Photo Credit: Andrew Burr
Photo Credit: Andrew Burr
I realized – last night – that I was going to see my mom (who’s here, visiting from Arizona), and that I smelled terrible and couldn’t remember the last time that I’d showered. Friday maybe? Or maybe it was Thursday? I know I paddled the river on Saturday, which is pretty much the same as showering…
Since that river bath, over the next five days, I’d climbed twice, biked six times, gone for a run, played soccer twice, and lifted weights four times. Plus there’s that whole Summer Sun Angle (Heat) = Sweat thing.
I’d also mowed the lawn, worked in the yard, gardened, and picked up dog poop in the sun three times.
For my mom, I took a shower.
I’m so proud of my student leaders every year. But last year – when I was out on medical leave after my brain injury – my student leaders really stepped up.
Here’s Envision Magazine’s feature on the Integrated Outdoor Program, with a focus on the student leaders (thanks to Mara Welty and Damon Holland):
I have a brain injury. There. I’ve said it. Publicly. It’s so much easier to not say it, to not admit it, to not talk about it. Because I don’t like to talk about it. I don’t want to explain how I feel, or discuss my symptoms, or detail how my healing’s going. I’d rather my injury not be there (and I know how obvious and stupid that statement sounds). I’d rather not be injured, but I am. I have what neurologists classify as a traumatic brain injury, a TBI.
Specifics: For the first time in my life, I can’t spell. Since the car accident on December 4th, 2014, I’ve had to relearn more than 500 words. Sometimes simple words. Three days ago, I relearned the spelling of the word “sandwich” (a complicated word – I know). Yesterday, I relearned the spelling of the word “wiggly.” Today – to copyedit this article – I had to relearn the spellings of “dissipate” and “avocado.”
Small words sometimes. Uncomplicated words. The thing is, I don’t know what I don’t know until I come across it. I’m writing, and I have to spell a word and I start typing…
…and a vast blankness appears in my mind like a gray sheet of paper has slid in front of my eyes. There’s nothing there, and I have no idea. I can’t even guess.
Also, I have headaches. Regular and significant headaches. If I get stressed or it’s too loud or there are too many things happening all at once, I get a dull ache above me eyes, and the ache spreads its spider legs into my cheekbones, down along the top of my nose, over my scalp and behind my ears. I have to spend 10 minutes in the dark, or try to go to sleep, or take migraine medication, or do all three of those things. Sometimes I put a pillow over my face and lay on the floor, waiting for the throbbing to dissipate, feeling ridiculous.
I get confused a lot as well, sometimes about little things, memories, who said what when, and whether or not I know something that I do or don’t know. I’m not sure. I ask people to tell me things twice. Three times? I sometimes ask the same question five minutes apart. I feel foolish when people tell me that they’ve already told me the answer to my question that I’ve already asked. For me, it can be a new thing each time I hear it.
So I’m not able to teach right now. Obviously. I’m on medical leave from the school district and will be for the rest of this year while my brain heals. Everyone’s going back to school tomorrow – after spring break – but I’m not. And just this week I got a letter about “permanent disability,” a term I don’t even want to think about.
This is a crazy new reality.
But there’s the issue of writing as well. My other job.
This last year, while dealing with the aftermath of the car accident and its effect on my brain, I struggled through the revision of my new novel This Is The Part Where You Laugh and the first four drafts of my next novel Too Shattered For Mending. I’ve never worked so hard to write so slowly. I didn’t always feel creative. I never felt talented. I did my work – completed my revisions and turned in my next novel – but I’ve never worked the way that I did. I’ve never struggled the way that I struggled. To make my brain work. I still loved writing (I always will) but writing this last year sometimes felt like three 1000-piece nature puzzles heaped together on a single table like some kind of cruel joke. I was the little kid trying to put all three puzzles together.
Is this the border of the undersea puzzle?
Or the border of the Yellowstone vista?
Or the edge of the stream in the Appalachian forest?
So many shades of green.
So many variations on the color blue.
