Stargazing

On the eve of the summer solstice I redpointed a climb called North Star that sits on the highest point of the Strawamus Chief in Squamish. While there were few actual stars to be seen with the moon almost full and the days so long, North Star itself couldn’t have been brighter that day and those that followed. It hadn’t been a particularly long term project for me, taking only three tries to send, but it was one of my proudest and favorite ticks in months for a very different reason.

              The way we approach climbing as a community puts a heavy focus on comparison. Grades are formed by consensus, which means not only comparing climbs to others of similar difficulty, but also constantly demands that we as people measure ourselves against others in order to describe the pitches we climb. It’s inherently there whether we like it or not, but I also consider it to be a personal weakness I’ve been working on for the better part of the last decade of my own climbing career.

              I have always found myself highly motivated and validated by the process of setting and accomplishing goals, but as a highly competitive person I often struggle when those goals are shared by my partners. Years ago, before I realized what it meant to use competitiveness for healthy growth, it nearly destroyed friendships and my own passion for climbing when I stagnated through a plateau while my friends went on a sending spree. The extent to which I was comparing myself to others reached a toxic level, and to this day remains the reason I lost psyche on bouldering. I reflect on that time in my life frequently, because it was not only a low point in my climbing, but in my ability to be a good partner and friend. It started me on a long journey of growth, as I’ve fought to learn from it ever since.

              Over the winter I found myself back in El Salto, one of my favorite places on planet earth. The limestone in Mexico is world class, yet I was there as much for the community as the projects I wanted to send. I’ve had more fun meeting and getting to know other climbers there than anywhere else I’ve been, and this year was no different. I was living in a house with a dozen people give or take a few, many friends I had both known for a while and some I had just met.

              The dynamic of that particular house was an environment of people psyched on projects, myself included. For all that we had in common as a bunch of climbers jazzed on working routes at their limits, I surprisingly found myself feeling somewhat isolated because while we all had aspirations, everyone had someone to share theirs with except me. The climbs I was trying I was trying alone, whereas everyone around me was working their projects with a partner. I felt a loneliness with which I had been previously unfamiliar, and I envied the shared experience I saw around me.

              It was for that reason that a few months later I found myself asking one of my best friends Tanager that if I came and met her in Smith Rock if she would want to project To Bolt or Not To Be with me. I wanted to seek out not only a hard project, but more importantly a person to work it with. Not just any person either, another woman, and someone who would push me outside my comfort zone in healthy ways.

              She eagerly agreed, and we dove into the process of breaking down the climb. She had climbed on the route a few times before, and while our height differences made some of our beta different, she walked me through the moves and I started piecing them together. As the days turned into weeks, Tanager pulled ahead of me, making longer links and falling on fewer moves than me. I immediately began to feel the familiar stirrings of competitiveness, wanting to stay on the same level or to be the one in the lead. As I struggled to work through those feelings I often entertained the idea that it would be so much easier to work the route by myself so I wouldn’t have to deal with this battle with competitiveness and the effect it had on my motivation. It was in those moments that I had to remind myself that I had chosen this path as an alternate to the loneliness of working a route solo; this was what I wanted, and I needed to tackle the challenge head on instead of shying away.

              I told Tanager that I was struggling with these feelings of comparing myself and my climbing to her, and that I was trying to work through them to be supportive of her climbing. She already knew of course; I wear that sort of emotion on my sleeve, but opening the discussion allowed us to work on it together. She was gracious and patient in dealing with my frequent grumpiness and struggles, and over the rest of the time we worked the route before it got too hot, it allowed us to dramatically deepen our friendship.

One of the thoughts that crossed my mind many times while working To Bolt with Tanager was wondering what it would feel like if only one of us were to finish the season successful. Could I be happy for her if she succeeded and I did not? Would the victory feel empty if it was only me clipping the chains? I made a goal to be at peace with whatever outcome the season brought. It was almost a secret relief when it got too hot to keep working the route, because I never had to face the music and deal with those inevitable emotions, but after I cleaned our draws off the route by myself in a post Cinco De Mayo hungover stupor on my last day in Oregon, I told Tanager that we would both be there to put them back up in the fall. We were in it together now.

