Potrero Chico – Jungle Warfare (5.7)
I look up at the climb. The wall angle is leisurely, the holds clear, and the bolts are mostly in view. As much I have been sandbagged on supposed 5.7s, this climb truly looks like the grade. I am relieved, giddy even.
For the first time in my climbing history I am completely relaxed before leading an outdoor climb. This comes as a surprise, especially since the climb is new to me, it is the initial climb of the day, and the first bolt is a hefty 20 feet or so up. Usually such a high bolt would merit a stick clip or a bail if unclippable, but I feel confident about reaching the bolt straight on. I can see, with confidence, that the angle and holds are forgiving. I will not fall.
It often takes several moves, or even an entire climb, to screw on my climbing head, but here, in this unique moment, that head is already on. Typically I am plagued by apprehension or anxiety before leading outside - feelings that place wedges in my variable confidence. But in this moment, fear and anxiety are in deep rest. I am grateful.
I spread my body across the rock, stepping up a few inches, testing holds, getting a feel for the surface. It’s heavenly. The friction is like superglue and the holds are juggy and softer than other climbs in the area. My sore fingers feel relief. As the climb unfolds, I discover the bolts are well placed, never too far apart and allowing solid body positions for clipping.
The flow of this climb is sweet. With its ease I can absorb my surroundings. The limestone is beautiful. Shades of grey and occasional spirals of fossilized shells grace the surface. Intermittent veins and pockets of crystal add to the texture and character.
The route name, Jungle Warfare, hints at the abundance of plant life. Cacti, Yucca, and Mesquite, all laden with thorns, force your attention, but are additive rather than a distraction. I am in a terrarium, peaceful and surreal. I study the plants as I pass, admiring their resourcefulness, surviving on centimeters of soil in a pocket.
With each step, I fall in love with Jungle Warfare. I fall in love with how it makes me feel. When its over, I let the dark clouds of deprecating thoughts, such as “it’s only a 5.7,” slide away. Instead, I allow myself to fully experience joy - an accomplishment greater than the climb itself.
As the warmth of the desert rays penetrate my skin, I consider my habits of the past - climb harder, get the next grade, do better. I have allowed unrealistic, externally imposed standards for climbing to invade me, such as “you only really completed the climb if it was on-sighted without a rest or fall,” or “you aren’t a real climber unless you are climbing 12s or harder.” For some, such standards are motivational. In my psyche they are toxic and destructive. I must be willing to let all of these things go, along with long-lived habits of insecurity and self-judgment.
To be clear, I love climbing. But on this day, on this wall in Potrero Chico, my experience is a revelation. It has shown me a peace when leading that I have never previously felt (except, perhaps, in the security of a top rope). This revelation births a goal that is truly meaningful, to climb and lead climb with relaxed joy.
But what sounds simple may or may not be.
To achieve this goal, what does it require? Only leading climbs that are very clearly easy? In reality, rarely does such obviousness occur, even with 5.7s. Climbing outdoors is rife with the unknown and sandbags are commonplace.
Does it mean I need to get physically stronger? Perhaps. Being stronger makes climbs feel easier. But I sense this is not really the complete answer, as I have been “stronger” and still not achieved that state of mind.
Certainly this requires a transformation in my head, but how? I am aware of the crippling nature of my thoughts, and have spent my adult life trying to transform them - meditating, reading, counseling, martial arts. If I could have flipped a magic switch to turn off fear, apprehension, and insecurity and turn on relaxed joy, I would have done so long ago. It is not necessarily a matter of rigid discipline, shutting down the fear. I do not want to crank fear's faucet closed. Rather, I want to turn up the faucet of joy.
But given the slow and variable nature of mental transformation, I also have to wonder, Do I need to tone down my expectations or to train in a new way? Perhaps it is not realistic to think I will consistently be able to jump on a new lead climb and experience what I felt on Jungle Warfare. But having tasted the elixir, I desire it again.
An intermediate solution I have explored is to not lead climbs blindly but to test the waters via top rope first. Then, lead the climb if the spirit moves me, setting up the experience of relaxed joy in a controlled setting - creating a new muscle memory and mental experiences, confidence, that can be habituated and tapped into.
Letting go of self-judgement in the moment and replacing it with understanding while climbing is freeing. If I am scared it's ok to be scared. If I need to take at the next bolt or down climb to the last one, sit down and cry, or breathe, then I will - without self judgement. Accepting those needs, and thoughts and feelings allows me to move on when I am ready.
I am changing the internal paradigm and it takes time. I have to circle back to my epiphany and remind myself of the true goal – to climb with relaxed joy - and taking these steps help make that happen. I have to acquiesce to the exploration and experimentation it will take to achieve it.