a failed birthday challenge!

I’m having some formatting/spacing issues with this post, sorry if it’s hard to read! Here’s the latest: Almost nightly, I have a version of this dream: I am back in California and something reminds me that I am not in Sardinia anymore and a sadness sweeps over me that’s so intense, it wakes me up.

That’s how badly I don’t want this trip to end. I love it here.
It was unbearably hot and humid for a week or so, the air was dense and still. It was a level of humidity that made climbing almost impossible, and that’s saying a lot coming from my mouth,  I’ve spent summers bouldering in south Georgia. It was like someone’s hot breath on you, constant and without escape. Even sleeping was difficult. Humidity always makes everything feel like it’s suspended in a standstill, the air just gets heavier and heavier, begging for rain. The whole thing made me itch, like I was waiting for something.
Then, a few days ago, as we ate pizza and drank wine on the front patio of a trattoria, the rain finally came. Big, heavy drops that held a lot of water. Thankfully our table was under a roof.
Since that night, the air has been fresh, cool, and breezy, and climbing and everything else has felt a whole lot easier.
We finally met some other Americans, and who they are is a testament to how small this world actually is. Michael and Julie Kennedy are a couple from Carbondale, parents of Hayden Kennedy—a professional climber and friend of Ethan’s. Ethan heard them speaking English in the produce section and asked where they’re from, and it took about ten minutes of chatting before Ethan realized that we know their son.
Yesterday we went climbing with them and then they had us over for a delicious dinner. They’re really good folks, the kind of people you feel lucky to know. That’s how I’m feeling this morning, that out of all the Americans we could have been on this island with, we got Julie and Michael.
I had the grand, last minute idea to do a birthday challenge yesterday. A birthday challenge is this ridiculously stupid thing that climbers do on their birthdays—they create some kind of challenge for themselves, usually in the form on a physical feat, that involves the number of the age they’re turning. Ever since my other birthday challenge fell through, I’ve been wanting to go for another one. We got the the crag and I realized there were about 40 routes there, right next to each other, and I couldn’t help but think that I could probably send 26 pitches.
I didn’t have a plan, and I knew that almost all of the pitches were 6’s–5.10+ or 5.11 in the American rating system–a grade that I can usually do first try but after ten or fifteen of them, I would probably start falling. I also didn’t have enough time, realistically, to complete all 26 before the cliff was to go in the sun, and not nearly enough food or water, but I did have a whole lot of psych, support from the people around me, and a willing belayer. So, I roped up and started climbing.
I was gonna have to climb fast and without falling if I wanted to do this.
I flew up the first several pitches, and I was getting little glimmers of confidence, maybe I could send all 26 before 2pm, the time when the sun was going to hit the cliff. Those first pitches gave me everything I seek while climbing–fluid movement and steady breath with a mind clear as water.
Around pitch 9 or 10, I started slowing down, way down. My old tendon injury flared up, my feet were aching, my shoulders were sore from the day before, and my mind was getting tired of route finding. The routes at that cliff are all incredibly long, and their length not only weighed on my body but also on my mind. Reading limestone has always been hard for me, that kind of rock creates a sea of features that all appear equally positive. The options for your next hand hold are endless, and choosing the right hold is the difference between sending and falling. Dealing with that for meters upon meters of rock started to exhaust me.
I don’t know about this, I told Ethan after pitch 11. I’m sick of easy routes that feel hard just because I’m tired. I wanted to try something truly hard for me, with difficult moves, that’s what I love most about sport climbing after all. I was so tired though, that I wasn’t sure if I could climb anything at all, let alone something that would challenge me even if I was fresh.
Before I could think about anything too much, like how trying something hard would probably jeopardize my chances of finishing the challenge, or let any of the million things that were working against me get to my head, I was tying in under one of the 7’s. I slipped on my big pair of TC pros, the shoes I wear for long days of trad climbing, because my feet were too swollen to fit into the shoes that I normally wear for sport climbing.
I had no expectations about sending, no thoughts of when or where I would fall, I was just gonna go see what it was like up there, I was just gonna go climbing.
The crux was low on the route and I could tell that the sequence was going to be truly difficult for me, it wasn’t going to feel hard just because of my fatigue. But before any thoughts like “this is going to be hard” or “I might fall here” or “I’m going to have to heel hook in my TC pros” had time to surface, I chalked up, took a few deep breaths and just went for it.
Despite the fact that I was trying my very hardest, there was an ease about those moves that I believe came from a balanced mix of commitment, confidence, a love for climbing, and the undeniable power that one receives from being in the present moment.
I ended up onsighting the entire route.
I climbed another route after that and then decided that I was done climbing for the day. I didn’t feel like I had given up, I was just letting my psych guide and pull me, and in that moment I was really psyched to get out of the sun and eat some dates under a tree with my sweet boyfriend.
That’s the cool thing about climbing, as long as you’re putting your heart forward and leaving your ego on the ground, you’ll always have fun and be successful, because you’ll be aligned with what you really want to be doing.
So I didn’t complete the challenge, but I can’t even describe how little of a deal that is to me, because what came out of it was something way more valuable than the ability to say that I sent 26 pitches in a day. What I got was a reminder of how to climb, how to be strong, how to enjoy every single moment of this life we have, how to be show up and be present for all of it. That dream I’ve been having is about the sadness that is created when we wish for something other than what is, and yesterday was the opposite of that, it was an acknowledgment of what is, it was about savoring it, because it’s all happening and it’s all pretty good.
And, I’m stronger than I thought I was. I can pull hard moves when I’m completely exhausted. That’s the real reason we do these challenges, as a test, as a way to know our limits. And so far, I haven’t even come close to seeing where my true, egoless physical limits are. I didn’t experience any physical limitations yesterday, only mental. Maybe that’s how it always is. Getting out of my own way feels pretty awesome.
More soon. Love,
G
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