Chasing Down a Feeling

I’ve long held the belief that I was in the climbing game to see how far I could go, and how fast I could get there. I’ve had goals, dreams, and fantasies about what was possible for me since I first learned what the Yosemite Decimal System was. Over the years I’ve crept my way through the grades, sometimes jumping multiple in a season, and sometimes slogging through multi-year plateaus of injury, burnout, and bouldering. Sure, when things get hard I wonder if this is it, if I’ve peaked at the ripe age of 24. Still, most of the time I think it goes against human nature to accept that at any given moment in time you have already reached your limit, actualized all the potential you’ve got inside you, and are on the decline for the rest of your days. There may always be ebbs and flows, but it’s a rare breed of climber that would gladly confirm that they had absolutely already done the hardest thing they were capable of, and accepted that they were in a permanent ebb. Thus I now tell not the story of Fight Club (since the first rule of Fight Club is that you aren’t supposed to talk about it), but rather the tale of the aftermath.

With all my desires to be in a constant state of flow rather then ebb, so it was that I found myself engrossed in the biggest project of my life. It was a climb that would test me like never before, in terms of mental fortitude through many long gym sessions, and many redpoint attempts in which I struggled to inch my highpoint closer by progress as minute as a single foot adjustment. Along the way I managed to rally a support group around me, both for the heinous training days and the long and emotional belays. After one particularly savage plastic beatdown, a friend dropped a comment about my project that made me laugh at the time, but has come to haunt me in the months since. “Once you send Fight Club you’ll be set adrift,” were he words he used. He was implying that I wouldn’t know what to do with myself in the aftermath, as this process was quickly consuming my entire world. It would be a problem I’d gladly accept, I thought back then, because it would mean I had sent the hardest climb of my life! I had no way of knowing just how relevant that passing sentence would come to be.

Those months of training were filled with a passion I had never known. My oxygen deprived brain would conjure up visions of clipping those chains to get me through cruxes in the weight room and I found pockets of strength I hadn’t known existed. Dozens of weeks of rain and the ending of a relationship left me with nothing but time and pent up energy to spare, alongside a desperate need for purpose and challenge. The project consumed me and all facets of my life. It was the first thing I thought of in the morning, and I would fall asleep rehearsing beta at night. Absolutely everything, EVERYTHING was Fight Club, and it was absolutely electrifying.

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Entering the crux on Debate Club, the intro pitch to Fight Club

I sent on a Wednesday evening after work, just before the cave was totally lost to the darkness of the approaching night. That gave me two days to celebrate before I had to face the gravity of the inevitable question: what came next? There were so many things I wanted to try, and finally I was free to do so. I tried Hellfire, fell off that. I tried Chain Distraction, fell off that. I tried Baby Fight, fell off that. I tried Flatliner, and Van Halem, and Meridian, and fell off all of those. I sent a few moderates, and trained aimlessly in the gym, and it was fun, but through it all I knew deep down that something was missing. It wasn’t burnout, I’d been down that road before. I wanted to climb, I just didn’t know WHAT I wanted to climb. I yearned for a new project with all of my heart, but everywhere I looked, I found no inspiration, no motivation, no excitement. I wasn’t liberated at all, I was lost.

I went to Europe, continuing to chase that feeling that Fight Club had given me. I climbed world class limestone in country after country, and I climbed it well. I sent hard and I celebrated the joy of all that climbing is supposed to be: world class rock, best friends, beautiful places, tufas, kneebars, and sweat soaked glory. I was literally living out the stuff of my dreams, but still I found it lacking. My partners insisted it was okay to not be psyched all of the time. At first I found it reassuring, but after the first few months the sentiment started to lose its comfort. After all this time, all I’d managed to find were dozens of places where the answer was NOT.

I returned from Europe with a mixture of relief and nervous anticipation. I hadn’t found what I was looking for abroad, so maybe it lied somewhere back in the muggy summer sun and slippery (and often wet) crimps of the Pacific Northwest. I half halfheartedly plunged into a few new projects upon my return, but the fickle psyche remained elusive. More time has passed and still things remain somewhat in a standstill, albeit less and less so as time passes. The contagious and indoctrinating psyche for Little Si from the Dawn Patrol crew has brought some relief fromthe chase, but it feels like the answer is lurking just out of sight, teasing me from around the next arete or waiting at the next belay station. Climbing will always be fun, but I know the day will come when I’ll find the next big thing (or more likely it will find me), and my world will once again be set on fire. Until then…

“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
-John Lennon

Northwest Boulderfest 2016

Yesterday was the NorthwestBoulderfest: a competition I’ve done every year since its origin. I’ve been doing nothing but ropes for months and haven’t even bouldered in the gym in at least two weeks, so expectations were not exactly for it to be my best comp ever. I would say that the fact that I had an easy excuse for failure took some of the pressure off, but I’m so damn competitive that it didn’t matter at all. It seemed like I was making so many mistakes– a foot slip blew my flash on one route, bad beta cost me too many tries on another. When every attempt might count, these things can add up fast and I thought I probably didn’t have a chance against the giants I was competing with. As time went on I started to have more success and sneaky peaks at other scorecards left me surprised at the idea that I might actually have a chance at finals if I played my cards right. I threw them all in on one route, hoping for a seventh top to give me the extra points I would need to sneak my way into the running. I was making progress, even though only one other person had done the boulder problem, and there was still an hour left. It couldn’t have been harder than V7, so in theory if I didn’t give up I should be able to do it– that’s plenty of time to put together five simple holds. Then there was only thirty minutes left, but I was getting close. I had to do the route, but somehow the line had gotten ridiculously long and I suddenly had to worry not about just putting in the time to figure it out, but making every chance that I got to get on the wall count. Almost twenty minutes went by and my yellow card (the color of the women’s) was still buried in a sea of orange (the men’s cards for the other route sharing a judge with mine), nowhere near the top of the stack to indicate it was my turn again. There were ten minutes left in my heat when I finally got to go again. I fell. It looked pretty bleak, but somehow I heard my name called for one last shot at redemption. It was all I needed, and I squeaked out the send with minutes left in the comp.

