “try hard” and to really climb at at the raw edge of failure. And that is indeed what happened that day. Even though I felt good physically, the three times I climbed the route, I found myself taking and falling at points where I definitely could have tried harder. One time I remember everyone encouraging me “Go, Sarah, you got this! You can do it!” as I gathered myself and considered going for the next hold, instead of reaching for it, I just gave up and fell, without even trying, almost in response to the encouragement. There was still gas in my tank, even though I had allowed myself to fall/fail. At the end of the day, my partner and I both felt like we had made absolutely no progress in terms of our performance. The first “burn” was just as messy and full of falls as the third. But we also agreed that we had so much fun, just doing the moves, that our lack of progress didn’t bother us.
We came back two days later. And again, that day, I was feeling terrible, but for different reasons. Writing this now, it seems like I must have spent the whole season feeling crappy at the crag. But that’s not how it was! Most days I would arrive at the crag feeling peppy and excited to rock climb. However, on this day, November 17th, to be exact, I was feeling crappy because I had too much whiskey the night before, stayed up too late, and then had woken up at 4 am, unable to get back to sleep. Just hiking up the hill to the crag felt like an impossible effort that morning. In addition to my sluggishness, the rock was cold that day. I knew I would have to take*** or fall in order to just warm my hands. On my first burn, I felt so uninspired I couldn’t even get myself to do the moves up to the second bolt, so I cheated, pulling on the rope to make it easier. “How am I ever going to even make it all the way up this thing? Forget about trying to send it,” I thought.
My second burn****, my hands still felt impossibly cold, but I told myself that I wasn’t going to wimp out and take. So I climbed it and only fell once, between the fourth and fifth bolts.
Between the second and the third burn, I remember sitting on the ground, looking up at the climb, contemplating the sacred nature of the Gorge and its invisible inhabitants, and feeling this eerily strong message that I was going to send. It was this quiet feeling, that sending was very possible for me that day and that all I had to do was to line up with the energy of the climb.
I still felt a background sluggishness in my body, so I gave into it and let myself lie on the ground under my puffy coat, breathing slowly, eyes closed, enjoying the sunshine on my face. Reminding myself that my own inner softness is there, no matter what. Instead of trying to set my intention or my focus on the climb, I did the opposite, I just sank into the feeling that was showing up, this calm gentleness, like the feeling right before you drift off to sleep. It felt so luxurious, I almost felt guilty at how good it felt to just lay there, completely content for a few moments.
When I got on for the third burn, I didn’t even want to think about “sending", since I know that my own expectations for myself can often set me up for failure. So I set small goals. First goal was simply to make it through the first crux. Then the next goal was to make it through the next crux. And then I could possibly work on sending. After making it through the first crux, I was surprised. And happy. Eager to have fun working on the next crux. As I approached it, I heard my mind beginning to interpret the signals coming from my forearms as “tired”. “You’re tired, Sarah. This is probably not going to be the time for you to send.” And the rest of me responded to this thought by beginning to yell.
As Sprout, my climbing partner, would later say, “Sarah, you were yelling on the rest holds.”
I gathered myself, using the focus of the sound of my own guttural screams, and hit the first flaky crimp, surprised that my fingers stayed on. I looked down to bump my left foot up, again, surprised that I was still on the wall. I went to go bump my right hand and was surprised when my fingers closed around the hold... I was not flying through the air! More yelling, this time out of joy and surprise. I happily moved to the adjacent jugs.
Giddiness began to set in. “Oh my god, I might actually send this thing!” And to this voice in my head, I also responded with yelling. In the past, as soon as a thought like this would appear, so would the tendency to fall, as a by-product of the war between my ego and my shadow (see previously mentioned time when I semi-intentionally fell off while friends were encouraging me).
“Sarah, now you have your favorite moves!” Sprout reminded me.
Indeed, the last few moves to the last bolt and then the chains, give me so much joy. I used a new sidepull that Sprout had just discovered was so big and positive, yet made me nervous because I had to find a new series of foot movements to go with it. I was worried that I would get out of my usual sequence for the finish and fall just due to unpracticed movement. So I yelled some more, and it worked! I slapped my hand up to the finishing rail of holds, on an area that was covered with sand, but my hand somehow stuck to it long enough for me to put my leg in the big crack, taking my weight off my arms.
Now the yelling became “Woooo hooo! This feels so good! I guess I should clip these chains!”
I fumbled with them, but eventually clipped. The joy of sending my hardest climb ever washed through my body, quietly and peacefully.
“Wow, that was a lot of yelling, wasn’t it?” I chuckled as I sat back in my harness. My belayer lowered me to the ground, the rope sliding smoothly through the carabiners at the top of the climb. Once back on the ground, I marvelled at the power of this climb, and felt awash with gratitude and wonder. I am pretty sure that none of us had expected me to actually send. What was it about Mercy that enabled me to climb my strongest, despite feeling my worst? I look forward to finding the next magical climb that can remind me that enchantment is real, or whatever the next lesson is that the rock has to teach me.
*sending is a climbing slang term that refers to the act of climbing from the bottom to the top of a rock climb without falling or "taking" (resting in your harness). This is something that climbers feel is particularly noteworthy/meaningful/significant.
**beta spray is when someone who has already climbed the route tells the climber where the biggest and most useful hand and footholds are, and in some cases, how to position one's body in order to use them most effectively.
***take means asking the belayer to take up slack so that you can sit and rest in your harness, rather than continuing to hold on to the rock and keep climbing.
****burn refers to the act of attempting to climb from the bottom to the top of a "project" climb, with the intention of either trying hard or working out the optimal sequence for the next attempt.
Photo credit: Lauren "Sprout" Bennett