Surprise yourself: Defeating Self Doubt

It has been almost two years since my marriage was forever changed  by piss. My wife urinated on a test strip and we started the challenging route of parenthood. You see, before having a child we used to go on spur of the moment road trips and tall long rock climbing routes. It has been almost two years since we last did that and now we have a 7 month old baby to care for. So for those who can imagine; many stars have to align for us to be able to do any thing like that again. Well it is spring time and love is in the air but more importantly Grandma has the weekend off. So… things are looking pretty good! My birthday is just around the corner so my wife gives me a “hall pass” (different kind of “hall pass” fellas). I get to choose what route and where we climb for this not so spur of the moment climbing trip. Many options enter my mind and of course there are logistical considerations (drive time, climb time, etc.) but, I can’t get “Cloud Tower” in Red Rocks on the west side of Las Vegas, Nevada out of my mind. I do what most men do and make my own choice, I choose the “Cloud Tower”! … then I check with my wife to make certain that it is my choice. I have wanted to climb this route for well over a decade of my unprofessional climbing career. It is approximately 5.5 hours from home and Grandma won’t get to our house until about 9:00pm at night. We will only have her services for 48 hours and we have to make the time count. We may not be in college anymore but our resolve hasn’t aged a day and it has only gotten stronger through the years.

We do a general skills check and we know that the route will be challenging but we are both feeling good about attempting it (even if we fail). The car is packed with climbing gear, camping gear is also loaded, the baby is asleep, and Grandma is here. It is time to start the trip. 10:00pm-ish. Off we go we make it to the only campground in Las Vegas just outside the Red Rocks scenic loop drive at 3:00am. As we both predicted it is full. There are opportunistic campers drinking coffee huddled around their cars waiting for the first campers to leave so that they can nab a camp site. We don’t want to waste time with that so we pull into a grocery store parking lot and set the alarm clock for 5:30 am (sunrise). We get our 2.5 hour cat nap and drive to the park entrance where the line had already started forming. We are third in line, not too bad. There is just enough time to fire up the breast pump so that my wife doesn’t burst on the wall. As the gate opens and each car either flashes their passes or pays the fee we are off, driving one of the most relaxing and scenic drives in existence. The Tower is looming over our left shoulder as we begin the loop. As we continue  driving  the “Cloud Tower” moves over our right shoulder and we are watching it grow in size, along with our excitement as we get closer to the trailhead. The cheap gas station coffee that I am drinking has had little effect on my current state of arousal. However the sound of my climbing pack setting on the ground and the sunrise illuminating the tower has got my insides more excited than high school student going to prom.

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Yet at the same time there is a voice of doubt protesting inside of me quietly saying “You have no business on this route”, “You haven’t climbed anything like this in two years”, ” You think that you are ready for an 800ft. tall traditional climb close to your limit?”, “Your not going to make it”. Even though this is something I have wanted to do for so many years I find another part of me yearning for excuses to not even attempt the route so I would’t fail.

My wife has finished pumping and together we finish off the high calorie cinnamon roll we picked up from the gas station in Kingman, Arizona 5 hours earlier. “Maybe we’ll get food poisoning” the thought quickly enters my head or “Perhaps the weather will close in, Red Rocks does have notorious wind storms you know.” “Of course I know, you are talking to me”. I am conflicted. I truly want to  climb this but I am so afraid of failure at the same time. My wife and I are double checking to make certain that we have both packed all of the gear necessary for the climb. “Are you certain you feel up to this?” I ask her. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to climb it without falling but, I know I can make it to the top” she replies earnestly. Well my attempt to have my wife be my excuse failed me. I am running out of ideas. She asks me “Are you feeling good about it”? “I think I can do it but I am afraid that I will not do a good job”. She replied, “You’ll know best but I think you got this”. Her confidence carried me to the trailhead. Now we were hiking towards the “Tower of self doubt”. Experiencing the beauty of Red Rocks on the way.

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We arrived at the base of the climb and encountered two climbers starting the route we were planning on. Perhaps this could be my excuse I thought. I could see myself explaining to people as the asked about our weekend “Oh, well we would have gotten to climb it but, we were turned around by this incredibly slow climbing party” and they would express their understanding by replying “ughhh…” with an empathetic face. We weren’t there very long and it was obvious that excuse wouldn’t work with these climbers. They were young fast and efficient. We geared up, flaked the ropes, used the bathroom, and stashed our climbing packs to discourage the critters from digging in our bags. I inhaled deep swallowed my spit and looked up at the route above. Instinctively I asked, “On belay”? “You are on belay when you clip” she responded.