I think of the Apostle Paul writing, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…”
Consider it pure joy…
Whenever you face trials…
Why would he write that?
And how is it possible?
How is ‘pure joy’ created in a time of trial?
It’s a difficult question – something I’ve come back to again and again – and this is what I’ve decided: Because we have to take joy in the trials and the triumphs, the whole of life, this complicated yet singular experience in it’s entirety. To enjoy life as it is – real life – we have to know struggle as well as ease. Pain as well as wonder. Suffering as well as comfort.
The understanding of life’s duality means learning empathy, acknowledging true differences, finding the capacity for a diverse and vast love.
Also – and this is not a small thing for me – I may have a brain injury, but my life isn’t filled with struggle. I may be experiencing some difficulty currently, but I have a wonderful life. I have a life I don’t deserve, great joys that outweigh any number of trials I’ve experienced. So focusing on joy is then a choice I can make.
With that in mind, I think of all the good things, and begin my own gratitude list:
Sitting with Jennie next to a warm fireplace and reading together or drinking coffee on the porch on a sunlit morning while the neighborhood is waking up.
Rock climbing at The Columns with Roo, or hiking up the hill together and chilling in that one oak tree that overlooks the Washington/Jefferson Street Bridge and the western half of the city.
Buying ice cream with Rain while we make sarcastic jokes in our local Safeway, then standing in the kitchen back at home and eating Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked, laughing about our days.
Reading a book in a chair, barefoot on the grass.
Listening to new music on the radio while I drive, or listening to old rap CDs in my kitchen while I do the dishes.
Going on a family night-hike by the light of the moon.
Watching Jupiter rise like blazed chromium in the east.
Camping in the desert and seeing my dog Bob Dylan run coyote circles in the afternoon dust.
Reading contemporary poetry.
Viewing collections of art.
Hanging out with friends.
Hanging out with my dad or Maddie.
Joking with the student leaders in my outdoor program.
Eating dark chocolate or avocados or quesadillas or breakfast-for-dinner whenever I want to.
Finishing a good novel and starting a new one.
Also, I realize what an amazing life I’ve been given in this country, how I’m part of the global 1% economically with my house and my car and my refrigerator and my bank account and my bicycle and my book contract and my backyard and my hammock and my laptop and the clean running water that comes out of the tap, water that I can drink any time without fear of dysentery or cholera or water-born parasites. I live such an easy life in a home set to 67 degrees right now while it’s 44 degrees outside.
Realizing that my list could go on forever (that I stopped myself from writing fifty other things), I understand that gratitude creates an infinite capacity for joy. This is the wonderful life I live, and if my life is this good, this easy, then what will I do with my hours? How will I help other people? How will I encourage and love and foster and develop?
Also, what am I holding onto that doesn’t really matter? What do I call “important” that has no eternal value? What objects am I grasping in my tightly-clenched pathetically-weak human fists?
I keep Mary Oliver’s famous poem “The Summer Day” next to my bed and I’ve reread it ten or so times lately. To end that poem, Oliver writes, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
All injury stories are the same. I was feeling pretty good, starting to climb well when I…
(Choose a verb: BROKE, STRAINED, TORE, DISLOCATED, LACERATED…)
(Choose a noun: KNEE, SHOULDER, HAND, ACL, WRIST, ANKLE, LEG, MCL, pinkie…)
I wasn’t feeling very good, hadn’t been working out hard enough at that time, when I pushed it more than I should and I…
The injury’s not where the story gets interesting. Yeah, I’ve had injuries before (broken ribs, dislocated thumb, fractured wrist, etc.) and yes, you’ve had injuries as well. You tore your rotator cuff. You snapped a tendon in your ring finger. You injured the whatever-its-called in your elbow when you fell off your nephew’s trampoline. Really, our individual injuries are not that interesting.
But our attitudes? What we do after our injuries? That – to me – is much more interesting.
