Sitting at home and eating my first-ever homemade coca with espinacas (see here for the recipe of this wonder), i think i am ready to follow the example of a friend and write about my experience now that it is still fresh and steamy. While my neighbors noisily make love, i stare into the night and try to remember what it actually means to me, the climbing, the projecting, the absurdity of dedicating so many resources of my life to this so clearly purposeless activity. At least before i used to look at mountains and think about climbing them. Staring at a wall - a b i g wall - would instantly switch my brain on and make me click, and i would just have one thing in mind - climb that wall. But the level of analysis - or rather experience - has gone micro lately, very micro. What in the climbing world is (disparagingly in the mouth of a real alpinist) called sport climbing.
My transformation into a sport climber has happened recently, starting sometime this summer, rather invisibly by means of a couple of projects. Was it when i finally redpointed Jarabe de Palo in La Mussara? Was it that 'project' i did in Gelida - given that i don't even remember its name, it does not qualify as a serious project...The transformation was definitely complete at the final scream (or whatever indistinguishable sound i managed to mumble through my cold self-protecting armor), when, puffing and shaking, i reached the anchor on the redpoint of Massa Kumba at Cavallers.
Now i'm not only a sport climber - i'm obsessed, i spend days working a route and, like a self-respecting bear, i can't be torn away from the honey. The name of the patient this time is Mogli. It is a 7b+ route in La Selva, Camarasa, conveniently bolted by Albert Cortes 4 years ago. At this point in time it resumes in its 25 meters everything climbing has been and passionately continues being to me. (The already-bored people can stop reading now, as the following content can probably be understood only by a couple of other climbing addicts...) We were introduced by chance, when Tranki onsighted the route during our visit to Camarasa. So many things happen by so much pure chance in this life - we meet people, make friends, fall in love - mainly by coincidence, justifying it all by our rational choices, feelings or whatever other bull. But then again, there are moments when things click - and others when they don't. I can try a line that looks perfect and NOT appreciate it, turn my back immediately after and forget it ever existed. Than there are other lines, the sticky ones, the ones that imprint the conscience, that make the blood boil, that make one fall in deep for them. I could have been obsessed by any other 7b or 7b+ or even 7c climb out of many thousands of bolted lines in Cataluna, but it is Mogli right now, so let it be the king of the night and rule the show.
Back to the topic, as i was saying, i tried it under the imitation reflex, after seeing Tranki easily move through the cruxes. At that point my brain started its conspicuous lying spree about how it was not as overhanging as it appeared, and not as hard as the grade suggested, and why should i not try it given that the rope was already in place anyway etc. I did try it on top rope that first time, around 3 weeks ago. Climbing and love analogy is not as straightforward as it might seem, but it does work. First, you see the line. No, actually first you see the line really when someone else climbs it and makes you understand that the line can actually be climbed. But you really see it when you try it for yourself, going from bolt to the next, flowing through the rock, or struggling for your life to get to the next pinch. The first impression at our first touch with Mogli, like touching for the first time an unknown body, was strange. Strange and painful. Ok, why use euphemisms: it was very painful and discouraging. After seeing the flow in Tranki's lead, i could not read the first sequence, way before the crux. The crux itself was excruciatingly painful - and it didn't go. I could not figure out the way. Then there was the second part. Angrily overhanging. It had some crack moves, which reassured me at first. But trying them i found a couple of minor cruxes for me, with a mental melt-down in the end, a jug-haul traverse over the bolt, with crossing hands, feet, and a final reach for a huge hole. There was no way.
Given my natural stubbornness (one of the reasons i'm still into this sport after so many years, so many failures, price already paid, and the remaining one to pay), i went for it again that day. The second try was, following the learning curve principle that rarely lets down any minimally skillful business consultant, better. I spent a while on THE MOVE - there is a cemented hold for the right hand, and than a shoulder-move to the left, and from there a long reach is required to go for the next pinch, that is the crux. The original advice was to block the shoulder on the left hand, get feet high and go up for the hold with the right hand. It did not work. After numerous attempts, some cussing, numerous examinations of the specific details and the big picture, small feet, and big feet, small handholds and the non-existent ones, i finally figured a circumvented way - as usual doing 4 moves instead of one, but getting the job done: after bouncing off the left shoulder hold, get the left foot up on a vertical push-hold, go for the higher pinch-side-pull-with-two-fingers hold, get the right foot up, and finally reach for the key pinch with the right hand. After that mental and physical power-drain exercise i was done for the day, and overwhelmed to even consider the possibility to ever imagine myself leading this monster.