I grabbed the rock and let my body do the rest. The first two hundred feet of the route were a nice way to get the muscles warm. The climbing wasn’t too difficult or tricky but very enjoyable. The end of this first section (pitch) of climbing deposited me on a spacious ledge. The following steep sections of climbing were visible from this ledge. As I anchored in and started holding the rope (belaying) my wife I looked up about 150ft. and could see the climbers above us entering into the most difficult pitch of climbing. I could hear his rhythmic breathing and sporadic grunts as he was at the most difficult part of that pitch, the rock acted as a sounding board carrying their sounds across the canyon. “Woohoo!” one of the climbers exclaimed “nice job, you sent it!” the other climber answered. I could hear their whole conversation about how difficult it was and how there is no way he thought he was going to be able to do this climb with out falling or weighting the rope (on-sight).

Now my thoughts of self doubt get even louder. There is no way I am going to be able to climb that pitch on-sight like that climber did. We are climbing so close to them they are going to watch me as I fail on that pitch. It is going to be so embarrassing. You should turn around now while you still can. I know that I can turn around and retreat from this ledge easily. But if I climb off of this ledge, retreating the route will be arduous and I don’t want to put my wife through that. I am wrestling with these thoughts as my wife climbs the section below. As she arrives at the ledge I still struggle with this self doubt.

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She had a blast on the first 200ft. of climbing and we reminisced about climbing we just did. “That was so much fun!”, she exclaims as she pulls the final moves to get to the ledge. “Right! I thought that climbing was really fun too.” I responded. “I was thinking that part of the climb was going to be unpleasant or grungy but it was really fun.”, she explained through a smile. “Me too, what a pleasant surprise.”

I prepared for the next pitch of climbing by reflex. Sorting the gear and reorganizing the rope to remove any tangles. Simultaneously I explained how those climbers above me “crushed it” on the crux pitch and how I doubt that I’d be able to do the same. “You’ve been climbing so well. I think you can do it”, she stated calmly. She sounded so matter of fact it helped me hear the other much quieter voice of confidence in side of me. It was telling me to go for it. It can’t be that hard, that’s why everyone down grades the difficulty of the route. I began thinking that I might be able to do this route after all.

The gear was sorted the rope was ready and I was off climbing the next pitch of the route. I found each hand jam and foot placement to be pure joy. I moved with confidence closer to the crux pitch of the climb. Even though the difficulty loomed over me I was saturated with the enjoyment of my current state…climbing. I wasn’t overcome by fear because my focus was is in the current moment. I arrived at the anchors separating me from the crux pitch, put my wife on belay and enjoyed the view of the canyon. At the same time marveling at her graceful dance up the rock face.IMG_9685IMG_9838IMG_9743

