Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving Tradition

In all of my climbing life I've had four projects that have taken a hold of me unlike all the others. These projects engaged my attention so completely that all other objectives fell by the wayside. The first three projects were all single pitch routes and I only succeeded in climbing one of those. The most recent is a boulder problem called "Pine Box." Regardless of the outcome, each of these projects have been the most rewarding learning experiences of my climbing life.

I first discovered the "Pine Box" in September 2006 while participating in the Yosemite Climber Association's annual clean-up, the Yosemite Facelift. I volunteered, along with several other chaps, to go up to the south face of Half Dome to carry out nearly 700lbs. of cable and steel pipe that had been dropped from the top by trail crews nearly 20 years ago. From our staging point at the Happy Isles water tank I couldn't help but notice the large boulders surrounding us. I slipped away from the group for a few minutes and stumbled upon what would become the
"Pine Box" and I knew I had to come back. Several months later, when it was a bit colder I returned. My vision from the beginning was that the problem should start from a sitting position, but I couldn't manage the giant spans. I was able to do it from a several stand-starts, but never the full sit. I showed it to a few friends and soon my Swedish friend Oskar made the first ascent. I came frustratingly close last spring, but I was still unable to link it all together.

While projecting I bounce back in fourth between ecstatic enthusiasm and optimism and battles with insomnia, depression and self-doubt. Worse yet, I'm afraid my friends and family felt the brunt of my mood swings. All for something that probably seemed so trivial. Late last spring I came to the conclusion that I needed a break, I was headed down a negative path and I wanted this project to be a positive experience.

Fast forward to Autumn, 2007. After two months of building a base of easier boulder problems I'm finally feeling like my body and the weather is good enough to return to the project. I'm hesitant however. In my previous experiences with sieging a project I've never picked up a project that I'd left undone. Of course, I always intend to go back and in many ways I still do, but for one reason or another I've left those projects behind. I think part of it comes from not wanting to return to that negative state of being. I think another part of my apprehension comes from the fear that the extra time spent working the project will be time wasted. In the end the potential positives out-weighed the negatives and I returned, as my friend Paul would say, "to slay the dragon."

The first day on was just a chance to re-acquaintance myself with the problem. It felt hard, but not out of reach. Optimism is regained. The second day is tough. A bunch of friends have come along and the cameras are rolling. I'm frustrated because I feel stuck at my old crux sequence. I am motivated, however, by watching my good friend Kevin climb the problem. At this point only four people have climbed "Pine Box" all of whom are taller and have longer arms than I do. I don't like making my height an excuse, but for me this problem requires a totally different sequence that is by all accounts much more intense.

On day three I make a go at it alone. Maybe the solitude will help? Alas, it is not to be. I do make some progress, but I haven't even returned to my high point of the previous Spring. I return home in a foul mood. My friends do their best to lift my spirits and it helps some, but not enough. I can feel myself drifting toward that dark place in my mind. I even entertain thoughts of quiting, "I'll give it 1,2,3 days more and then I'm done, that's it." Then I remember, last year on Thanksgiving I sent my hardest problem to date, the "Thong Cave." It was not an all-consuming project, yet it was still a major achievement for me. Perhaps I would have similar luck this Thanksgiving?

I woke up this morning and immediately set into my pre-planned routine.

1. make some tea
2. eat a banana
3. do some yoga while watching bouldering videos
4. make and eat a sandwich with peanut butter, Nutella, and puff (marshmallow spread)
5. get changed and go climbing.

Even my warm-up was more deliberate than usual and thankfully the weather was prime, very cold and very dry. On my first attempt I reached my high point from the previous Spring. My first reaction was one of frustration, but quickly changed to one of optimism. I had improved and it didn't feel that hard. Instead of trying again right away I forced myself to take a walk. I let my mind wander and my focus slowly drifted away from the project to all the new boulders I was seeing. After a while (who knows how long) I decided it was time to try again. From the moment I exhaled as I began the first movements, till the moment I was hanging from the high holds that mark the end of the crux, I was climbing unconscious. It is impossible to describe, but it was amazing. When I realized where I was I took over my body and became very deliberate about my movements and my breathing. Moments later I was screaming at the top. If I wasn't so pumped full of adrenaline I probably would have cried.

This experience, has been so rewarding. I don't think I've fully wrapped my mind around it all, but I've already learned so much. Some people would probably scoff at the process and think that it is ludicrous to invest so much time and energy into climbing a little rock that I could easily walk up from the other side. Those people are the same people that are content living in a pacified society that doesn't often test the fabric of our beings. I'm not one of those people. While I recognise that the significance of this project does not extend beyond my own selfish world, I also know that the experience has made me a stronger person and better able to face those challenges that do have meaning to the rest of the world, my friends, and my family.

Thanks to everyone that encouraged me or suffered from my mood swings, I couldn't have done it without you. Fifteen days of attempts over a years time and it was all worth it.

Happy Thanksgiving-


Justin said...

Holy Crap! That's a long blog. I'll buy you a beer if you can read it all.

Johnclimbrok said...

Holy shit dude! Fuck Yeah! I'm so stoked for you - the train of thought comes across really well - fuck yeah

Johnclimbrok said...

and, by the way, nice hair.

Kevin said...

So psyched for you I really wish I could have been there, and I read it all so i want my beer.

shannon said...

congratulations justin - glad your hard work and dedication paid in full.

and thanks so much for providing a floor to sleep on!

Alan Moore said...

Well done, I'm no stranger to heartbreaks - I've got projects on three continents.

A theory of life is naive if it fails to take into account the elation that comes from disappointment and improvement. This is what life is about dude, if only I could clone your psychology, create an army of Justey-Reys to populate this country with.

Perhaps then my wonderlust would quiet down.

Frankfurter said...

I very much enjoyed following your journey. Thank you for sharing it with us. It is certainly a wonderful feeling when your vision, passion and persistance combine to create success. Congrats big guy....