End-of-year lists are so clichéd that making fun of end-of-year lists is, at this point, equally so. I suppose there is something reassuring to us about distilling an entire year of ephemeral experiences, however unrelated, remote, and insignificant they may or may not be, into a succinct and far less complicated list of items, preferably that fit onto a single typed page (or a computer screen so folks don’t have to scroll down). It’s even better when, like those on the tablet God gave to Moses, they happen to fall into an erosion-resistant number, like three, ten, or one hundred.
The climbing world is inundated with similar distillations, from personal posts of “What I Did This Year” to the headline piece on the January 1 Rock and Ice email blast. In the non-climbing media, end-of-year lists contain a variety of significant events, from things people did (say, an NSA contractor leaking a bunch of secret files) to things that just happened (like a 1000-year rain storm). Climbing’s lists, on the other hand, almost entirely focus on accomplishment. They’re all about what someone did. Sure, many of these successes are worth celebrating, but for every success, there are many more failures. For every dream climb or trip we do, there are many more that we don’t. So that’s what my list is about, a celebration of failures, of the things that didn’t happen in 2013.
Thus, in the great tradition of end-of-year lists, I would like to submit mine:
The Top Ten Things I Didn’t Do in 2013
10. The Arete Project at Nathaniel’ Boulders. Little rocks don’t compel me that much. I’m not slamming bouldering here, but it’s hard for me to care enough to try as hard as many of these little gymnastic challenges require. Still, falling off the last enormous dyno at the top of this arête over a dozen times turned this little chunk of rock into a big obsession. I never stuck it from the sit start, and there it remains, in obsession.
9. Onsight Burden of Immortality at Tensleep. I’ll preface this one with noting that making excuses about failed onsights invites scoff. Still, I’m going with it. This failed attempt represented the culmination of a string of failed onsight attempts over four days up there this past August. It happened the same way each time: climb up into what I thought was the crux, confidently stuff two of my fat fingers irreversibly into a pocket, pull up, then quickly realize I had exactly the wrong hand in the pocket. Here’s to second try.
8. Ice climbing. I got a pair of ice tools last winter, just before I hurt by arm, so they hung in my garage unused. While I don’t have some grand idea of even becoming slightly good at ice climbing, it seemed like a good way to give my tendons a break from grabbing tiny holds. Still, I never made it out. It’s so easy to find other things to do than go into the cold, slam your fingers against an even colder surface, hang off a face that could collapse at any moment, all while doing something you are certifiably incompetent at. I guess winter has just begun, so maybe I’ll get a chance.
7. Climb in Turkey, China, southern France, Italy, Australia. Sure there are tons of places around the world that have spectacular climbing, but these are the ones, potentially for very arbitrary reasons (like particularly pretty pictures in a magazine article years ago or something), that are on my list. And I didn’t go to any of these this year.
6. Redpoint a certain somewhat secret project at a not-so secret area in the South. Yes, I’m being vague, but years ago I tried an unclimbed line that was everything I love about climbing: hard, scary, and beautiful. It is a plum line up the biggest, proudest section of the wall. And there it waits. Living out West, it’s hard to justify such a long commute for one pitch. Trust me, this one is worth at least one more visit.
5. Surfing. Though I did manage to ride one proper wave this year, I’m still about a 5.5 surfer. I say surfing is at least as cool as rock climbing and probably much more so, especially to the rest of the world (the movie Blue Crush being strong evidence; imagine the same premise but with climbers – not that cool). At this point, I’m not about to move to the beach nor trade a trip to Yosemite for one to Baja. Still, surfing gets at something transcendent in the same way that climbing does. You try hard, deal with fatigue and fear, and every once in a while, your brain shuts up, your body and soul work together, and you get a breath of perfection.
4. Climb Fitzroy. I didn’t even make it to Patagonia, which would have been the whole point of ice climbing in the first place. I’d written this place off years ago, saying, “I can’t travel that far to sit in a tent and watch it rain.” For several reasons (a new, beautiful guidebook, primarily), I’ve changed my tune. Fitzroy is a massive chunk of some of the most aesthetic rock in the universe. Added to the bucket list.
3. Climb for the first eleven weeks of the year. I got biceps surgery on January 4. By April, I was back to climbing and even able to climb kind of hard, too. But there was a big chunk of time that I didn’t climb at all. There were also a few weeks over the summer when I was backpacking and didn’t climb. Then there was the week at the beach (see #5). Oh yeah, and there were the two weeks in November when I got pneumonia. In total, I spent about fifteen weeks away from climbing this year. Without climbing, I had a lot more free time, which (once I exhausted my Netflix “Watch Instantly” allowance) gave me the opportunity to explore some other really great ways to spend a day. I also learned a bit about how not to be a climber, how to find satisfaction, physical challenge, adventure, among other things, without climbing.
2. Free climb the West Face of the Leaning Tower. But man, was I close. I freed the hardest pitches, but a fall on each of the last two pitches (trying to onsight them) cost the true send. After pulling on about eighty bolts up a blank wall just to get to the free climbing, it became a bit easier to excuse myself from a “perfect” ascent. Quibbles aside, the West Face was a big deal for me; it was on my list (my lifetime list, not my end-of-year list). Having to reckon with the fact that perfection was more work than I was willing to give wasn’t easy, but the experience eventually settled into something I could stomach. Now, it is an accomplishment, with an asterisk.
1. Try Realization. Nor will I probably ever. I’m not ashamed to freely admit that it’s out of my league. Anyone who watched climbing videos in the early 2000s can remember the original Dosage. The indelible footage of Sharma’s attempts and eventual redpoint of the climb came closer to true climbing porn that anything before, with visceral details of the difficulty of the climb and a candid look at what it took for him to climb it.
So why would a climb that I’ll never even try be on my list (and why, of all the climbs that I’ll never try, this one)? There are climbs that capture climbers’ imaginations, and Realization was the one that captured mine. Realization is a gift because it stands as evidence that there is no ceiling to the challenge that climbing can offer.
That’s what this list is about. Of course, we should celebrate our accomplishments. I certainly do, usually with chocolate chip cookies. But what if I didn’t have a list of failures? What if I earned myself a Golden Piton for being awesome and managed to do it all. I often philosophize about the lessons climbing teaches us about life, usually with a bit of an eye roll from my wife. But I think this one is useful. We get more out of our struggles, our bumps into weakness and limitation – our failures – than we do from our successes. Besides, if climbing were easy, we’d call it “golf.”