A few days ago, I watched a You-Tube of a lecture by Alex Honnold, the famous climber who free-soloed El Capitan. The lecture was about how he prepared for the climb for years, using ropes to map out the climb and find the best holds. He climbed it many times in person that way, taking a whole day with another climber to prepare the route, for example, by removing rocks that were wedged into a crack he might want to use, and carrying the rocks down in backpack that they had carried up, empty, for that purpose.
At one point, he mentioned other climbers, roped climbers, he saw during this period, who took days to climb what he later climbed in under 4 hours. The other climbers would bring even those beds that you hang from the rock to sleep in, something I can’t imagine myself doing.
I did a little informal climbing on rocky shores when I was in high-school, just messing about – long before such things as climbing walls had reached the popular imagination, and while my fear of heights was still nascent — so I can imagine climbing up the base without ropes, maybe up to 20-30 feet. But I cannot imagine relying on ropes and wedges and the thought of relying on them at night, resting in them — no. I can imagine myself lying rigid in the bed all night, my eyes wide open, attendant to every move of the cot, every breeze, every insect landing on my face, adding weight, too afraid to swat them away. In fact, I can’t even imagine myself climbing into such a sleeping contraption.
But – and this is where I was going with all this – Alex said that sometimes the roped climbers would get about 1000 feet up the 2500 foot face, thinking they were ready, that they were prepared, and then realize that they weren’t and turn around and descend again.
“And that’s ok,” he said. “That’s how you learn. That’s learning.”
I loved that quote.
So often, we think if we don’t do what we set out to do, that we have failed. We’ve failed to achieve our goal, therefore we are failures.
But to this man, who scales rockfaces thousands of feet tall, without ropes, turning around when you realize you can’t do it that day isn’t failure. It’s learning.
In Free Solo, he actually does turn around at one point. He is climbing and he reaches this point where he has been struggling, and he realizes that he doesn’t feel confident or strong enough that day to cross that point, and he turns around. (I wonder if climbing down is actually harder than climbing up.)
Me, I might have been beating myself up, getting in my head: you failed, you didn’t do it, you turned around, now you’ll never do it, and there’s a film crew here, and all these other climbers around either watching you or doing their own climbs, and they all saw you fail and are probably talking about what a failure you are, and you didn’t do it and now you’ll never do it, and you can try again later but even then, when you reach this point, you’ll remember that this is where you failed, and you’ll probably fail again. Heck, I can’t even do Tai Chi or Yoga without a critical inner monologue.
How freeing it must be to not have that inner voice criticizing you all the time, to be able to say to yourself, “No, I’m not ready, I’ll come back to this when I’m ready.” And then to go back to your van, do some more pull-ups just using one finger and then another, prepare dinner, and sit and visualize the route, imagining yourself climbing, rehearsing the route in your mind.
Have you ever been learning something, learning so intently, that when you go to sleep at night, you dream of doing it? I had that experience several years ago when I was learning a new computer program at work; I was doing the same exercises over and over, creating things in this program, editing them, releasing them, creating more, adjusting and testing the configurations for creating them, teaching people how to create them. One morning I woke up and realized I had been doing this in my sleep, dreaming of doing the work over and over in my mind’s eye, so to speak.
What does Alex Honnold dream of when he’s preparing for a climb?