First Ascent Intensity
In 1985, Cal Swoager was poised in the middle of the crux of a thin crack at New River Gorge, West Virginia. He was working on doing the first ascent, ground up, so he didn’t know what to expect about protection or difficulty. The protection turned out to be sparse and the difficulty 5.11c (French 6c+), a challenging grade for on-sight trad climbing for him. Cal was pumped and his mind had an intense desire to escape the situation. He had to make a decision: go up or fall. Feeling as if he would die if he fell, Cal committed to continuing up.
The intensity of the situation revealed to Cal how he’d lived his life. He was known for being a “hard partier,” and right now, he felt he hadn’t prepared to meet death. Cal made an agreement with God. “Get me out of this situation and I swear I’ll become a Christian.” He made it to the top and called the route Leave it to Jesus, fulfilling his first obligation to the agreement he’d made.
Opening The Door
The Oracle at Delphi advises us to “Know thyself.” This is a directive, not to learn about how tall we are or how much we weigh, external manifestations of us. It’s a directive to learn who we are inside. Knowing ourselves is like opening a door. We need to open the door, step out of comfort, and into stress. How do we open this door?
We can open the door through an outdoor activity. Outdoor activities challenge our whole being, body and mind, connecting us with the wider world, putting us face-to-face with an obstacle we need to work through. That work creates information we can analyze, assess and integrate, into an understanding of who we are.
Climbing Creates a Unique Challenge for Learning
Perhaps there’s no better outdoor activity, for finding ourselves, than climbing. Climbing creates a unique challenge for learning: we climb against the force of gravity, toward a definitive end goal, with specific fall consequences based on the protection we choose to place. Gravity pulls us down toward our comfort zones, or toward death if we haven’t made our decisions well. In order to learn, we must apply our minds to assessing the protection and consequences, and apply our bodies against the pull of gravity and the pull of our comfort zones, and step up into the stress.
Climbing is also very unforgiving for limiting behaviors. Some climbers get frustrated because they aren’t progressing, make excuses for lack of skill, or blame others for their failures. Yet, the rock doesn’t care about our frustration, excuses, or blaming behaviors. The rock only reflects what is already inside us.
Lost In the Mind
If we’re lost in the limiting behaviors of the mind, we’ll never open that door. By noticing that limiting behaviors aren’t helpful, that the rock doesn’t care about us, that it’s us that need to change, we begin opening the door. We develop the ability to witness the mind and not fall victim to it. We can witness the mind think and choose which thoughts to act on. If we have thoughts about frustration, excuses or blaming, then we don’t act on them. If we have thoughts about actions we can take to meet the challenge, then we can act on them. This witnessing ability is the door that opens to our inside, so we can step through and know ourselves.
I climbed Leave it to Jesus a few years ago. I was poised in the middle of the crux, with my last protection below my feet. One move separated me from a better hold and the possibility of more protection. The crack had thinned to a seam, except for a one-finger pocket. I needed to stick my finger in the pocket, step up and reach to where the crack opened up. I was pumped and didn’t know if I could make the move. My mind wanted to give up. Giving up is a strong desire. But, warriors don’t do that. Once warriors have weighed the consequences and chosen to step through the door into the stress, they commit. They witness the mind’s desire for comfort and redirect their attention to the task. I stepped through the door and made the move.
Who we find on the other side of that door is unique to each of us.
The intensity of the situation Cal experienced opened the door to who he was inside and revealed a desire to find deeper meaning in his life through the Christian religion. For me, the route gave me confidence to witness the mind’s intense desire to stay in its comfort zone—to keep the door closed—and my ability to open it.
Outdoor climbing provides a vehicle for finding who we are inside. We’re engaged in a wider world, which requires that we connect with it, if we are to survive. The intensity of climbing positions us at the door to our inside world. It’s stressful to open and step through that door. The mind won’t want to do it when we’re in the middle of the challenge. It’s the witness that can reach out to grab the doorknob, turn it, and step through.
Practice Tip: Open the Door
It’s important to take appropriate risks, so find a route slightly above your limit that has yes-fall consequences. Set an intention to stay committed to climbing. Don’t decide to fall when the mind wants to escape.
Pay attention to the thoughts in your mind especially when you’re in a similar situation as Cal and I experienced on Leave it to Jesus. This is “the most interesting space” in mental training. It’s the door to your inner world. Open the door by witnessing the mind’s desire to escape. Then, step through by making the next move. You’ll learn more about who you are, whether you make the move or fall.