This Isn’t Baseball

This isn’t baseball.
This is climbing. And there is
crying in climbing.

The following is a mix of something I wrote last fall with some revisions that reflect what’s going on currently. I’m going to leave the old narrative as present tense to keep things coherent.

I don’t like chimney climbs for two reasons: I tend to get claustrophobic and stemming moves feel very insecure to me (especially on quartzite’s Teflon nonstick surface). I realized I don’t like chimneys last season when I found myself a mere 15 or 20 feet up a body swallowing 5.4 chimney. I started to get really choked up and wanted to cry in the worst way. It was the first time I can recall being hit with an inexplicable urge to cry while climbing; a feeling that I’ve found comes and goes.

The climb itself wasn’t scary at all. As I sat there composing myself, I looked around and surveyed what was going on around me. The climb is basically a broken ladder with a good amount of rather positive holds and ledges to take good long breaks. It’s a bit rare for a Devil’s Lake 5.4 as it doesn’t feel like a 5.6. I realized that while the tight space was triggering for my claustrophobia (and contextually, my claustrophobia comes almost entirely from experiences being bullied in school) I was getting choked up because of what was going on in my life, and all of the things from my past that I’d been working on processing.

Suddenly I wasn’t a 40 something year old man awkwardly learning to stem. I was a 12-year-old boy afraid of the shame that came with failure. And while 12-year-old me was pretty sure he could make it up that climb and was excited to try, 40-something-year-old me was basically convinced he couldn’t make it to the top for a variety of reasons. (40-something-year-old me is adept at proving to himself ahead of time that failure is an assured outcome). So, a lot was going on in that chimney. When I got home that night, I did what I did a lot of last season. I had a couple beers and laid in the tub and I wrote.

Ever since my fiancé left me this past April, I cry all the time. I cry almost every day, usually more than once a day. I cry about every way you can think of. The kind where I don’t make noises and small tears pool up behind my sunglasses, the kind where I moan and shriek and can’t catch my breath and start to choke, the kind where there are no tears and I just lie there and heave and gasp. I cry on the floor. I cry in contorted positions that offer a sense of comfort, like I’m hugging myself, like the kitchen or bathroom floor are holding me, like the neighbors who I’m sure can hear me are going “I know it hurts, I know it does, that’s real, and that hurts bad, I can tell”. I cry until my joints and muscles hurt from holding some variation of fetal position and then find a way to lengthen my spine and create room in my joints and I take big yoga breaths and then I cry some more. And repeat.

Lately I wonder “is it healthy to cry this much?” On one hand it’s processing and releasing hormones, it’s tapping into decades of hurt and grief, and tending to wounds I never acknowledged and thus never began to heal. On the other hand, crying this much feels a lot like a sign I’m really losing it. I mean, at what point do chronic crying fits cease to be healing and start to erode the integrity of a person’s emotional state?

I wake up and cry. I make my coffee and watch the news and start crying. I get my climbing gear in my car and I cry on the way to and from the crag, sometimes for almost the whole 50-minute drive, occasionally wondering if I should pull over – I almost have a few times and probably should have more than once. Then I get to climbing and I try not to cry.

While climbing I identify and acknowledge my feelings and I hold onto them until I can process them when I get home. All my fear, my self-doubt, my belief that I will fail at all things in life no matter what. All those moments I tell myself “don’t bother. you cannot do this. you are going to fail.” All the moments I measure my life by my failures, not my accomplishments. The moments I define myself by my perceived failures and let my crippling fear of failure prevent me from trying. When I’m climbing, I discover all of those feelings, and I find ways to push on and climb past them. But after every new discovery comes the processing.

So, I go home and cry in the bathtub. I splash water on the floor from the sobs and make these analogies between chimney climbs and childhood traumas and my little dog looks on worriedly. And then I lurch from the tub and stumble through my apartment wearing a towel that smells like mildew, semi blind from the torrents of tears, and I find my computer at the kitchen table. I sit and pour out streams of gunk from whatever emotional pipeline I just tapped into, leaving puddles of tears in front of the keyboard from where I put my head down on my arm and sob and wine as I type.

That’s what I love about climbing. It’s not like Tom Hanks says in that movie. There most certainly fucking is crying in climbing. Everyone will tell you that. Maybe it’s because unlike baseball (and basically every other sport with a ball save for rugby) there’s a very real risk of death or injury in climbing. Also unlike ball-sports, in climbing there’s a constant presence of fear: heights, falling, injury, your belayer not catching you, gear failure, getting out if you get injured, the ability for EMS to get to you quickly etc. Humans are not genetically wired to be afraid of curve balls but they are genetically wired to be afraid of heights. Climbing just touches all those vulnerable and scary places in our souls. It’s exciting, sure, but it’s exciting because it’s scary, because it’s dangerous. And crying is a natural reaction to danger and fear, to joy, confusion, pain, elation, and accomplishment.

People talk about crying after their rope nearly cuts over a sharp edge and they have to lower off, or when dealing with nerve shaking exposure, frustration with knots, routes, whatever. Margo Hays cried when she clipped chains on La Rambla. You see Jimmy Chin cry when he has to bail on Meru and then again when he summits it. Conrad Anker cries in almost everything he’s in.  There is crying in climbing. It’s accepted and embraced in ways absent in other sports where, at best, it’s only ok to cry if you win or lose, but never during the process.

All those fears I felt in the chimney, all the self-doubt, that voice in my head shouting “you’re going to fail!!!”, I try not to push those feelings away when I climb. I do my best to let them exist and climb on with them. Those feelings are like hidden holds: I discover what’s there and I allow it to exist without judgement and then I observe with curiosity, seeing if they’re useful to me or not. When I’m climbing, I don’t have the capacity or room to think too much about my abilities. Most of the time, as long as I can stay out of my own way, I leave 40-year-old-me on the ground to sit and doubt me and I let 12-year-old me go nuts. He’s the one who’s up there finding out if he can do it, looking for some continued way up that works for him, too curious and wild-eyed with adventure to doubt “if” he can.

I try and practice that same philosophy in life. When I get stuck and I’m scared and can’t find a hold, and I’m panicking, and I’m too scared to have fun and I’m ready to quit because I’m too tired, too sore, too timid, too afraid or just don’t want to go on I try and remind myself “There’s a way up, I’ve just got to find one that works for me.” And I let myself cry for a second. Or a minute. Or as long as it takes, and I climb on.

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