The difficulty begins early on To Bolt

..

              After I left Smith the next stop was a brief stint in Index, some work in Seattle, and finally working my way north to Squamish. Along the way people would ask me about my recent exploits, and I was proud to be able to say that while my time in Smith this year was challenging, it was equal parts rewarding because of what Tanager and I had gone through together. With day after day after day of perfect weather back in the Northern Swamps of the Pacific Northwest my season in Squamish kicked off to a fine start. I bagged a few challenging multipitches, and saw success on Eurasian Eyes, the most beautiful climb I have climbed in months, or maybe ever.

I had wanted to try North Star since last fall just based on descriptions from those who had tried it, so when I was asked to join on the quest by my friend Jared I immediately agreed. He had tried it a number of times before, and together we worked through the beta and gave a few attempts. It suited my style well, with flexibility defining the technical crux where the climber must exit a dihedral while balanced precariously above small cams and bad foot smears. The true crux however, is perhaps overcoming the nerves and jitters that come with projecting something so far off the beaten path both physically and mentally. Not only is the exposure at the top of the chief dizzying, but it’s not the kind of climb you can just casually ask someone to belay you on. It’s a mission that must be shared.

Jared rope soloing the crux of North Star

After the first day I knew we were both capable of doing the climb as soon as the next attempt, but it would be just as easy for the stars not to align, with conditions changing or mental fortitude not withholding. We returned a week later after a heavy thunderstorm, not even knowing if the route would be dry but hoping for the best. It was more than a little alpine on top of the chief that day, with high winds making my fingers go numb as I warmed up by rope soloing the crux. We commiserated that it felt harder than before for both of us, but energy was high nonetheless as we rappelled in and pulled the rope. The only way out now was to climb the route.

On my first try of the day I found myself feeling significantly less pumped than before, reaching the final rest before the crux and barely needing it at all. The three inch long tick mark Jared had put on the finish jug stared me down as I felt a rare calm pass over me. In that moment I somehow knew that if ever there was a perfect chance, it was right here, right now. When I clipped the chains I was treated to an excitement that was more than just my own as we celebrated the success together.  

Watching Jared’s next attempt I could tell that he had found the same flow that I just had. On moves that before had looked desperate, now looked like dancing, and I was sure that this was his moment too. When he latched the final hold it was hard to say who was cheering louder. We sat together on top of the Chief, but I felt on top of the world. I asked Jared if he had felt any added pressure to send because I already had. He answered that it had not added any stress, only motivation. Motivation that had clearly driven him to succeed.

..

Polaris, the actual North Star, used to serve as a guiding light for travelers back in the days where people spent more time stargazing than looking at Google Maps for directions or worrying about the nuances involved in rock climbing. That day North Star felt like a guide for me too, as I looked at who I had been, who I was now, and who I want to become. It made me think back to my experience at Smith Rock and the shared projects I’d been exploring over the past several months. On To Bolt I had wanted success for Tanager, but if I’d had to choose only one of us to send I would have probably picked myself. That was who I had been, even very recently. This time however, it felt different. If I had to choose between just me sending that day, or both of us slogging over an hour straight uphill for the rest of summer, if it meant we could eventually grab that finish jug back to back on the same day like we did, I would have been willing to do that heinous hike as many times as it took. That is who I am now, which is a big step forward in my desire to better support others. Collective success on climbs of that difficulty is so rare in climbing, that when the stars do align is a powerful thing. Knowing that the drive to make it happen came from inspiration and not competitiveness in my partner showed me the kind of person I want to be as well.

In this life that I’ve dedicated to climbing, I mostly measure myself based on the things I accomplish. I send some hard routes that I’m proud of from time to time, but the most meaningful ones are always when I know I came out of the process a better person than who I was going in. That incredible day on North Star made me feel like the best version of myself that I had ever been before in my mental relationship with climbing and myself.

Tanager is here with me in Squamish too, and days before she made a passing comment that she only moves forward in life, never back. Now I can’t help but look forward in my own journey, to a time when we can return to To Bolt together and perhaps one day share our own magic double send day. At the very least I hope to be the one that belays her when she clips the chains, regardless of when I do it myself.  

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