There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
“Maybe,” said the farmer.
I sat in a parking lot, frustrated with the last several weeks of recovery. I was in the home stretch, able to finally ditch the crutches, but things hadn’t gone back to normal. My sense of normality had been skewed since my return from Africa, but I was patiently waiting for things to smooth out, to settle back in, and to find myself back in the rhythmic pattern of life.
I had sustained an injury from an unexpected ground fall I had taken in Eldorado Canyon State Park. It completely took me by surprise, and yet, at the same time, as I had lifted my right leg to perch myself slightly higher, I immediately knew it was a bad idea. I was coming off.
At the Roof Routes at the Redgarden Wall, Kurt Ross and I decided to try Guenese (5.11a). There are several fixed pins, and a bolt followed the first bugaboo. I was not at a good stance to reach either, and I am extremely cautious when it comes to the first several feet of climbing without gear. I went back and forth, testing the holds and feeling out the movement.
Maybe that day my thoughts were running too far ahead of me; they were already past the face climbing, excited for the amazing stance for gear at the roof above. Roof routes in the Gunks have always been my favorite. I remember charging through my first roof in the Trapps, Welcome to the Gunks (5.10b). It was my first 5.10, and as a fairly new leader, I cautiously headed up through the first of several tiered roofs, placing adequate gear as I moved.
I remember the beginning of Welcome being very difficult, and good gear placement didn’t occur until passing the slopers. It’s been a few years since I first climbed it. I was a different climber then, and I certainly have more forethought now. I had onsighted Welcome to the Gunks and when I look back at my first 10 on gear, I laugh and tell people: “I will NEVER do that climb again. I was so lucky!”
Fast forward to a different climb and a new crag. I haven’t climbed at Eldo often enough to really have a full grasp on its unique style. I’ve climbed a few of its classics—The Edge, Bastille Crack, Yellow Spur. My takeaway from a small handful of routes is that the style requires delicate face climbing, the feet are tricky as hell, and the movement is technical.
I can say for certain that I was in a different headspace on Guenese than I was for Welcome. My focus was less acute. My focus was…where was my focus?
There is the moment you realize you’re about to fall, and everything else after it. When I’m several meters up already, with a safe amount of gear between the ground and myself, I’d say it’s about three to five seconds. You can feel your arms begin to get flamed. Your fingers crimping on that credit card hold start to shake and ache, and the nervousness starts to set in. And then you’re catching air time.
It didn’t feel like three to five seconds this time. I thought: “This is a bad idea,” and immediately hit the ground, the entire left side of my body taking a huge impact on the awkward ramp.
I’ve fallen on gear. I’ve fallen out of a plane. I’ve even fallen in love (which hurts much less, by the way). With the exception of falling in love, all of these instances felt light and airy; they were quick and relatively painless. My whole body floated, and my stomach went all the way into my ears and back down. It always happened at a constant rate. The sensation itself was a mere second or two, as my body detected acceleration.
And then a piece of gear catches you and you feel a little rope stretch. Or you deploy your shoot, and you’re dancing quietly down to the ground. The sensation is gone. At that height, everything below is, like you, static and unmoving.
When I fell, it was instantaneous. The gravity around me felt heavy, and I didn’t have that light, airy feeling I was so used to. The fall was sharp. My entire body tensed up for a split second, and I somehow told myself to relax and loosen my muscles—I knew that I had not clipped that piton. I knew there was nothing between me and the ground, and I braced for an impact.
It couldn’t have been more than two, maybe three seconds. I wasn’t that high up off of the ground yet. My mind raced. Two people’s falls came to mind, but I didn’t think about them until much later, after the ER and ice cream.
In 2014, Heidi Duartes Wahl died in the Gunks after falling from the beginning pitch of Yellow Wall (5.11c). Heidi was an accomplished Chilean climber living in New York at the time, and her foot slipped on the rock and she decked. The first pitch is traditionally rated 5.8. She had not yet placed protection.
I also thought about my friend Eric Klimt, who died in early March of this year. Eric was also quite an accomplished climber, and he often took calculated risks. He rapped off of the end of his rope in Zion, practicing the upper pitches of Moonlight Buttress. I remember him telling me that climbing has always helped him heal. But climbing is inherently dangerous, and as much as it can heal us, it has the power to do the exact opposite.
I had a little bit of an unlucky streak. It happens to everyone. But, when I looked up at those stars in the night sky, my stomach jumped up to my ears in a different way. I was breathing, yeah? I was still alive, yeah? I had starlight, two beautiful friends deliver me Vietnamese noodles, and a snuggly puppy. Things were alright.
A breakup pointed me in the right direction and got me to start valuing my time and self-worth differently. Leaving my Denver apartment gave me a new freedom and a chance to examine my relationships with certain people, including myself. Breaking a bone forced me to sit for a moment and realize that every event that had occurred was a part of something larger. What we judge to be unfortunate or a blessing is only relative to the constantly changing conditions in our lives—and if there is one thing for certain, our life circumstances are constantly changing.
And now, with three weeks to go before my trip back east, I am hopeful to climb but trying not to be. I have often had trouble with the phrase “no expectations” because, despite my best efforts, I have expectations. I tie in to climb a route and I calculate precise movements because I want to send. I put my work out into the world because I want people to like it and I want to be successful. I put on the cute dress because I want him to think I’m pretty and to like me.
But maybe I don’t send that particular day, my work gets rejected, and he doesn’t call. I’ve been too quick to assume that something is good or bad, based on my expectations and forgetting about the larger whole. It’s a lifelong practice that isn’t necessarily about staying positive, but instead, open. I could keep waiting for things in my life to smooth out and to settle back into it seamlessly, but I know better than that. Transition isn’t always so seamless and things happen, and that’s just life. It’s about not shutting out the possibility that there are other plans in the works for us that we just don’t know about yet. I might even like the new plan better…maybe.