“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett
Despite the bleak weather forecast, Kendra and Ted Eliason joined Erick Barros, Zack Slade and me for a few days in the Red River Gorge. It had been raining buckets days before, but amazingly enough, the weather cleared up and offered us a couple of blue bird sky days.
I first met Ted and Kendra during Ouray Ice Festival this January. My long time partner in crime, Connie Magee, had met Kendra the year before and invited everyone to share a condo, explaining to me that she was basically one of us. Kendra is a kindred spirit in many ways and probably one of my new favorite people to climb with. Throughout the week, you could hear random bursts of excitement coming from about halfway up a route as Kendra shouted: “Whoo hoo! I love the Red!”
And what’s not to love? Classic pockets on ferociously overhung walls that test your tenacity while fighting the inevitable pump and ridiculously aesthetic lines that make your jaw drop. Every visit, I continue to meet travelers from climbing meccas out west because the rock climbing is just world renowned (and there is just something so GOOD about east coast cragging.)
This was a good trip for Ted because a couple of months ago, he had taken a fall on the Rigid Designator in Vail. I think that, like most falls, it can spook us and mess with our mental game, but there is something extra spooky about falling on ice. After hearing Ted’s story, it made me dig a little deeper and question why falling is scary. The physical consequences of a bad fall are more than enough to cause fear. I started questioning the psychology behind that fear and why it’s my own number one enemy these days.
As climbers, we all deal with that uncertainty, and as much as I try not to let those feelings dictate what I do, I keep finding myself in the same scenario, feet wavering, fingers shaking, and that quiver of doubt shooting through my heart and head, causing me to yell “Take!” below to my belayer.
I thought I’d conquered the fear of falling years ago, after taking my first lead fall on the Dangler (5.10a) in the Gunks. I was with Jon Hutt at the time, who wasn’t expecting me to fall and had given me a fairly relaxed belay on the GT ledge that day. Despite words of encouragement, after climbing three-quarters of the way through the traverse, I decided I was NOT going to make it all the way to the roof and started down climbing to my first piece of protection. Turns out, down climbing to my piece was harder than I’d anticipated and I whipped a good one.
After that, it became substantially easier to push myself on gear. Looking up at that .75, I smiled and thought: Hey! That stuff works.
And maybe I did conquer my fear of falling three years ago, but it’s the kind of process that isn’t like taking a test and graduating. You don’t do it once and then never think about it again, and I think that, as climbers, we go back and forth and revisit those “don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall!” moments of panic (at least, I do).
Falling while leading had once empowered me with the courage to push past the very rational fear of coming off the rock. I also became better at acknowledging the dangers of a bad fall, assessing the gear I was placing, and also practicing better placements when available.
However, after several months, I started to wonder if I was more afraid of the failure than the fall. That’s a hard pill for me to swallow. It was easier to let people think that I was worried about falling than admitting that I suddenly had too much pride and didn’t want them to see me failing.
If I can’t let that go, then I’m not doing this for the right reasons anymore.
So I guess that the question I should be asking myself is why am I afraid of failing? It’s not as if anybody is rooting for us to lose. The sooner that I can accept that I am going to fail (and hopefully, a lot), the sooner I can accept that I am NOT my success nor my defeats. Maybe there is too much internalized pressure and maybe I’ve fooled myself into thinking that other people are putting pressure on me, too. For the most part, nobody cares one way or the other.
Up until recently, failure always meant the following:
I’m not the climber other people think I am.
I’m not (and never will be) good enough.
I think the message I’ve been missing is that with every setback comes a new set of skills we can use to accomplish our goals. If we didn’t experience setbacks, we wouldn’t be able to recognize opportunity the next time around. Falling isn’t failing, and failing one time isn’t the end of the world because there will always be a “next time”.
Climbing with Ted and Kendra that weekend really helped put a lot of the chaos in my head into perspective. After a twenty-minute rope rescue, I came down from the chains of Twinkie (5.12a) and in our goodbyes, Ted hugged me and said, “Strong work, girl.” His words meant so much to me.
Ted is going to keep climbing and working on his mental boundaries, and I’m going to follow his lead. I’m still afraid of falling (and failing), but I’m recognizing that it’s my responsibility to define what “failure” really is. There’s value in it if we choose to see it as something great instead of something that holds us back.
So, I hope you fail, a lot.
I’m forever going to have these kinds of hopes for the people in my life that I love, and for myself as well.