The War-Metaphor

January 5th, 2012

Utah’s Rock Canyon holds the climbing equivalent of a marathon. It’s called Squawstruck, a 1900 foot sport climb from the base of the mountain to the summit of Squawpeak, one of the tallest mountains in the area. America contains only one longer sport climb.

When I first started climbing, I would look at the Squawstruck line as if it were an ogre, massive, bumpy, and ugly, leering at me and reminding me that I was not much of a climber. I resolved to conquer the route someday, and I began training with a friend to tackle the monster.

We couldn’t do it. Not the first time anyway. Our first attempt was a failed 15 hour excursion that ended with us rappelling down and a making a long walk home.

After the first failure our training recommenced with a vengeance, and we worked as if we had some kind of vendetta towards the king of Rock Canyon. We finally sent Squawstruck in a plodding 17 hours. The climb was a lot like the fight at the end of Rocky. We had been beaten and bloody, but we had not been knocked out. The first half of the climb had gone well, after all we had done it before, but the second half was a relentless series of roofs and extremely difficult face climbs. A short section of two easy routes gives a little bit of relief before the finish over an enormous roof that leads to the summit.

I hung and rested in front of the final roof, completely drained, cold winds wailing around me in the dark of night. I wanted to go back. I wanted to do anything except climb that roof with my bruised and swollen fingers. In a surge of frustration and anger I grabbed onto those depressingly small holds and pulled over the roof. We stayed at the summit for a few minutes, glanced at the city lights below us and started the 4 mile hike down.

I didn’t feel good about the climb. In particular, I was disturbed by the surge of anger that had propelled me to the summit. Shortly after the climb I first heard about the war-metaphor. The idea is that humans conceive of life as a battle, a fight. It’s always me vs. something: me vs. the test, me vs. the job, me vs. the climb. Our language is filled with things like, “That test kicked my butt,” or “I crushed the interview.”

Violence and war are some of the primary themes whereby we interpret the world. I realized this perspective was the cause of much of the stress and dissatisfaction in my life. The constant mentality of being in a fight with something—be it a rock wall, a test, or a project—was wearing me down and making me unhappy. I think this may have been part of what Jesus meant when he said “All they that take the sword will perish with the sword.” I was unsettled by this realization and how much of my life it characterized. In spite of this, I couldn’t really think of an alternative to the war-metaphor until I returned to Squawstruck.

I had been feeling like there was still something to learn from the route, so I went back this weekend to try and figure out what that was. I climbed for the sake of climbing this time. I didn’t have anything to prove to myself or anyone else.  I just climbed.

While climbing, I saw something I had never seen before. I stopped to look at the scenery of the climb for the first time. The last time we were on the route we were in such a rush to avoid getting caught in the dark that we didn’t even slow down to look at the view our massive elevation offered. We had taken a cursory of the valley from the top and hurried home. As I stopped to look at scenery in the middle of the climb, I saw an aspect of the canyon I had never seen before and realized the value of looking at things from the middle and not just the end.

I turned and saw that the canyon had several slot canyons that looked like waves of stone, each shaped like a surfer’s dream wave that had been struck with Medusa’s gaze. It looked like an ocean of stone rolling towards the city at the mouth of the canyon. A peak I had never noticed before jutted up above these waves like a new earth, and the changing leaves  made the mountainside forests look like rivulets of gold dripping off this nascent earth, newly emerged from a sea of stone. It was gorgeous. In all of my time in the canyon I can’t believe I had never seen this area that looked like a whole new world of potential climbing and exploration. Then again, I had never stopped to look. I had been too busy fighting my battle with Squawstruck.

I discovered the journey-metaphor on this weekend on Squawstruck. Life doesn’t have to be a battle; it can be a journey full of sights to see and things to experience instead of a set of foes to vanquish or obstacles to overcome. This perspective can turn something arduous into something beautiful. I was still exhausted after the climb, but I felt a sense of joy and wonder at the beauties of the forest as we made the 4 mile descent.

