Climbing can mean many different things to many different people: it is a physical, mental, and spiritual activity mixed in with countless other aspects of life.
From a physical perspective, climbing is scaling a mountain, ascending a rock face, or even hauling your tired body up the front porch steps after a long day.
In the mental realm, climbing often references self-motivation, the process of rising above unfortunate and trying circumstances. From climbing out of bed and pressing on through a tough day to grieving the loss of a loved one, being able to climb over mental obstacles is a necessity in this life.
And through a spiritual lens, climbing takes on yet another context: it is the choice to have faith and hope in something bigger than this world, to grow in communal love with those around you, and in our lowest moments, to reach past feelings of abandonment and alienation in order to find God faithfully waiting on the other side.
Climbing, in short, takes on a lot of different meanings. But no matter how we look at the journey, it always describes something beautiful, some powerful moment of rising above the ordinary. In fact, I’ve never heard someone say, “He climbed his way over that obstacle—I sure wish he hadn’t done that.”
Buck on the first pitch of The Nose
This past week, I was incredibly blessed to go on a three-and-a-half-day climb up The Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. The climb was magnificent. The weather was perfect. The company, my partners Dave and Buck (Buck seen in the picture above), became like family. And I was pushed to new limits I never knew I could reach. The aspects of life I mentioned before (the physical, mental, and spiritual) threw down their challenges before me, almost taunting me, shouting, “Let’s see you handle this!”
Now, there is a reason that this post covers aspects of climbing beyond just the physical realm. For not only was I ascending through the corporeal challenges of climbing The Nose, but moments before we started our journey up this granite wonder, I was informed by my family that my Grandmother would pass away sometime while I was on the wall. To be honest, I almost didn’t go. But encouraged by my family, friends and climbing partners, I decided that embarking on this adventure would be the best way for me to deal with such heart-breaking news. In the words to follow are just a few moments from my physical, mental, and spiritual climb up The Nose of El Capitan.
Day 1. The first night was actually quite laughable. We wanted to “fix” the first 4 pitches of the climb (meaning that we would climb the first few hundred feet and send anchored ropes back down to the base of the wall). That way, we could have our haul bags already sitting 300 feet up on Sickle Ledge on Day 2, allowing us to wake up and take off. But the weight of our haul bags and a touch of inexperience proved to be points of comedy. Dave, the most experienced of our crew, having just finished another multi-day climb, was leaving the first day’s task (fixing and hauling to the top of pitch 4) up to Buck and I, both of whom had never hauled with a 2:1 system before (a pulley system necessary for hauling that much weight).
After getting to the top of these first four pitches and rappelling back to the base, it was time for Buck and I to haul “the pig” (our 2 bags weighing somewhere around 90 lbs) up to Sickle. So we set up our haul system and began trying to pull…trying being the key word. Something wasn’t right: our system of pulleys seemed to be set up well, but the bag wasn’t budging. Buck and I put our heads together for a long time trying to find a solution only to become super frustrated, tired, and hungry. The bags were still hanging a foot off the ground! Finally, around 8:30 PM, we decided to come back later that night with Dave, who could mend the system. So after grabbing dinner and letting some of the steam Buck and I had built up while “hauling” our bags 12 inches into the air, Dave came back to the base with us and began the grueling task of fixing our mess.
To sum up that night, hauling is an exhausting task, and making things worse, knuckleheads like Buck and I don’t always get it right the first time. A rough evening ensued, but we pushed through–all the way ‘til 3 am, we climbed on. And after finally reaching Sickle, I went to sleep very quickly, psyched to be done for the day and excited for a new morning.
Picture taken of us by Tom Evans, author of the El Cap Report
Day 2. The next day (our first full day) went rather smoothly. Between Buck and I, we freed every pitch, with an occasional “French-free” move (pulling on gear to help us past the harder cruxes and such). Our second day consisted mostly of mental challenges: I was thankful to be with Dave and Buck, high-spirited guys who kept me cheerful and psyched on the climb, despite the news I had received the day before. That night, we slept on Dolt Tower, extremely satisfied after a nearly perfect day.