That was three weeks ago. This w-end, after some late-minute planning, i was climbing with Salva and Pau, and they somehow managed to agree with me to go check out la Selva. My persuasion powers are infinite, especially when climbing is involved. Albert tagged along as i promised him to do a long route together. But on the drive up north, with a meeting place being fixed as the Camarasa bar, i could not concentrate on much more than Mogli, the jungle call. The long route plan got scrapped and there we went, down the ferrata and up Mogli. After 4 tries i was destroyed, the route stood as virgin as it first presented itself to me, proud and yellow, with plenty of white marks suggesting the lack of its supposed virginity - and the standing proof of my incapacity. But on my last go with a top rope i did make a very little step further - i did manage to do the lower part and the crux move, get the pinch with my right hand - and fall immediately after (all on top rope with patient belay from Albert). A very small step, but enough to keep me thinking about the route, analyzing over and over the moves, repeating the lower sequence, the higher sequence, THE move. By this morning i was ready - i could give it my all.
Mogli is a complete route - it calls upon all my skills, physical, technical, and mental. Climbing is like that - it not only requires a pull-up muscle strength, but it is also so much more of a mental feast - one of the reasons it has been keeping me interested for so long. It is impossible to get bored when applying at least a tiny little bit of imagination to the game. And passion. And patience. And there it goes - an explosive mix of dust, chalk, sweat, success and failure. The funny thing is i am still unable to pinpoint what exactly success means in this game. I onsight some routes - and usually when they are important projects of mine i feel sad afterwards, sad i won't have to keep thinking about them again, concentrating on all the moves. It is like loosing an old friend - the tension is off, there is no more risk of falling just before that crucial clip, of messing up that key foothold, of hesitating just a second too long when reaching for that last big jug. It is over, time to look for another project, follow the same path over again - motivation goes down, existential questions come in - why this absurd game again? Proving what to whom? Suffering a little bit more, trying a little bit harder to do a route half a grade more difficult than the previous one? Who cares? What does it all mean? No, i don't feel the rush of 'joy' or adrenaline or whatever else word that could signify happiness or contentment or some higher order of satisfaction when being lowered down after a successful attempt. On the contrary, i think of that empty look i have in Par's picture, when lowering from Massa, a look of a Martian, tired and absent, as ignorant as before, just a little bit less naive - but still as purely and functionally ignorant of the truth or its shade. It becomes an empty tick list, a cheap talk, a lost arrow. But all that happens AFTER, when the redpoint gracefully appears for a minute on the infinite and eternal horizon.
Before there is obsession. I use mental simulation a lot, seeing the moves, seeing myself doing the moves, feeling how it feels to have a hand, a foot there, in the precise spot required by the climb. It is all about being sure, about putting an extra ounce in the exact spot where the gravity is, of taking off with the air, of flowing up against the pressure of the whole universe painstakingly dragging you down. The first time i redpointed a 7a, Pillier Cromwell in Freyer, Belgium, in 2006, with a Hungarian belayer i dragged to the base of the route, running there away from a birthday party i was attending in the vicinity - he could not believe it when, after some closed-eye time and a full-blown concentration soup, i flowed up the route that i struggled terribly just minutes before. By then i knew the moves. I did not have the faith i could do them - one never knows 100% the project will go - one feels it is close, but which try will be THE try is totally uncertain - it is one of the basic rules of the game, what gives it so much competitive taste. The competition here is against oneself, but also against nature, against rock, against all the possible things that can go wrong - not only with one's skill, memory, footwork, confidence and fear - but also an inquisitive bird flying by, a gust of wind, a belayer chatting with a by-stander, lack of the right pushing word at the right time, the wrong image flashing through the defenseless brain - the UNCERTAINTY has to be tamed, subdued, harnessed - through any means, muscular strength, technique, rubber, longer draws, more chalk, less cloth, whatever it takes.
Back to the beginning - yes, as i was saying, Mogli is a complete route, the first section, for three first draws, is 6c-ish. It requires clear optimization technique and good memory for both, feet and hands. After several runs it goes through pretty smoothly and gets you to the rest - it can be taken in any form, sticking your head to the rock and getting a no-hands rest, bringing feet up the ledge, and getting a feet rest while contemplating the crux above, looking at the rock and into the concentration depths of oneself, the depths of the soul or the empty spaces therein. Then it is time to go - how much time i cannot tell, it is some internal clock, that measures how much is enough to rest the body but keep the concentration intact, keep that interested look, that expectation, that uncertainty about the outcome and a simultaneous curiosity - will it go? This time? How will it feel? Do i remember it right? Will i be able to clip? Will i screw it up (again)? But at this point it already is getting overly negative - time to stop the mind and get the body to work. It is always a combination, that is why climbing is so interesting, it is a challenge of synchronizing body and mind, of exploiting the endowments of all the available resources a human being has in order to accomplish a goal. The only problem with all this is the absurdity of the goal itself. But then again, which ones of our 'ultimate' goals are not as absurd, as empty as this one, of climbing 25 meters of rock without falling, with as many subterfuges as possible at the current technological level - but still respecting some rules and norms about how exactly it is supposed to be done to truly be able to call it a redpoint, loud and clear, - to oneself or the others, the audience, the community, - or whatever pieces of it i believe to assemble in my head...