Unfortunately – for a while at least – after surgery or getting the cast off or the knee brace, or doing physical therapy, we have to climb easy. We can’t go hard. We can’t run up The Rostrum. We can’t send that Bishop highball we’ve always to finish. We can’t project that 5.12+ trad route at the Gunks. For a while, we have to keep from getting injured again. We have to maintain good attitudes and sound training fundamentals while still climbing easy. And that’s difficult. Most of us – naturally – want to go hard, want to push our abilities, want to send something that we’ve never sent before. But the road back to climbing hard starts with climbing easy. There’s an art to climbing easy, and in my experience, a lot to learn from that time period of easier exertion.
With Beginner Routes, There’s No Competition
I’m a competitive person. If three of my friends and I are attempting a difficult route, I want to send it first. I don’t mind if someone else is successful on the route as long as I’ve already been successful on the route. See, I like to win the game. I want to win the game even if no one else knows that we’re playing the game. If everyone thinks we’re just having fun, I might be competing in my head. That makes me seem like a jerk, but truthfully, I sometimes am a jerk. I’ve competed for who can be the best at throwing rocks at a metal sign, for who can open the well-sealed jar of jam, for who can find the prettiest piece of petrified wood.
I’m way too competitive.
The problem with being a way-to-competitive-climber and having a significant injury is that there’s no competition on beginner routes. Everyone can climb VB or 5.6.
That bodybuilding guy with zero footwork who wears a leather vest to the gym, wears no shirt underneath, and climbs with bent arms all the way up the wall? Yep, he can climb 5.6.
That college girl who yells “SPOT ME! SPOT ME! SPOT ME!!!!!” in a hysterical voice the second she leaves the ground on the easiest VB taped-route? Well, she sends that level too.
So if I’m climbing beginner routes – and only beginner routes – I’m on everyone’s level. Actually, I’m below most people’s level. There’s no one to beat at climbing, no one to be better than. So I have to let go of my competitive mindset, and that’s probably good for me. Thinking about it a little more, I realized that letting go of a competitive mindset – at least once in a while – is probably good for most climbers. Maybe if we all spent a little more time climbing easy routes, we’d find joy in the process and we’d let go of ridiculous competitiveness. For example, we might stop selfishly hoping for our own friends to fail on tougher routes until we send them ourselves.
Because Beginner Climbing Is Climbing Just For Fun
Climbing is supposed to be fun. When Alex Lowe was told in an interview that he was one of the best all-around climbers in the world, he shook his head and said, “The best climber in the world is the one who’s having the most fun.”
And it’s not like I don’t have fun climbing. I have a lot of fun. I sometimes laugh and smile all day long. But I’m pushing myself, pushing hard. I have a lot of goals, and if I don’t meet my own high expectations, I get disappointed. I feel like I haven’t “performed.” And how weird is that?
It’s as if a day of climbing with my friends is actually a violin recital and there’s some classical music critic in my head asking if I played Tchaikovski’s symphony well enough.
I tend to get caught up in my “what’s next?” mentality as well. If I can trad lead these five middle-grade routes in one day at my local crag, then I should be able to do “Astroman” the week after next.
But what’s after 5.7 if you’re only a 5.7 climber right now and you don’t push it? Oh wait, I know the answer to that: More 5.7. Always. And maybe a few VBs and a sprinkling of 5.6s as well.
To be honest, isn’t Royal Arches one of the best routes in the Valley? And what does that go at?
Never mind that you’ve always avoided Royal Arches because you don’t want it on your 8a.nu scorecard…
Make Up Endurance Challenges
Since you’re not at the gym or crag to “perform,” you can climb without worrying about sending hard routes. But just because you’re climbing without a high-end goal, doesn’t mean you can’t make up challenges for yourself. Easy endurance challenges are great.
Don’t Care What Other People Think And Don’t Get Caught Up
This is difficult for competitive people. Trust me, I know. Although I’m not the strongest climber in the world…or North America…or my own region…or even at my small, local gym (please don’t tell anyone how weak I am), I like to be thought of as a strong climber. I hope people think, “Look how strong he was on that cave route. He made that look easy.” But the truth is, “strong” is a vague and relative term for most of us. Stack me up against a beginning climber and I look pretty strong. But when I hear that Chris Sharma warmed up on two V7s at Bishop, I don’t feel so strong anymore. So why do we worry about comparisons? Why do we hold so tightly to our faulty illusions of greatness?