Day 3. The third was similar to day two, but was full of some classics (world renowned portions/pitches of the climb) that tend to give people trouble. Buck got us started by crushing the King Swing, a part of the climb in which the climber lowers down from an anchored point to swing 30 feet to the left, reaching a different crack system in order to continue climbing upwards. This was quite a remarkable feat to watch, and he nailed it on his first attempt, even pausing for a second after grabbing the intended corner to chalk up and mantle his way around the side, reaching the new destination.
Soon afterward, we hit our main obstacle of the day. While lowering our gear and maneuvering it over to the new crack system, our bags got stuck in a crack. A stuck bag or rope often becomes a huge point of frustration for climbing teams. Retrieving it can result in hours of delay. But thankfully, in this situation we reacted quickly and were able to pull a few shenanigans to get back on track quickly.
Soon after moving again, the afternoon brought my favorite moments of the whole trip: I was able to aid through The Great Roof, a section of the climb rated C2, and free through the Pancake Flake, rated at a solid 5.10. Both went super smooth, and day 3 was another huge success. We slept at Camp V.
Our bivy from the last night on the wall
Day 4. The final day was going to bring some more challenges. I was getting tired, but that day was mine to start off leading. I would be mostly aid climbing, going through 4 pitches of overhanging rock, the last of which was the well known pitch Changing Corners. This is another C2 pitch that holds a move in which the leader must delicately stand in one aider (a webbing ladder) while reaching around an arête (corner) to place a brass micro-nut well above his or her head into another crack system. For any non-climber reading, that last sentence translates to this: Changing Corners is hard.
My first attempt actually failed. As I dropped my weight onto the nut I had placed, it stripped, and I took a 7 foot fall onto the last piece I had placed (still connected to my daisy chain). It hurt. And having already been on this pitch for an hour, baking in the sun, it took every bit of drive I had to push past the fall, get back into the aiders, and start again. But I did. And I finished the pitch without any other mishaps. It was incredible: my portion of leading on The Nose was finished! Dave took us the rest of the way up, and we topped out the 4th day to see a remarkable sunset sprawling out all across the Yosemite Valley.
It was under this sky, at the top of El Capitan while calling my folks to give them news of our safe ascent, that I received word of my Grandmother’s death. It immediately felt like the climb wasn’t over. Struggling to swallow and gather my thoughts, I was overwhelmed with so many competing emotions: a deep longing and loss, a remarkable satisfaction from finishing the climb, a brotherly love for my partners who had just gone through it all with me, and a yearning to be home with my family who would be grieving in the coming weeks. It was hard to process. But as time passed, and I’ve been able to sort through the muddiness of that moment, I’ve come to new understanding of what it means to climb.
We all do it. We climb every day. In order to overcome the obstacles that life presents, we honestly aren’t left much of a choice but to climb. On El Cap, it feels physical, like heaving heavy haul bags, unfixing a stuck rope, and continuing on in the moments after a fall. But physical moments of climbing aren’t the only challenges we face: just as tangibly, life brings tough days at work, family arguments, messed up travel plans, unpaid bills… or the loss of a loved one. And each of these circumstances requires climbing.
So how can we climb through them? Perhaps it is quite similar to what we do as rock-climbers. We relish in the difficulty. We learn from our mistakes. We celebrate once we’ve made it through. And then we brace ourselves for the next obstacle.
Life is full of climbs, and we almost always make it through them when we set our mind to it. So my encouragement in this post is this: Relish, learn, celebrate, and brace. Then, when all else fails, dig deep, and keep climbing. Because when you do, when you gain the other side of the cliff you just climbed, you will find the deepest and most remarkable satisfaction in the fact that you are living your life to the fullest, embracing all it has to offer, and accomplishing climbs you once never thought possible.
So keep climbing.
Founder of The Network 5.12