When I lived in New York City in my early to mid-twenties, I was on a furious mission to climb all of the time. Setting goals for myself was a way to fuel my ambition, and if climbing in the Gunks taught me anything, it was to be a good, strong, competent rock climber. It was all I ever wanted–that, and to be a world-famous hula hooper. But I digress.
Time went on, and I left the east coast for three years. I considered myself a more seasoned climber when I returned this spring and was excited to revisit old classics and perhaps tick off a few new harder climbs. However, in three years’ time, I had modified my approach to my climbing goals: I didn’t have any. Climbing, for me, became so much more about the company, the elements, the seasons. It was about spending time in beautiful places with good people–and that will never change. If I managed to get the send or onsight, that was great. But no big deal if I didn’t, I told myself. It was about learning to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. Not wanting to become the kind of climber who obsessed over grades, not wanting to set expectations too high and deal with the disappointment that comes with failure–I told myself that it didn’t matter if I succeeded or not. When I started to notice a plateau in performance, it slowly dawned on me that there was, in fact, a distinction between setting intentions versus setting goals.
In 2013, Matt O’Connor and I tried The Man Who Fell to Earth (5.12-). Four years ago, we projected this climb in mid-November. I projected, and Matt, after very few attempts, sent it with little effort. Upon returning to the east coast this summer, I suggested that Kurt try for the send. After a few toprope burns, we decided that we would come back in the fall. The autumn months have dwindled down to their last days, and I had not returned to The Man Who Fell to Earth. Realizing that the last few days of truly good weather were almost over and I would be leaving New York at the end of the month, I decided to go back and try to send it.
Mountain Project calls it “devious climbing with hard to play gear on a right-leaning arch”. In the mid-70’s, Ivan Rezucha did what he believed to be the first ascent on aid gear. He self-belayed using hooks and Chouinard nuts. In Todd Swain’s guidebook, it is mentioned that Dennis Mehmet aided this climb in 1965, but there were no pin scars to imply a previous first ascent. Hugh Herr made a first free ascent in 1981.
Rechuza says, “My name for the climb, The Man Who Fell to Earth, came from this story: Jeff Pofit attempted (what we thought was) the second ascent. He didn’t know that I had used hooks. He ripped his gear from the crux aid section, where the arch jogs right, and zippered a bunch of other gear due to the sideways pull caused by arching. He landed on his head at a soft spot between some rocks. I think he was carried away, but he would have been able to walk away. The original route went right at the top of the arch to a platform on the arete, and then angled left and up on some nice free climbing at about 5.8. My understanding is that Hugh Herr and company free-climbed the final traverse right to the arete, but that most people end the free climbing by exiting left near the top of the arch.”
Gripped with nervousness, I didn’t talk about attempting it with many people. It felt strangely daunting to suddenly have a new goal in place for myself, and I wanted to delay any gratification that social acknowledgment brings. I invited Isha Holganza to come up and project with me for a day after the Thanksgiving holiday. Isha promised milkshakes, regardless of sending or not, which lessened the tension I had been feeling.
But at that point, I was beyond intentions. I was beyond wishful thinking. I had practiced it again the weekend before, with Rich Romano. The first few toprope attempts felt like garbage. It felt like I was climbing an upside-down plate of glass coated in Vaseline. My feet kept slipping off due to the rubber wearing through the tips of my shoes, creating new holes. I felt humiliation radiating off of my cheeks, hanging on a toprope with Rich’s old school hip belay keeping me off of the ground. By the third toprope, I started to remember the sequence. I prayed that my fingers had the strength to hold onto the odd undercling as I climbed through the first crux. I took the rest and then reached up for a jug. Remembering the beta for the second crux up high didn’t take as long, but my fingers felt wrecked. Easier for shorter climbers, it went on the second try. My fourth lap went clean.
In an attempt to not always be so hard on myself, I unwittingly created a space where I stopped making goals for myself altogether. I became lax in setting them, in thinking realistically and creating a plan to succeed. Intending the income meant surrendering part of the process, one that I used to enjoy. Part of the process will always be about learning how to enjoy the other aspects of climbing; being intentional allows us to focus on how we want to be in a moment, independent of whether we are winning or losing. But another part of climbing is the external achievement, and living these intentions doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice desire for achievement.
Maybe, after all of this time, there was a balance I could win back.
I’ll let you know.
Photograph courtesy of Shawnee Naughton.