To climb easy well, that is, to enjoy easy climbing, I have to stop caring about what other people think and how I compare to them. And to do this, I have to turn down local “hard-man” offers. I have to avoid getting caught up.
A local hard-man takes a long drag on his cigarette. Crushes the tip with his calloused fingers. Says, “Pete, I bet you could send this route pretty quick? Wanna jump on it?”
I shake my head and am grateful for what I get to climb this day. I say, “No, I’m doing an easy day on these 5.8s over here.”
Local hard-man, shirtless and tan, stretches his neck one way, then the other. “But don’t you wanna burn down this 5.11+ real quick? I’m sure you could.”
It’s a trap. I have to watch out. I just saw him fail on that route and he doubts I can do it. He wants a failure comparison. He hopes that maybe I won’t make it to his highpoint, so maybe he can say, “Yeah, but Pete looked like crap on it too. It’s pretty sandbagged for 5.11+.”
But I can’t fall for this trap even if I think I can do the route, even if I’ve done the route many, many times before. I can’t get re-injured on something meaningless. So I have to say, “No thanks. But lemme give you a belay if you wanna try it again.”
It’s a dangerous world out there at the crag. Stick to your easy game plan. Stay easy. Stay healthy. Get stronger slowly.
Focus On Form
Quiet feet. Straight arms. Steady pace. Decisive hand-placement. Use every part of your body. Don’t waste your time trying to find the best part of every hold. Push off your feet much more than you pull with your arms. Rotate your hips. Roll your body through each move and keep a steady progression.
In Fall Of The Phantom Lord, Dan Osman talks about putting three-quarters of his body weight on his feet. Think about that as you climb 5.6, 5.7, 5.8. It’s pretty cool to focus on that sort of efficiency and recognize when you’re climbing smoothly, effortlessly, like a trout swimming through an eddy.
Climb With Kids
Some of this essay makes climbing easy sound like a mental challenge or somehow less fun, but that’s not true. Some of the most fun climbing days of my life have been on easy routes. Many, many, short, easy routes. Or long easy routes. So many fun days when the grades didn’t matter at all.
Climbing easy is especially fun with kids because kids climb for pure joy. They swing on overhanging holds. They sing as they climb. They chase lizards to the other side of the boulder. And sometimes they only want to climb barefoot.
So do what they do. Take on their mentality. Sing with them. Run around and explore. Take off your shoes and catch that lizard. Climb with a child’s sense of wonder.
Finally, Renew The Mind
So what’s wrong with VB? What’s wrong with infinite 5.7 pitches? Do I always need a challenge, or have I always been worried about what other people think?
VB is like a beach in Costa Rica, like body surfing warm moderate waves. Don’t worry about how it looks. Don’t be too competitive. Relax. Enjoy the process. Go back to the beginning of your climbing life but with better technique and more gratitude. As Bob Dylan once sang when he was apparently talking about rock climbing, “There’s no one to beat you, no one to defeat you, except the thoughts of yourself feeling bad.”
Peter Brown Hoffmeister is currently climbing easy in the sun, recovering from a car accident.
Rock climbing in the fall in Oregon, on clear, cold, sunny days is about as good as it gets.
The following photos and the Ridgemont Video at the bottom are all filmed by Ben Leroy.
First, check out the color of this fall sky:
Second, here’s the “Third Column Face Variation”:
If you’ve never climbed that crack, you should come do it. Crack climbing doesn’t get a whole lot better than that (I’d stack this one, short pitch against anything I’ve done in Yosemite – and my friend who guides in the Tetons says that he misses The Columns more than anything since he moved to Wyoming).
During my short-term writing residency in Joshua Tree National Park this spring, pro skater and Ridgemont filmer Coop Wilt came up to visit me, climb, and adventure together. He shot this footage and Stacey Lowery edited it.