My fingers jab for the two-finger pocket. An eerie sky looms above. Quickdraws swing left and right. My hair flicks across my face. This feels like it’s finally it. I can do this. A rush through my forearms. Hyper-focus vision. I finally don’t feel fatigued.
My trip began with food poisoning. A rough start to my first climbing trip alone. My belayer was someone who I had met the morning before. On top of that, my shoes had been stolen in Greece weeks earlier, so I was wearing the equivalent of rental shoes. My feet kept slipping off the starting crack, making the thought of reaching the top crux without falling seem undoable. And, just as I finally got replacements for my rental shoes, I immediately got a flare up from my Ulcerative Colitis, (also due to being robbed, since my medication was stolen too). That morning marked one week of stomach upsets, of not being able to sleep or eat right, and of being drained of energy.
As I approached the climb for this last attempt, I thought about all those uncontrollable setbacks. I decided to put it all out of my mind. Despite it all, no matter what challenges would be thrown at me, I still held onto the hope that this climb would be doable. It would happen now – this try, this was it!
My hand misses the pocket. Seconds later, I’m jugging on the rope. And just like that, there goes my shot at it – good bye La Rambla.
As I was lowered to the ground, I couldn’t believe that was really my last try. I had gone through the ringer to get here, and to come this close made it feel like all that work was for nothing. More than that, the pandemic now meant that going back anytime in the near future would be a near impossibility. I could only wish I was struggling on La Rambla one more time.
Two weeks later, I was back in the States, at home as COVID-19 was quickly starting to restrict life. There were many stark contrasts between my life two months before in Spain and my life now. Staying at home has been a challenge for me, as it has been for everyone. What I didn’t expect was to feel challenged, not by a lack of motivation, direction, or self-worth, but by something at a deeper level.
Throughout this time at home, I’ve kept to hanging, traversing in my small basement wall, cooking, and learning -- all things I’ve been used to. I settled into my routine and stuck with it.
After all, it’s been imperative to make safe choices. Any extra risk can put members of your community in danger. But there’s a difference between taking the safe route and letting that be an excuse not to fail, to not try new things, and to not work on goals that might seem unattainable now but are still reachable in the future.
I didn’t realize what I had been missing until I was making Tikka Masala for the first time. Frantic recipe checking, spices being thrown in a pan, some falling on the ground. I wasn’t sure what the end result would be, and I missed trying things like that. I missed being in an environment where I could mess up, pull on a rope and get back to where I started.
We’ve all been challenged by the circumstances of this pandemic. It’s understandable to have days feeling lonely, directionless, unhappy, and not yourself. But maybe we don’t need to leave our houses, or travel to Spain, to find what we truly love about climbing or any of our endeavors: failing more than succeeding.
Failure hurts. It hurts to write about, to talk about. It hurts to know that I wasn’t strong enough. That I wasn’t able to overcome the challenges I faced in order to succeed at the obstacle I chose. But reengaging with failure reignited a fire I had lost. What I had been missing in my climbing and life. Why I joined the sport. I didn’t do that for the knowns, and a coddled gym experience. I did it to get beat up and go down a path of uncertainty that would ultimately – and hopefully - lead to self-betterment.
Maybe that ten-second, elusive handstand, those five one-arm pullups, that plate of Tikka Masala and all those other things that taste and feel challenging can test us on a similarly deep level. La Rambla was all about working through one punch after the other; and choosing a battle under the circumstances I was given. Tikka Masala isn’t all that different - an opportunity to fail because I want it, against odds that I have no choice in. We as humans are tormented by the conditions in which we are placed. But our strength lies in the challenges we choose to face, and our dedication to overcoming them.
Photo: Gabe Dewitt