Fast forwards to finals, which I did qualify for thanks to my last minute send. Sitting in isolation the competitors talked about how the comp had gone. Almost all of them had topped more routes than me, but that was no surprise– these were world class athletes; internationally ranked veterans of the world comp circuit. I’d competed against almost all of them before, if you could even call it that. In the past it was actually more like I was competing near them. In years past I couldn’t even dream of being on their level, or even anywhere close. Another excuse for failure, but this time I wasn’t thinking about that kind of nerves for a change. Winning wasn’t really on my mind, as strange as that sounds from someone as competitive as me. I had already succeeded by simply making it here.

For me, being in finals is pure type 1 fun– you feel like a superhero. It’s interesting because it’s both a totally ego-feeding thing, yet it also manages to simultaneously be a deeply humbling experience. On one hand there’s the fame and glory, enough said. On the other hand though… I was completely overwhelmed by the support from everyone that came to watch me. Friends and strangers alike, sending me photos and videos afterward, telling me how psyched they were when I stuck a dyno or unlocked a sequence nobody else figured out, or even just being there. I said that winning wasn’t so much on my mind, but I wanted to climb well for a different reason. I knew that I’d already earned my spot under those bright lights for my ability, but what mattered now was earning all that support, making them proud. I desperately want to prove to everyone that I deserve to be there, standing next to those giants.

It’s a crazy feeing, having everyone in the crowd screaming for you, fighting your battles with you, and believing in you even when you are staring down a move that looks physically impossible. That energy enables me to try harder than I ever thought possible. By the end of the finals it felt like I could barely walk, after giving everything I had into those sixteen minutes of climbing (four minutes each on four problems). Of course there was frustration that I didn’t get one move farther or place a bit better, there will never not be that drive to constantly improve in my climbing. More than that though was the pride in having tried harder than I maybe ever have on plastic, and at having held my own against some of the strongest women in the world. There was definitely an element of physical pain adding to the potpourri of emotions as well, having gotten annihilated in different ways by each problem in turn. I didn’t leave the comp with any cash prizes, swag, or anything more than a few sample clif bars, but I still got what I came for: Five minutes of fame, and the chance to try really, really, really fucking hard.

Psycho…pathetic

[Author’s note: this was originally written in the summer of 2016. Basically an entire year passed between when I decided to start a blog, didn’t post anything, and then decided to write another post, which also remained in my drafts folder until now, a year later. The only update to the story is that I still fall on Psychosomatic all the time. Not always though!]

Yesterday marked the end of a three year battle with the longest standing project I’ve ever had. Psychosomatic, a 5.12d at Little Si, was surely going to be my first of the grade, a groundbreaking revolution that would usher in a new era of me slaughtering 5.13s left and right. That’s what naive young Brittany thought back in 2013, the first time she one hung the project. The thirtieth time, however, and even the fleeting memory that there had ever been a positive thought about the climb was nowhere to be found. All summer long, I would diligently try and do my time on Psycho, three burns a session, two or three times a week. It was a new grade for me, so I was expecting to have to work hard at first, that’s how it goes, right? Soon enough I climbed 5.12d, and soon after that 5.13a, yet I still couldn’t do Psychosomatic. No longer interested in chasing the grade, I somewhat lost my investment in the climb, though when I went to Little Si every now and then, I would still inevitably find myself hanging there at the last bolt before the anchors, yet again having fallen off the crux.

I can’t give a very accurate estimate of how many times I fell off of Psycho, because after you try a project so many damn times they all start to blur together. One attempt I do remember though, because it was the one where I decided I was officially giving up. I had tried switching up my beta several times that day, eventually coming crawling back to what had never failed to get me that fateful one-hang but never closer. I failed to execute once again, and something snapped. I had a meltdown on the wall, kicking and swearing and not even trying to hold back tears. I was high enough off the deck that no one could bear witness to my shame, but the burden was heavy enough that I knew this had to be the end of this project. I would come back one day, when I was either physically or emotionally stronger, and Psycho would meet its match once and for all.

The problem with Little Si is that there’s only so many climbs. No matter where you stand on that narrow ledge, you can’t ignore a climb that remains a skeleton in your closet when it stares you down even as you’re getting on something else. It was always there in the back of my mind; my greatest failure as a climber, and forever the one that got away. I switched to Chronic and eventually sent that, thus climbing two full grades harder than the numerical value assigned to my nemesis, and even used Psycho as a warmup for it, under the charade that I really only cared about the real project. If I just so happened to put down Psychosomatic in the process it was just an added bonus, but I could never commit to projecting it again.

With that mentality… yesterday it happened, just like that. On the warm-up go, as per usual, I climbed up to the crux and barely felt pumped, but the last few times up had felt just as good and still ended in thinly veiled disappointment. There was no desperate yelling or magical clicking of beta, but instead I grabbed the last jug, clipped the chains, and confirmed my send to the shocked crew of my friends who had all witnessed at least a portion of my dozens of previous attempts. Being able to finally put Psycho to rest should have been cause for celebration, but the dominating emotion I felt was more along the lines of genuine relief. I no longer would be haunted by the endless one-hangs, and now have become finally free to start getting shut down by the extension…