Sunday, February 3, 2013

Climbing & The Power of Vulnerability

My partner had sent an early morning text. He wasn’t feeling well and needed to bail on our ice climbing plans for the day. I was secretly glad. The previous day as I waited for him to come pick me up, I had had just enough time to ruminate about the sanity of leaving the safety and comfort of a nice warm bed and house for a day of standing out in the cold freezing my ass off, possibly getting hit by chunks of falling ice and contending with something so terrible it has been dubbed the ‘screaming barfies.’ No wonder the rest of the world seems to cast looks of pity on the ice climber.

So now, with the whole day free, what to do?  My initial thought was to go for a run and hit the gym for some plastic pulling. Despite my earlier plan of ice climbing, I decided that it was too cold to run outside and since today was a major construction day at the gym, it was best to be avoided.  I briefly thought about going skiing, but the thought of contending with the weekend crowds and the lack of uninspiring snow pack made me quickly put down that idea too. So I went with my last option: a fuzzy robe, down booties, hot coffee and a copy of Alpinist 40. It was going to be an armchair mountaineer kind of day.

I do the armchair mountaineer thing really well. Too well actually. For me, being an armchair mountaineer means being lazy. Engaging the beauty and freedom of climbing without the weather, without the discomfort and without the risk. It also means giving into my inner gear whore. As I flip through the glossy pages, I see ads for this new boot or that new soft shell hybrid jacket and I buy it. No, I don’t mean that I literally buy it, but I buy what the marketing guru behind that ad is selling, “buy this piece of gear and you too can climb like a badass, just like athlete X, pictured here. All of your dreams of a rockin’ bod and hard sends will come true for a mere $399.99 plus applicable taxes.” So while I do enjoy my armchair mountaineer days on a certain level, I am also disgusted by them. Or more accurately, disgusted with myself and my laziness. At some point in the day, my inner critic will oh-so-lovingly remind me that my climbing dreams won’t be realized through the purchase of a new piece of gear, but through hard work, dedication and commitment to be something other then a fat-ass on the couch in a fuzzy robe with the down booties on.

Today is no different, perhaps even a little worse. I don’t make resolutions but somewhere in January, I got a wild hair and decided to set some goals for myself. I was going to change up my diet and exercise routine (I say ‘change up’ but since I didn’t really have a routine in the first place, that’s a bit disingenuous), lose a few pounds and get a better strength-to-weight ratio going, you know, for climbing of course. Not because I think I’m fat and unattractive and people would like me more if I was skinnier. But that's a post for another day. No, in my mind, getting a hotter bod means climbing harder will be easier. At least, that’s the motivation I’m using when I really want to eat another chocolate bar. I figure it’s better then pure self-loathing.  I also decided to start doing some training. I’ve been climbing for 14 years and never once have I ‘trained’ for climbing. I just go out and do it and have some fun. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, one of the things I love about climbing is traveling and the sense of freedom, My sense of freedom with climbing is seriously hampered when I look in the guidebook for a new area I want to visit and realize I can only do about 20% of the climbs because the rest are too hard.  So I need to up my game. I’ve been doing some training and I have been seeing some progress. I have to use a magnifying glass, but hey, it’s only early February right? I can’t expect to be crushing 5.13 after only one month of training and while still being on the pudgy side. So, with all theses goals in mind, what do I decide to do with my day? Sit on my ass and essentially do nothing. Nothing that gets me further towards those goals, at least.

But sometimes you need those days, those days of rest. It allows the body to rest and gives space for growth of the mind and heart.  And today the Universe decided to give me a little guidance about vulnerability.  It started when I came up in this video of Brene Brown’s TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.” You should definitely go watch it, after you’ve finished read my drivel here, of course. She started off trying to study connection, which she ended up understanding more through stories of disconnection, ironically. One of things she found though is that in order to experience connection, we have to be vulnerable.

