We were wrapping up for the day, looking for one more route to do when Mark said he’d lead Double Overhang if I wanted to follow. Considered by some to be the best 5.4 in all of Wisconsin, and hands down the best 5.4 in the park I didn’t hesitate to say “Of course I want to follow you up Double Overhang.” Never mind the fact that I have a significant dislike for roofs and overhangs. How significant? One could call it a disdain. One could also call it poor technique and a near complete inability to properly climb through them. They are and always have been my very least favorite feature to encounter on a climb. It’s why I said at the end of last season I was going to spend the winter working on over hangs at the gym to get better at pulling roofs. And while I did spend some time this winter working on overhangs at the gym (actually becoming mildly fond of them) when I hit the roofs on Double Overhang I did what I do every time I encounter a roof or overhang: I threw out every damn bit of technique I learned on those cold plastic holds that may have helped me and lost my damn mind.
My approach to dealing with roofs, though ineffective, is simple and always the same: I dive headlong into where the wall and roof meet, and attempt to burrow in like a badger in the dirt. And about the same time I realize that I cannot, in fact, nuzzle into the cold stone corner and find some comfortable happy place like a badger does with the dirt or that I do with my pillows, I realize that there is no magic doorway that leads through the roof and I have once again forgotten to start looking for a way out until it’s too late. Then I look around in some awkward stooped over position, back hurting, anxiety spiking, claustrophobia settling in, feeling like a moth likely does when they get to the hot part of the flame going “Why do I do these things?” It’s a whole thing.
And so there I was: losing my mind 25’ up a 5.4 like I’m 10 pitches into some 5.10a big wall, neatly bunched up into the niche below the first overhang like a smelly band t-shirt that’s been inadvertently shoved into a corner of the closet. Wait, let me back up…
Because before I got there, I had had one of those mildly disappointing days of climbing where I just couldn’t get out of my own head enough to enjoy what I was doing. I’ve been dealing with a lot of fear in my personal life. A lot. And earlier that day, before I excitedly threw myself at something I knew was going to give me problems, I had tried to lead a different climb, got about 12 feet up, couldn’t find a good first piece, decided I just didn’t want to deal with it, and bailed on someone else’s rope. Had that rope not been there, had I no easy way out, I’d have pressed on, I’m sure.
I just didn’t want to deal with any more fear than I was already dealing with that day. And that was ok, I respected my decision, but it was still a bit disappointing. I had been wanting to do some leading again, and since I’d taken a short fall on Solo Crack, 5.6 a few weeks ago I had only been on the sharp end once, and that was on the first pitch of Lumby Ridge, a 20’ (at best) 5.3 that was fun and good for the experience and confidence, but didn’t feel like a very big accomplishment. So, when Mark had said “… head out to Bedroom Amphitheater and do easy leads all day.” I was jazzed, because it sounded like what I needed.
Then none of it really went like I had hoped and somewhere between the parking lot of the CCC and the base of Second Balcony, 5.4 I lost my nerve. And after a day of following Mark up a couple climbs and doing a couple top rope laps and having an outstanding day of climbing, I was starting to feel that physical and mental fatigue settling in around me and my ability to ward off the stress and worry of everyday life began to wane. And all that happened at an incredibly inconvenient time, as it often does, like when you’re in a perfectly peaceful spot, with a slight breeze jostling the branches above just enough so that the shady spot you’re standing in is bathed in crisp springtime sunshine, those high 70s and peaceful solitude and exhaustion lulling you to into that quiet place where only the humming between your ears exists. And you’re on lead belay and your climber just disappeared over the first overhang and was now out of sight until you rejoin him at the top, so you just stand there and feed out slack and get yawn repeatedly as you worry about rent, bills, the health of your pets, your health, what the hell you’re doing with your life, etc.
I had a while to stand there quietly and get even more exhausted and more into my head about all those things until Mark had the anchor set and yelled down “Ok Keith, climb on!”
And so there I was… On Double Overhang, synonymous for two things I struggle with: roofs and exposure. Wedged under those roofs, knowing I had to come out and around, reaching up but not being able to SEE anything… oh god I was day one level of fear. Coming out from the 2nd overhang at the top I wasn’t having much fun, at all. In what I know was a whimpering voice I told Mark as much, right before I asked him to “Please stop talking” as he tried to spot out the beta for me. I had my own voices in my head to contend with, and they were all drowning out Mark’s calm and helpful voice as they yelled out familiar things like “I’m not a good climber” “I shouldn’t be doing this” “this is the least fun part of the whole day.” As I topped out, I was struggling with the self-doubt and the feeling of embarrassment over having so many difficulties on the way up.
And then it was over and there I was. Sitting on the top of Rainy Wednesday Tower for the very first time. Huffing, shaking, scared, proud. Feeling accomplished and amazed at what I can accomplish, feeling grateful for my body and apologizing to all the joints and muscles that ached but got me through in spite of significant protest. I took in the view, Mark saying congratulatory things, and then our friend Lindsey was topping out on the other side, and there we all were, me and a group of my closest friends, all having done this incredibly brave thing that started at the ground and went up into the sky cutting a path through the jagged and ancient unknown. My, weren’t we something.
This will sound cliché, but there at the top, my mind combing over the climb and sizing up my performance deciding how I should feel about the whole thing I recalled my new 100% rule.
A few days prior I had been talking to my coworker Joanne. We had just opened the doors and she had asked how I was feeling and instead of saying ‘I’m feeling pretty out of it today’ I said something like ‘well, I’m here and I’m going to give it 100%’ and she said:
“Just remember, 100% looks different each day.”
That floored me. It was like she had revealed the secret to a magic trick. It seems so simple, so easy to understand, because it’s just so fucking true. Today yesterday and tomorrow you’re going to be dealing with different things, have different levels of energy, at different stages of whatever cycle you’re in, preoccupied with or reacting to or more or less aware of certain factors. Yet we expect ourselves to be able to show up and perform at a peak level every time, without fail. That is simply an unreal expectation, and it’s unsustainable if you do try and perform at that frequency.
What Joanne taught me with that simple statement is that metaphorically, if I climbed the same route every day for the rest of my life there would be some days I climbed it faster or better than others. Some days I’d be injured. Some days I’d be crying and some days I’d be excited. There would be times where I looked moved like a ballerina, times where I moved like a gorilla, and most of the time I’d move like a stoned goat. Some days I’d climb in the rain and some days I’d get shut down and have to back off or bail. But showing up and getting on that climb is the 100%. And If I can learn to hold each day as its own, acknowledge each one as a unique experience and not compare it to any other day, if I could quit comparing how well I got through that climb, I’d be much better off.
Thanks Joanne, you changed my life the day you told me that.