Our lives don’t have to be a war. If we perceive our experiences in terms of a battle then we will be harmed by the violent and aggressive thought process. The war-metaphor may be strong enough to get us over a single roof, but it will exhaust the mind and the spirit in the long run. Life can be interpreted in terms of a journey or a trip, and this perspective has the power to reveal worlds of potential we’ve never seen before.

The Tallest Desert Tower Ever and Changing Plans

January 5th, 2012

This last weekend I went to the Fischer Towers in Moab. A climbing club I belong to was going to aid the Titan, the largest desert tower in North America. The route we were working was The Finger of Fate, the longest desert route in the country.

Since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by the looming monstrosities of the Utah desert, their brilliant red hue and unutterable size. Hiking to the Titan was like walking through a field of stone giants. We arrived in the parking lot at night and walked past legendary towers like the Cobra and the King, each looking eerily like their namesake in the light of a full moon. After about an hour of hiking we rounded the corner of a tower called Echo and glimpsed the Titan in all of its size and majesty.

The Titan looks like a massive Greek god. It could very well be holding up the sky itself. From a distance it looks like it is made of solid red rock, but as you get closer you see that the stone is more or less mud crumbling under its own weight. Up close it is a huge, hideous monster of a climb. We were going to aid climb it.

Aid climbing is different from the style of climbing you might imagine. Climbing using your hands and feet is known as free climbing, even if there is a rope involved. Climbing with the help of gear like pitons and ladder-like things called aiders is known as aiding. We were trying to do the Titan clean, meaning we were not going to hammer in any pitons. Instead we were going to use nuts and cams, hang the aiders from those, and climb our way to the top of the 900 ft route.

We slept that night under the clearest sky I have seen in a long time. The massive moon radiated in the sky. It looked like dawn all night. The glow around the moon hung all night like a massive halo above the field of stone beasts. It was sublimely beautiful.  It was also sublimely cold. I didn’t have gear that was even close to warm enough for the situation, and I shivered all night long.

The next morning at 7:00am the climbing began. The club organizer had divided us into pairs and sent us to various pitches on the climb to begin climbing. With the help of a rope ascender we departed and started on the climb. This meant that someone was always above, raining down rocks and dirt like an incessant drizzle. We aided pitch three.

Aiding is a lot like hauling 40 pounds of stuff up a mountain. A seemingly endless strew of gear hangs from your shoulders as you climb. The aiders are effectively seven rung ladders that hang from your waist at all times. Sometimes you use them to stand, but most of the time you just snag them on things. On top of all of the gear that you need to have to climb, the desert is freezing at this time of year, so you also need to bring winter clothes, gloves, hand warmers, food, and water up the mountain with you. By the time I reached the third pitch, maybe 200 ft above the ground, I felt as if I had hauled an aisle from both the grocery and a mountaineering store with me.

We aided the pitch, one of the hardest on the route, and then got caught in a line of climbers that had piled up. There were maybe 10 people above us on the route. Rocks were falling and everything was crowded. Several fixed lines tangled their way up and down the cliff face.

I looked at the mess of gear, rope, and food that ensnared me and wondered how much my life is like this. I had hauled 70 pounds worth of stuff into the desert and taken most of that nearly 400 feet up a desert tower. Had I expected this to be fun?

I suppose I had expected this to be fun. I had taken off work, driven close to 4 hours, then hauled a 70 pound bag along a 2 hour hike so I could do this. Now I was shivering, cold, and bleeding from raw knuckles. My shoulders already had rashes from the rubbing gear.

Though I had planned to stay at the Titan an extra day, I did something that I really didn’t want to do. I lowered down. I took my 70 pound bag, made a 2 hour hike, then started the nearly 4 hour drive home to spend the rest of the weekend with my wife.

I think sometimes in life we start collecting stuff: habits, obligations, hobbies, jobs. We pile them up on our backs, hang them from our shoulders and waits, balance them on our heads. We walk around with them and feel the stress and strain of the weight. Some of the stuff is bad, but I’d say a lot of it is useful and good. It’s just that we take on so much that our lives often become as heavy and tangled as an aid climber’s gear.  Sometimes it doesn’t occur to us that we can put these things down.