The problem is, none of us like to feel vulnerable. Whether its pulling a hard move when you’re run out above your last piece or loving someone knowing they might eventually hurt you, vulnerability is scary because it comes with a real risk of being hurt.  People use all kinds of things to numb themselves from having to deal with the pain of feeling vulnerable- drugs, addiction, food, and in my case today, simply being lazy. From her research, Brene found that there are basically two categories of people when it comes to dealing with feelings of vulnerability: those who feel worthy and those who don’t. People who don’t feel worthy don’t feel they are enough and so that vulnerability carries with it the heavy weight of shame. These are the people who tend to numb themselves out so they don’t have to feel so vulnerable. The other group, those who do see themselves as worthy- believe they are enough- don’t like being vulnerable anymore then the rest of us, but understand it’s a necessary part of the human experience and are more accepting of it. With the knowledge that they are worthy and they are enough, being in situations where they are vulnerable becomes an opportunity to connect, instead of turn in on themselves and protect. And this place, this place of vulnerability turned into connection, is where love, joy and happiness are rooted.

Back to my armchair mountaineer day, I flip open the copy of Alpinist 40 and started reading Katie Ives’ The Sharp End and came across this:

“’Peering over the edge attunes you to mortality,’ Michael Kennedy says. ‘Climbers have already seen it. It’s not mysterious.’ For the most part, mainstream Western culture shifts the subject of dying into the periphery, where it hovers in the shadowy, almost taboo realm. To discuss it explicitly seems “morbid.” To engage willingly in activities that might incur it, we’re told, is ‘irresponsible.” But there are other hazards that come from losing the awareness of our end: the risk of not experiencing, fully, the raw and urgent joy of life: of not taking conscious responsibility of our brief presence in the world.”

After reading that last sentence, it sounded a lot like what Brene Brown had said in her talk about vulnerability and about how that is where true joy and happiness were forged.  In that moment, it occurred to me that that is the true joy of climbing. We willing put ourselves into physically vulnerable situations in order to appreciate and experience true joy. It’s what George Mallory meant when he said, “what we get from this adventure is just sheer joy.” Freezing cold, falling ice, scary run-outs above marginal gear, yes, to the mainstream world we are nut cases. But I’ve never known a group of people who love and experience life so simply and beautifully as climbers do.  Now I understand why. And with this understanding, I’m going to make another goal for myself for this year- to be more willing to engage the risk with the knowledge that I am enough. Take on that hard lead that I know I can do, even if it is going to scare the crap out of me. Train harder even if I know its going to hurt a bit before it get better. Stand out in the cold, freezing my butt off, if for no other reason then to know within the depths of my soul that by being vulnerable, I have also proven that I am strong and I can survive. To love myself just the way I am, no matter how hard I climb and to train for harder climbing for the sheer joy of climbing, not the need to prove anything to anyone else. 

And on that note, I think I'll go for that run now. :-)


  1. Watching Brene Brown was definitely eye-opening for me as well. I climb enough to call it a passion, but definitely get stuck in the Type A, can't let others see me fail mode.

    On a recent road trip I rambled upon a term I'm calling 'perceived limits.' My new philosophy is that fun happens when you're pushing past your perceived limits. Even for simple things like running in the cold, you don't think you can/want to but when you do, you pushed beyond the voice telling you not to, and it turns out to be enjoyable (particularly once the run is over).

    And with climbing. It's so much easier to just climb at your current grade level and feel OK about yourself versus risking the vulnerability of failing on something harder. But it's that risk, being vulnerable, and pushing past your perceived limits that makes the sport so fun.

    All that to say, I totally agree. And with this awareness I'm hoping to move past my insecurities and start having a lot more fun!

  2. Alison- thanks for reading & commenting. I always liked this from the comments over at Cragmama's blog-

    "I realized something like that this summer. My friend said, “you’re about to do something hard,” and I thought, “oh, he’s right. I better try hard.”

    Fact is climbing, especially at your perceived limit, is hard work whether that is mental or physical work. But if we don't engage that hard work, that vulnerability, we'll never know where our true limit lies. Good luck using this revelation to have more fun this season!