Coming Back Stronger

Curiosity.

Around this time two falls ago, I finished up my field season, packed my car, and headed down to Indian Creek, an iconic climbing destination in Southern Utah. I went by myself, and I wasn’t meeting anyone there, at least no one that I knew yet. I just went. I went because I was so curious. I wanted to know what it would be like, wanted to know what it would feel like, and I needed to know whether I could do it. Could I climb those tall, steep lines, and could I forge a path without the safety net of my social circle? I was lucky to have some veteran Indian Creek crushers encouraging me that summer before. “Just go,” they said, “anyone will be psyched to climb with you.” So I went.

And the curiosity turned into joy. I approached each day open-hearted, with a beginner’s mindset and without judgment for what my body and mind could do. I really had no idea; I’d never climbed routes quite like these before. I flailed. And I hollered, grunted, and screamed. I tried really hard. I tried climbs that I wasn’t sure I could finish, and I surprised myself when I reached the chains. I found a sweet crew of misfits who had converged in the same place for their own reasons. But we were united by curiosity for climbing and the joy that comes from exploring that curiosity.

scarface
Indian Creek

Doubt.

Fast forward into the spring of the next year, when I was offered a position as an alpine climbing guide. My beginner’s mindset disappeared and was replaced by impostor syndrome. I didn’t really believe I was good enough or strong enough for the job, so my climbing level quickly became a measure of my self-worth. Winter, especially winter in the soggy Pacific Northwest, rusts the sharpest lead-climbing head. I was well aware of this, but when I started climbing again in the early spring that year, I judged myself harshly whenever I felt nervous on lead. “I should be comfortable climbing this, if I’m going to be guiding other people,” I told myself. Curiosity was replaced with disappointment, joy subbed out for anxiety.

Halfway through that summer of guiding, I went out with a friend for a personal day of climbing in Index, one of my favorite places in Washington. I tried a pitch that I felt like I “should” be able to send, and I just got scared instead. I got sketched out, pulled on gear, didn’t feel strong, lowered to the belay, and cried. Too many pieces of my identity had become wrapped up in needing to be able to perform, needing to be able to take the lead and not waver. I never allowed myself the space to fail, or even the space to flail.

buttcrack chimney
The pitch that made me cry. Washington locals might recognize this one.

“Failure.”

At the end of the summer, I started another new job coaching a youth climbing team in Seattle. Cue more impostor syndrome. I had just spent the last four months walking uphill; my forearms and finger muscles had atrophied. In order to be a good coach, I thought, I needed to be climbing strong. So I jumped into the fall season training hard, pulling on plastic and doing a lot of pull-ups. Come late November, my wrists ached when I pressed on my hands, and pain shot up my forearms whenever I tried to climb. I continued to train, but I backed off a little bit. Then came the day in February when I felt like I lost control of my shoulders, like they could slip out of my sockets if I kept pulling on overhung walls. I didn’t know what was wrong, but I knew I needed to stop climbing.

We talk about the “mind-body connection” in climbing a lot. We’re usually talking about those moments during the crux of a project when the climb requires your whole focus and all else falls away. The mind and body work in tandem to sequence through it. Many climbers live for those moments of feeling fully alive and awake to their senses. Seven months of physical therapy and a five month break from climbing later, I think I experienced another form of the mind-body connection. My body forced on my mind the break that it needed but would never take. It gave my mind the room to flail and fail. My mind wanted to keep pushing my body, but my body finally put a stop to it.  

indian creek
This one keeps me curious. I’ll be back for it soon.

Curiosity.

My injuries eventually taught me that I was good enough all along, even though I still don’t always believe it. I continued to coach, spent hours at the gym belaying, got to know routes intimately without touching plastic. My guide season the summer before had ended successfully, despite all the self-judgment I brought to it. I imposed these strict standards on myself that proved to be irrelevant to the challenges that I actually faced in either role. And my mind had the tools to face those challenges already. My body had to take a break to let my mind know that it could get along just fine.

Now, seven months later, I really miss rock climbing. But in order to come back stronger, I am entertaining curiosity about other things right now. About how my tendons attach to my muscles and to my bones. About how they get inflamed or take longer to strengthen than my muscles. About how the fascia envelopes it all and pulls everything in different directions. About how the forces of climbing act on certain muscles and not others. Or even about what it would feel like to run a race instead of climbing. I have learned just as much, if not more, about my body and my limits as I did two years ago flailing in Southern Utah. I’m not saying it’s as fun as rock climbing; I’ve spent more hours than I can count doing boring, stabilizing exercises with Thera-bands and five-pound weights. And I still cried at physical therapy last week. The successes are smaller, harder to measure than sending a 5.11 thin hands crack in the Creek. But I am finally curious again. I am regaining my beginner’s mindset, and I am starting to believe that I am getting better every day.


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