Obsession can be defined as “an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes a person’s mind.” Being someone who is blindly obsessed with this activity of rock climbing, it is hard to remind myself that, while I might be getting ‘better’ at climbing, I am still vulnerable to ‘real’ life. There have been so many moments where I find myself discouraged by the subtle distractions that diminish my ability to perform and execute movement on rock. Things like humidity, injuries, lack of pads, or physical exhaustion, all lead to self-doubt, a lack of concentration, and an overall feeling of incompetency. Why do we let ourselves do that? I’m making a generalization here, but I can say with a certain amount of conviction, that most climbers who take this shit as seriously as I do have felt something like this. And that’s okay. Not only are we allowed to feel weak and defeated, we’re supposed to.
When non-climbers talk about climbing, they use terms like a) gravity b)heights c)courage and d)recklessness. If there was a question asking, “What does climbing mean to you?” and I had to pick between these four, I’d say fuck it and bubble in, e)none of the above. If rock climbing was just about finding rocks and trying really hard to get to the top of them via back muscles and calloused finger tips, I’d be bored. But what keeps me driving 7 hours back to Bishop, what keeps me awake at night, what keeps me restless in the classroom, what keeps me full of focus and fear, is this dark obsession I have with the process that can be most accurately described as: repeated failure followed sporadically by moments of clarity.
By butting our heads up against a pre-established framework and failing repeatedly, whether it be academics, a rhyme scheme, or a boulder problem, we are forced to utilize the more abstract levels of our minds in order to come up with a solution. In a poem, it might mean being forced by a rhyme scheme to use the third or fourth or 18th meaning of a word in order to complete a line, which in turn influences the balance of the entire poem, and could lead you to shocking insights in what you're trying to say. In climbing, it might mean the 'Eureka' moment: "stumbling" upon crazy beta for the project you've been obsessing over for so long that finally makes it possible, or waking up in the middle of the night with the right answer. You don't know why you threw that toe-hook there, and you don't know why it worked, but it did, and now you understand the boulder much better.
What happens when I become so helplessly addicted to this process? It isn’t dark to repeat a pattern of healthy activity, but it is dark when I can’t stop, and there’s a difference there. Until now, I have never really questioned why I can’t stop climbing, or what happens when I do, and where do I draw the line between habit and addiction. The reason I find myself sitting here at this cafe pondering these notions of addiction, obsession, and the ‘darker’ side to climbing, is because of my answer to the following question: If climbing were to evaporate from existence and I could no longer be a ‘climber,’ would I be okay with losing this sort of warped control I have over my life? My answer is, no.
Right now, I am dealing with three semi-serious injuries that are collectively preventing me from rock climbing. I have a broken rib, a fucked up A2 pulley, and a joint that decided it didn’t want to crimp anymore. It’s Tuesday, it’s the one night of the week where I always make it to the climbing gym because both Joe Maier and Itai Axelrad (the strongest kids in SLO and my good friends) can make it. We turn the music up and wreck our bodies on hard movement for hours. And it’s not just the literal act of climbing that keeps me coming back, it’s the feeling of control over my body and my surroundings. I can’t settle into this ‘feeling’ every session, but there are times where I feel like I have the power to manipulate gravity. That is obviously an abstract exaggeration, and I might only be referring to one single shoulder move I did in the cave last week, but if you’re like me and are one of those obsessive-compulsive boulderers who spend weeks trying to understand one move or to climb one project, you know what I mean.
I am sitting here wondering why these Tuesday nights are so important to me. It’s certainly not because two of my good friends and I get together and go free-soloing all the classic ‘easy’ slabs in SLO and enjoy the scenery, it’s because of that sense of power and creativity I feel when I push myself in climbing. I have an appetite for and am addicted to this creative and controlling impulse to ‘progress.’ By that I mean, there has not been a period of time that has lasted longer than a couple of days where my primary focus in climbing was to simply enjoy rock climbing. Whenever I step into the climbing gym, or I walk up to The Buttermilks, or I go to a new area, I immediately look for the climb(s) that should be at my physical limit. I might take my time warming up on all the classic, ‘easy,’ aesthetic lines in the area, but I’m going there to try hard.
I know some very strong climbers who have said out loud, “If I could only climb V5 for the rest of my life, I’d still be psyched!” Part of me wants to call bullshit. However, the other part of me wants more than anything to believe them. This is my ‘dark’ side to climbing. If for some reason, I was unable to physically and mentally ‘push’ myself, or, if I was unable to continually obsess over ‘hard’ movement and unclimbed projects, climbing would be less.
|Alex Biale on Luminance. Photo: Jake Novotny|
For those of you who have been asking, I did not climb Luminance. I had one strong go where I fell because I broke off a foot hold. Then the heat and humidity hit and the problem was unclimbable. Luminance will be in the back of my mind, haunting me, inspiring me, teasing me, and even though I will have to wait till next season to try again, this feeling of being completely obsessed and defined by the process is everything to me.