The crux section starts next. After my four attempts on Saturday, i figured an easy way of getting through the next section all the way to my key cemented hold, using a small undercling and good feet placements. The problem with all of this now is leading. Now that i can do the moves, the next challenge is to integrate this with clipping - an essential activity when leading and stressing about the fall. Clipping adds the spice to the soup, the adrenaline, the explosive stuff that makes climbing what it is. Climbing is about leading - one way or another it always comes down to this. Doing a long route or a short route, mountaineering or sport climbing, it is all revealed through leading. It is the time to confront the monsters, the latent ones from that cabinet, the sleeping ones, the gray and limy caracoles endlessly crawling under the skin, waiting for the right moment, the instant of doubt, the decision point, the focal moment, the go/no go braking line. Now, are you strong? Are you good? Can you call yourself human? Can you do it? My biggest disappointments with myself in climbing come not from falling or flailing, not from not understanding the move, or not managing that onsight attempt - but from not daring, not giving it all, not cutting off the bridges and committing to the whatever decision i take, not shutting off the context and going for it. That is the way i want to live my life, that is the way i want to climb - to commit and do it, no regrets, to the plentiful, using all my capacities, choosing to use them and then taking the risk. The risk of falling or succeeding, the risk of being wrong, the risk of suffering, the risk of destruction. I judge myself on this basic criterion. Sometimes i am cruel enough to apply it to others, but only sometimes, when i really really really care only, - that is also when i really really really get hurt.
My strategy today has started with engaging two strong strangers to put me draws up my project. One of them nicely accepted, and even onsighted the climb in the process. He confused me more than anything given that he went through the crux in a totally different manner than anyone else i have seen doing it. I decided to remain blind to this insight and keep to my original plan and intuitions, hard earned through the numerous previous attempts. It is another difficult decision in climbing - are you doing the move the best possible way? Should you try a different method? Usually those questions pop up during the ultimate attempt, when you have only enough strength for one more, and no possibility for a screw-up. So do you take a risk and try it a different way or stick to the original? Can one learn from experience? How to decide? The questions remain the same throughout the lifetime. Answers change - or they don't. Do people really change? Or do they change clothing, from yellow to blue, to green - disguising the gray uniform mass below, the gnawing body without hope...?
With the draws on, and doubled at two key spots, after 5 attempts on top-rope and one lead using wide artificial techniques to put up draws on the climb Saturday, i finally decided to go for the first serious lead attempt. It is another vital decision - when is the time? When is it enough practice and time for action? For some climbs, it is time right away - they might be easy, they might be marked, someone can convince you to go for an onsight. For some climbs it is the second or third try that is the good one, after having figured out the biggest secrets, after having penetrated the mystery of the rock, having combined the rock and the body, converted, activated the resources of human being into a purposeful action. For other climbs it just never feels right, the secret remains closed, opaque, fuzzy and impenetrable. At some point decision is required, a push, a no-return-i-have-to-go-for-it, an i-have-cojones-today altitude. This altitude might be available in draws, or in limited supply depending on the breakfast menu, partner at hand, temperature and friction of the rock, mental state or an sms received the evening before. Today i went for it.
In the end i actually do not have a story to tell, that is why this post is ominously hiding behind the useless title of an introspection. I screwed up twice on my first lead attempt. Clipping the second draw at the crux, just before going for my right-hand pinch proved too strenuous for my current fitness level. Doing the last minor crux move, from the crack starting the traverse to the right-hand pocket, crossing hands and clipping was psychologically too difficult to accept as a challenge, so i yelled 'pilla' and gave up. My second lead try finished with the same success, this time i did not even try the crux move but grabbed the draw instead. I did go for the minor crux move on top and took a fall - again because i did not dare to go one move further to the pocket - already having my foot positioned for it, i did not even try the move, but at least i did take the fall without downclimbing, i just jumped. This little tiny progress made me a little bit less angry with myself and compensated some for failure. My old friend Mogli remains my old friend. As Albert said, maybe it is a 2010 project - maybe i need to get stronger - or maybe it is simply irrational and inexplicable, the time was not ready for me.
below - my first lead attempt at Mogli, Camarasa, finishing the first 6c-ish section, October 2009.