A lot of stuff we can just put down. A lot of stuff we can only shed with the help of Jesus. I know that he’s made it possible for me to put down a tangled mess of stuff I thought I would never be rid of.

Sometimes we feel obligated to carry out a plan or fulfill a goal. We planned on doing something, so we’re going to do it. Often we’ll persist in these things long after we discover their not what we want anymore. These things are made for us; we are not made for them. In my mind, there is no shame in changing plans.

Our lives don’t have to be burdened and heavy. They’re meant to be enjoyed. We don’t have to be so committed to a plan or a goal we have for life or the weekend that we wear ourselves out hauling stuff around. Don’t be too proud to make a change. Don’t forget God wants to help.  [fancygallery id='photos-brandon']

The Sound of No Hands Clapping

January 5th, 2012

Without some understanding of the climbing grade system, this next post will lose some of its significance, so I’ll quickly explain the system used to rate the difficulty of climbs. This is based on an explanation given to me by the guy who sold me my first set of climbing shoes.

Routes are rated from 5.1-5.15b. (It’s an open ended scale, but 5.15b’s the hardest thing that has been sent so far.) At the 5.10 grad routes start to get letters A-D, so 5.10a is easier than a 5.10d. People who climb periodically do 5.10’s. People who climb all the time send 5.11′s. Local heroes send 5.12′s. Semi-pro’s send 5.13′s. If you do 5.14′s you’re sponsored. Only a handful of people have ever sent a 5.15.

With that being said, I started projecting a 5.12c awhile ago in the gym. Projecting is the process of coming back to a route over and over, trying to get all the moves figured out. Projecting is the only way to do really hard climbs. The best sport climber in the world (a really interesting guy named Chris Sharma) will project a given line hundreds of times, sometimes over the space of several years. He’ll fall at a given spot more than a hundred times. Some of the stuff he has done really seems impossible. A few years ago he sent a line called Jumbo Love after projecting it for years. It was the first 5.15b in the world.

I was projecting a 5.12c in the gym and thought I was pretty tough for doing so. The hardest thing the gym holds is a 5.13b and only a guy who works there even tries it. I felt like I was catching up with the big kids as I projected my 12c.

The route was pretty nasty. It had a couple of huge rounded holds that were nearly impossible to hold on to. The easiest hold on the route (often called a rest hold) was still so big and slippery that most climbers couldn’t stay on it.

The crux, or the hardest part, of the climb involved balancing on one sparse foothold and the worst left hand I’ve ever used as you advance the right from one bad hand, to another bad hand, to a final hand on to a less than ideal hold at the absolute end of my reach. From there the climb moves through a section of large rounded hand holds best solved by jumping, or dyno-ing as climbers call it, twice to the finish. I must have fallen on the crux about 30 times and the finish almost as much.

It took me about a two weeks to string the whole route together, which really isn’t that much compared to Chris Sharma’s years of projecting. A couple of times I went to the gym it would be the only thing I climbed. One night I must have tried five or six times only to be shut down at the crux. I got frustrated and decided the route was too hard. I figured I’d find another project.

As we got ready for yoga I decided that I would give the route one last go. Somehow I squeaked my way through the two horrible hand holds and lunged for the less than ideal finish of the crux. To my utter astonishment my hand stuck. I got my feet set and prepared to jump my way through the chancy dyno finish. I made it.

As the belayer lowered me down, I looked around the busy gym, expecting applause and congratulations. I had sent one of the hardest routes in the gym. Where was the applause?

“Dude, I just sent this 12c.”

“That’s great man.”

No one cared. This route had been my first real project and after all those tries I had nailed it. But no one seemed to care.

In our culture we applaud the silliest things. We applaud speakers we haven’t listened to. We clap for musical numbers we have dozed during. We celebrate things that do not matter.

I’ve thought a lot about applause since that night and realized that the greatest things we do in life will not be met with the roar of a crowd or the clapping of hands. A hidden audience will not cheer out at the greatest parenting decision you ever make. There are no cheering fans for people giving money to the homeless. No applause sounds when you make a meaningful phone call to a friend.

