“I don’t think I want to climb anymore. Like, ever. I think I’m going to quit.”
That’s what I said. Mark it down, July 25, 2014. Approximately 5pm, at the Lower Cheeks at Index. Matt is my witness, for all you doubters.
I was coming back after a 7 week ankle injury during which I swapped climbing and running for massive amounts of bike riding. The break was actually fun, and biking allowed me to move my legs and take an adventure down the coast that I’d always dreamed of doing. I thought I’d dealt with my first real injury well: I wasn’t sitting on the couch eating chips and catching up on 29 years of television, after all. I was embracing the chance to get after it in a different way. Never did I consider that the challenge would come not from the injury itself, but from coming back from the injury.
Gosh, climbing. Sometimes I’m so in awe of how it cracks us open and reveals our insides. It accentuates everything in life: confidence (or lack thereof), heavy emotions, relationship dynamics, character. Character.
Not long ago I watched 9 year-old Zen, visiting from Argentina with his parents, lead the 5.9 Index classic Godzilla. He maintained amazing focus throughout the entire climb, sending the route with only one fall and seemingly enjoying it the whole way. As soon as he reached the ground however, Zen’s composure broke and he started sobbing. So much fear, so many decisions, so much self-inflicted pressure. Send. Don’t fall. Don’t pull on that piece of gear. Don’t weight the rope. Climb the route perfectly, or else you haven’t truly climbed it, and you need to do it again. Zen’s breakdown is a reaction that all of us climbers experience from time to time (or all the time), minus our finely crafted adult filters. Climbing breaks us open.
It was time to start climbing again. My ankle was feeling better, stronger, more stable. I had been walking without pain for a few weeks. I was psyched. Matt and I headed up to climb some breezy and shady pitches in the higher reaches of Index; I stepped into my harness, squeezed my feet into my shoes, started climbing. And then:
Confidence diminishing with every move.
FEAR. Of falling? Of failure? Likely both.
Voices telling me, “Oh my gosh, you suck! You call yourself a climber? This is supposed to feel easy!”
AAC grants, Alpine Mentors, [very very tiny] sponsorships.
The voices, “Do they know who I am? Do they know how much I suck? How average of a climber I really am?”
Absolutely overwhelmed with emotion: frustration, disappointment, self-loathing, dependency, weakness.
By the end of the day, I was in tears. Absolutely no adult filter. So confused, so frustrated, so disappointed with myself. Feeling so much pressure to be “a climber,” feeling like I wasn’t measuring up, feeling like it JUST WAS NOT FUN. “I want to quit.” Matt knelt beside me, and as patiently and gently as always, he said, “Jenny, this is what makes or breaks you as a climber, as an athlete – as a person. It’s not so much about the person you are when everything is going well and you’re climbing strong and sending. It’s how you respond when you’re not doing well. When you’re struggling with strength, or fear, or yourself. You’re kind of at a crossroads; you kind of have a real decision to make here. How you respond to this really matters.”
In many ways, climbing has become the next thing to excel at. It isn’t 4.0 anymore, it’s 5.12. It isn’t academic scholarships and awards, it’s AAC grants and climbing sponsorships. It’s no longer about the beautiful views, the joy of challenge, the aesthetic of movement, the sweetness of partnership, it’s about the instagram followers, the recognition, the “success” as a climber. Bullshit, it’s all bullshit. I want to reach the summit as the sun is peaking through the clouds, glaciated mountains all around, amazed with the beauty, laughing and high-fiving with my partner. I want to fall on a climb and then finish it, raving about the movement and content with myself because I tried my hardest. I want to end each day exhausted and scraped up and utterly psyched, not because of the grade I climbed or the recognition I received, but simply because I got to climb that day.
So I’m quitting. I’m quitting climbing for all the wrong reasons. And I’m starting climbing for all the reasons that captivated me in the first place. And I think, knowing myself and my history with achievement and self-inflicted pressure and perfectionism, I’ll be constantly quitting climbing, and constantly starting over.
And this, my friends, is just another reason why I simply love climbing.