Picture by Jaume Clua
So many reflections lately. But as Weick says clearly in his Sense-making book: "People discover what they think by looking at what they say, how they feel, and where they walked. The talk makes sense of walking, which means those best able to walk the talk are the ones who actually talk the walking they find themselves doing most often, with most intensity, and with most satisfaction. How can I know what I value until I see where I walk?" I do the talk through writing, the walk through climbing, hoping that both substitute quite well. And if not, oh well, I will remain my only faithful reader, with the added benefit of first-hand understanding.
The fall is a big part of climbing, maybe also of life. A strong symbol, not only physical, it is also part of such English expressions as "fall from grace", "fall in love", "fall flat on your face", or "fall on deaf ears". It is also a mythological word, deeply part of Christian, Jewish, but also Muslim and Hindu stories, told and retold to generations of bewildered, open-mouthed children or much more bored and indifferent adults. In climbing at least, one prepares for it, one faces it, one screams, one bites one's lip, one falls. The fall can be short, abrupt, and surprising, - like falling in love. It can be long, painful, even infinite, - like falling from grace.
Falling is a pretty intriguing concept, action-based but oh so mental as well. When i started climbing, i was unconscious enough for the fall not to matter much. It was not a possibility deeply considered or analyzed, it was just a consequence, a price to pay for a mistake, something i knew was objectively there, but not close enough to evaluate, to experiment with, to make up my mind about. Climbing long routes, high up in the mountains, the fall became a far-away reality, a myth, a symbol of something climbers do, but not something i assumed or struggled with personally. It took some time, but falling came to me, and stayed with a vengeance, waging a total war against my established climbing personality, my self-esteem, my most dearest, - the desire to climb and surpass myself.
I remember clearly my first serious fall - leading the hardest pitch on Whitney-Gilman route on Cannon mountain in New Hampshire, after having done it already at least twice (once in February during a memorable winter ascent with my Russian friends), I clipped the piton, and started traversing. I got pumped. I tried to go back to the piton, tried to go directly up. My arms started to give up. My partner was too far to hear me. At some point i just could not hold on anymore and let go. I have no memory of the fall itself, only of the soft landing on top of my backpack, the surprise at being whole and not aching much anywhere, of the piton still sticking up there its ugly head and holding all my weight, proudly showing off its strength despite the years of corrosion and withstanding all possible weather affronts. I did not get overly scared - but I haven't done many falls on gear since either.
I remember my other fall, THE FALL, in Callanques, same partner, different route. Bolted all the way, how much better could it be? I was too confident, I was that young bold alpinist from the joke, I urgently needed a lesson. After an epic on the Eiger, an epic in Cham, the third w/end was to be in Callanques, it was time for me to really learn my lesson - not even in my beloved high mountains, but on warm white limestone that first lulled me back to confidence, just to strike better at the right target. Strong as i felt, i did not manage to clip the bolt from the ledge. I went for the move anyway, without clipping. I failed, i fell. Only a couple of meters, but a nasty, side-ways, painful affair, slashing my foot open and disabling me for the season. Again, i do not remember the fall, only the strange amazement from looking at my bleeding foot slowly growing in size to a small pumpkin, the adrenaline going down, and the pain kicking in. The long way up the remaining pitches with one foot and Alex pulling me up the rope, already in the dark, the light of the headlamp so far away, the painful last meters of the supposedly gorgeous ultimate 6a pitch, sitting and waiting for the rescue on top of Devenson in the cigales-filled night.
I thought this one did not matter either - but when i went back on the rock afterward, my brain switched. It switched automatically and for real. The switch was on for self-preservation. The brain does not forget, that switch was genetically programmed and sealed for the years to come. There was no more risk-taking. Any fall with any kind of unhappy potential made me give up. I gave up on 6bs, on 6cs, on 6as, I followed. I cried. I raged. I dreamed of leading and could only go second. I went higher, on harder routes, but I went second. I subconsciously blamed my climbing partners, blamed Alex, blamed the world, those were some unhappy years of my climbing. The reconstruction took some time. It took a rather long time indeed. Two years following, a year leading easy multipitch, another year of projecting with slings as long as one could tie together short of toproping.
Now I can almost face the fall - I still use many slings, but i can face the fall, i can count to three, close my eyes, do a stupid Sharma-cry, and let go. Whatever happens - take it, assume it, believe in your partner, in the rope, the gri-gri. And fall. That is an integral part of sport climbing. Falling is possible, falling can be accepted, never completely controlled. Time, and a lot of effort. Maybe, one day, my dream would be to do one of my projects without the slings, opening myself to the fall, taking the risk, enjoying only the move, the freedom, the air below, accepting the possibility of a fall, and moving on with it. Maybe that is a good next step. Maybe not.
I do not have recipes, but with a lot of effort, practice, and pushing your body, one can find the gift, the freedom, the courage to look the fall into its scary eyes and let go. Some people will be able to do it much easier, some will go solo, and not care about gravity or anything else at all. Most humans will be scared - scared as we are in so many moments of life, scared of failing, scared of climbing pumped, climbing at the limit, scared of giving it all, all the best there is in us, all the best we can give. The good thing about adrenaline though is that while on the project, when knowing all the moves, the fear is transformed, it changes its colors, it switches its crazy face to a tone of white, not grey anymore. It is about putting one foot in front of the other, of fighting the pump, of doing the mechanics of the moves - it is not only about the fall anymore. Coming full circle, the fall becomes secondary, just a consequence of messing up, but not an ultimate punishment, not the scarecrow it used to be, not the unknown grey shadow, but a normal possibility that is accepted, faced, and assumed.