Climbing a 12c is not all that impressive really. No sponsors have dialed my number yet. And they never will. What I do know, however, is there will be someone who applauds the meaningful, unsung accomplishments of my life. I know God is watching. He’s taking note of the times I help people with flat tires. He saw the mother and child I drove home during the snow storm. He even knows that I want to do good when there’s no opportunity.

He knows all of the things I’ve done that no one cheered for.

He’s seen all the things you have done that deserve applause. It’s okay to be unsung in this life. I have an abiding belief that God is easy to please. He will cheerfully reward us for all of the good we have done. I know he’s up there watching, waiting for us to come home and thank us for all the unrecognized good we’ve done.

Busy-ness and Bridal Veil Falls

January 5th, 2012

Life is busy. I had gone to sleep later than I would have liked after a day that had been busier than I would have preferred. Today was going to be busier than yesterday, and I was not excited about it. The only redeeming thing about the week was I had some time to sleep in this morning before the chaos started again.

The phone rang as I lay in bed: “Ice climbing?” I looked at the clock. I knew that if I went ice climbing I would literally be running from activity to activity for the rest of the day. As I wondered if it was worth going, a lyric from a new Paul Simon song came to my head, “Life is what we make of it, so beautiful or so what.”

If I didn’t go ice climbing I would look back on this day as another busy day in a busy finals week. There would be no way to distinguish the day from any of the others on either side of it. If I went ice climbing though, I wondered if a year later I would look back and remember that I was even busier that day because I decided to go climbing or if I would just remember the splendor of crawling up a frozen waterfall. “Let’s do it.” I crawled out of bed and started getting dressed. (My wife deserves a lot of credit here because I had promised to drive her to work and she agreed to find another ride at 7:30 in the morning).

I drove into Provo canyon and was stunned at how cold it was. Ice climbing is almost always in the shadow of a mountain so it doesn’t melt. While this is great for the ice, it is also freezing for the climbers. As we hiked up to the base of the frozen Bridal Veil Falls, I began to miss my warm bed.

As we rounded the bend I saw the massive frozen waterfall. It was absolutely gorgeous. Ice billowed down the mountainside for hundreds of feet looking at once like a pile of fluffy clouds and a mass of castle pillars. It was also incredibly warm. Something to do with water changing phase from liquid to solid apparently causes massive quantities of freezing water to emit a little bit of heat. It was much warmer at the base of the ice than it had been on the canyon floor.

My friend helped me set up the crampons and began to talk me through the techniques of ice climbing. I had never been before. I started up the frozen mass and was stunned at how hard it was to climb.  I was the first on the route, so large icicles and layers of unstable ice still covered the wall. I had to hammer over and over to get each ice ax to stick. It was exhausting, and because of my bad technique, the climb took me about 30 minutes. I fell a few times and the razor sharp crampons tore through my jeans like they were paper. When I crawled over the top of the falls I was exhausted and my arms cried out in condemnation of the decision to come here.

“How was that?” “Exhausting,” I answered. I watched my friend Dave climb up the falls after me. He made it look easy. After he came down I started looking at my watch, realizing I needed to leave soon if I was going to get to work on time. “Do it once more.” “I’ve really got to go.” “Just give it a 10 minute try and you can lower down after that.”

Against my better judgment I got back on the ice. I modeled what Dave had done, and I felt like I was flying. In 10 minutes I was nearly at the top, and I hadn’t fallen once. It felt so much more natural, and I was sad I had to go. I lowered down, thanked Dave for a really cool trip and literally started jogging back to my car. The rest of the day was extremely busy, but I couldn’t help but smile through it all because of my experience.

We’re all busy. Everyone has a reason not to do something exciting or fun each day. It sounds odd to say, but I think we need to take time to do the things we want to do, not just the things we have to do. If we don’t, our lives can easily stretch into a string of months and years indistinguishable from one another. I’m not saying that everyone needs to go out and ice climb, but I think we all should do things we will remember fondly when we look back on them. That could be as adventurous as rock climbing or a simple as walking the park with a loved one. In a way, we really are the sum of our life experiences. Our lives can be so beautiful or so what. Don’t let the day-to-day keep you from doing things you’ll remember.