She arrived at the belay and it was time. All of the feelings of self doubt were over shadowed by the excitement of the task at hand. Another pitch I needed to prepare for. I sorted the ropes and the equipment. I took only the gear I anticipated using on this section of the climb so that I wouldn’t have to climb with any unnecessary weight. I scoped the crack and started to plan how I might climb it. What anchors would I use first. The crack appears to be thinner at the base and gradually widen the farther up it goes. I finished arranging my gear then chalked my sweat soaked palms. I lifted my eyes to take a look at the route above. I had so many different feelings at the same time excitement, fear, anticipation, doubt, joy, nervousness, yet I had a peace and calm as I intentionally focused on the puzzle before me. I accepted the possibility of failure and  at the same time the possibility of success. I asked “on belay?” You are on belay”, she answered. “Climbing”, I stated. “Climb on”, she responded. I took my first steps above the anchor station. “You got this!” she emphatically stated and I was off. Each movement with efficient precision up the easy climbing before the angle of the rock got steeper. There I was at the base of the crack, the most difficult section was upon me, staring me in the face. I inserted the tinniest anchors I brought into the crack. My fat fingers unable to enter the crack forced me to trust my climbing shoes and rely on even smaller features in the rock on which to stand. Using holds outside the crack I found a series of tenuous moves forcing me to brace my body on the rock. Through a series of technical climbing maneuvers I found myself making upward progress and I was able to get half of the first pad of my fingers in the thin crack. It was too small to jam my fingers and create a wedge but it gave just enough purchase to continue adjust my feet and climb higher. I found a good rest and placed another anchor in the crack. Finally I can get the first knuckle of my fingers in the crack in a specific pod but now the foot holds are smaller. I climb up another couple moves. My breathing is loud and rhythmic. I place another anchor in crack and I can still only fit my first knuckle in the crack. I am approximately ten feet away from the part of of the crack where I will be able to fit up to my second knuckle in the crack which will finally provide me with a secure handhold.  The problem is my last anchor is below my feet and I know I will have to climb another 10ft. up and I am on the last foot hold I can see. If I don’t get an anchor in now and proceed upward I won’t have a solid stance to place another anchor. I would be looking at a fall greater than 30ft. The fear of taking that fall is the only thing separating me from secure handhold. I look down at my harness to see if I can find anchor that will fit the size of crack that I am in. I am out of that size of anchor. I lean in and look intently at the crack above and below the reach of my hand. Above I spot a taper in the crack that just may take an anchor size that I do have. My rapid breathing is audible across the rocks as the gentle breeze carries it away from me 400ft. above the canyon floor. The noise of the chattering carabiners makes the only other sound I fumble the next anchor off of my harness. I lean in to the stone and with the precision of a surgeon place the anchor in the only place it would fit. It fit perfect! Now I am only looking at a 20ft. fall if I screw up the next sequence. I place my fingers in the only pods of the crack that they’ll fit. Still only one knuckle deep I paste my feet on the featureless sandstone and start pulling. I am barely holding on and I have managed to make it 10ft. above my last anchor. I have a foot to the left of the crack a foot to the right and I have tips of my fingers wrenched in the crack providing just enough friction to hold my body weight. I can see the crack above widen to the finger size that I need but the footless stone is making it hard to move high enough to get that finger lock. I am calculating if I can make the move or not and my right foot slips! But, I am still clinging to the rock by my wrenched fingers. I quickly paste my feet back on to the smooth sandstone and give a long exhale. Aware of my muscle fatigue and the long fall I am about take, I’ll only have one attempt. I know I have to be precise. I breathe deep and pull in to the rock with my finger tips and and push upward with feet I let go of the crack with my right hand and reach high aiming for the perfect finger lock…

My fingers slot in the crack with the security of deadbolt and I fill with surprise! I finally have a secure handhold but no defined features for my feet to allow me to rest. I can feel my fingers wanting to let go. I am 15ft. above my last anchor; if I don’t place another soon I am looking at a huge fall. Not allowing my body to be distracted by success, I pressed on continuing to work my way up the crack searching for a defined foothold to distribute the weight of my body so that my fingers could finally rest and so I can place another anchor. That foot hold came only 5ft. higher. I placed my anchor. I started shaking out my right hand and then alternating to my left to allow blood flow to my deprived digits. I still couldn’t see the anchors and I didn’t want to get cocky so I remained silent. My belayer sharing the same sentiment didn’t say anything either. Yet I could feel the grin on my face as I started into the final moves of the pitch. When I saw the anchors my smile widened all the way to the back of my head. I made the anchor and called down to my belayer “off belay!”, “your belay is off” she called up the rock. “I can’t believe I did it!” I exclaimed. ” YOU DID IT! That was awesome!” she screamed back.

As I organized the station I found a comfortable rest on the rock and was able to stare at the surrounding cliff faces. I continued to hold the rope safely so my wife could climb the pitch I had just finished. I peered down and now I towered over the feature in the stone that had been looming over me only minutes earlier. I marveled at the angle and the colors it had. It was truly beautiful. My wife graced stone with exquisite technique gave it a well deserved compliment. I was in a state of awe at the beauty I was able to experience. I began to ponder all of the events leading up to the moment that I now found myself at present. The doubt, trepidation, anxiousness, and fear that I had experienced before we had even left our home was no where to be found. It had all become a memory, a story that I am now telling. Sometimes we lie to ourselves, sometimes we surprise ourselves. I continue to climb because I learn through many mental battles who I am and bit by bit remove the seeds of self doubt and question from my mind changing me into a better, more self aware person.

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