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Fear and Failure: Lessons from the Rocklands

Fear and Failure: Lessons from the Rocklands


We were unloading our car when James, one of the owners of Alpha Excelsior, came up looking grim.

    "Stephanie," he said gently, "Your family called. Something happened. It’s an emergency."

    We had just returned from one of those climbing days that make you question the whole thing. You know what I’m talking about: one of those days where the earth may as well have the mass of Jupiter, as far gravity is concerned. A day you know just means you need to take a rest day or two, a day you know doesn’t line up with the way you’ve been climbing on your trip so far and you know will not be indicative of how the rest of the trip will be. You know these things, but it still sucks. It’s true that climbing is fun, and supposed to be fun, but feeling you’re underperforming, even just for a day, is distinctly not.

South African sunset colors after a long day bouldering.

Photo: Jean Michael Auffant

    Steph and I talked about this as we drove from the Campground sector and up over Pakhuys Pass, down into the valley. It’s a beautiful drive: at the top, you can see for miles to the north. It’s an endless land of rocks, and, if you time it right, your view at the top will be complemented by a sunset that stole the colors from a tequila sunrise and amped up the saturation a bit. The view brightened our spirits and took the sting out of the day. We may have felt shitty (read: heavy) climbing, but, hell. We were in the Rocklands, after all, only halfway through our ten-week trip. Life was good.

    We were unloading our car when James, one of the owners of Alpha Excelsior, came up, looking grim.

    Stephanie,” he said gently, “Your family called. Something happened. It’s an emergency.”

    I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on her face when she heard those words. It stayed that way, an indescribable look of fear and shock, as she learned over the phone that her mother had suffered a brain aneurism only a few hours before we became aware that anything was wrong. She wore that look when she went to bed that night in tears. And while she had calmed down, the edges of that look were still there as she glanced back at me, helpless where I stood, before she disappeared through security at Cape Town International the next day on her way home.

    I drove back to the Cederbergs in the dark, alone, scared for Steph and for her mom and for her family, a bit in shock myself. I could not shake the look I had seen on her face, nor could I shake one of the last things she had said to me: “keep climbing. Send. For me.”

    I’ve never written a trip report, but, then again, I’ve never been on a trip quite like this one. Ten weeks in the Rocklands. Long enough for the habits of home to fade into new ones and for driving on the left side of the road to become normal. There are definitely upsides to being a teacher. Looking back now, it was a special trip, and not just because of what happened to Steph’s mom. As such, I’m not going to spend time giving you the beta for where to stay/eat/get wifi (live a little and onsight it… or ask someone else), nor am I going to waste your time describing what I think are the best climbs (we’ve all seen the videos and know the classics – which live up to their status as such – and, besides, we climbers are notoriously and predictably in love with whatever climbs we happen to send, above all else). I want to talk about a few things that maybe don’t get aired out too often, about the times when climbing isn’t important (which, we will see, seems to be exactly the same time when it is most important), about continuing to try hard when you watch people walk your project, and, finally, about when not sending is ok.

    I couldn’t climb the next day. I had wanted to, you know, to get my mind off things, a tactic I had often used. It felt stupid. I felt stupid. Steph’s mom was maybe dying, and here I was, half way around the world, while she was 30000 feet above it, pulling on little rocks in Velcro shoes. Stupid. I called it a day early.

    When I spoke to Steph online that night, after she had landed in SLC where her mom was being kept, I stretched the truth a bit.

    “Yeah, it was good,” I said when she asked if I had gone climbing that day and how it had been. “It was hard, knowing what’s happening, but it felt good to be outside and move around.”

    “Good,” she said. “It does me good to know you’re out there climbing still. God knows I need as much to stay normal in my life as possible right now, and thinking of you climbing makes me feel better.”

    We said good night shortly after, and I thought about what she had said. Climbing, for me, has always been a selfish thing, a thing I did solely for myself. I tried to balance my selfishness out a bit, first by teaching climbing to kids and then by being a teacher, but I could never escape how utterly self-involved I was as a climber. And hadn’t the way I couldn’t climb that day been another expression of that? But now it seemed that, for the first time, someone else was dependent on me climbing, in a way I didn’t fully understand.

    The next day I went out again, swallowing how pointless it seemed and actually did some climbing. I tried a project, took some video. I thought about Steph and climbed so I would have something to tell her that night. It was hard, but what I had told her the night before turned out to be prophetic. It was good to be outdoors and it was good to move on the rock. And, strange as it seemed to me, it felt good to climb while not only thinking of myself.

Carlos working the moves of Tea Garden Roof.

Photo: Stephanie Letourneau

    When I talked to Steph again a few nights later, she told me how happy it had made her to see me climbing in the video I had posted on Instagram. She also told me that she had gone to the gym, and that climbing had made her feel better. She had been spending all day, every day, morning till evening, at the hospital with her mom, talking to her and reminding her of the things she couldn’t seem to remember. In the evenings, she cooked for her Dad and sister. Climbing, Steph said, had felt good because it was hers, something she could do for herself amongst the hours and days she was devoting to her family. Somewhere between this and physicality of it, the tension she had been living in for nearly a week was now lifting.

    So, I was climbing for her, and that was helping me through my helplessness and she was climbing for her, and that was relieving her stress. I don’t have anything deep to say about this – I am still processing it all – but it has struck me since that the paradox of all this seems to sum up climbing. It matters… even though it doesn’t and perhaps precisely because of that.

    Amazingly, Steph’s mom pulled a near miraculously fast recovery, and Steph was able to return to Africa for the last month of the trip we had planned. She came back a new climber. Something about seeing her mom in the hospital, about the tubes and half-shaved head and surgery scars, something about seeing her mom fight for her life had infected her with a new sense of motivation. She sent the climbs she had left behind. She sent her second 7a. She tried harder than I had ever known her to try, and this, in turn, inspired me. I completed my goal of sending 10 7c+ or harder climbs with two weeks left in the trip, ending up with 13 overall, and I simultaneously completed my year/season goal of doing 50 climbs 7c and up. Every day the news from home got better and better – soon, we were getting video messages from her mom, lucid and in stark contrast to the suffering she had visibly been enduring before – and every other day we were going climbing for the love of it, celebrating, it seems to me now, the life of her mom and our own lives as well.

    Soon, we both settled into projects – I cannot imagine more opposite climbs. Both were harder than any climb had previously done, but the similarities end there. Hers was a 23-move power endurance monster that started in a horizontal roof and finished through a 45-degree section into a short, vertical headwall.  Mine was a steep, 2 move wonder, a tricky dead point to a dyno with a shoulder-tearing swing. These two climbs also reflected the ways Steph and I approached climbing. To use the phrases I learned from a friend I met out there, from whom I learned a lot about the mental part of climbing, Steph tended towards the light side of the force while I used the dark side.

    I’ll start with Steph, though I’ll be brief as I don’t presume to speak for her. She had tried her climb early in the trip, playing around on the moves as it was near another climb she had been working. At that time, she could not do the first, and physically most difficult, section. But she loves roofs, and by the end of her first real day working it, with maybe 2 weeks left in our trip, she figured out the moves in the roof. It took maybe 5 or 6 sessions, but eventually she had done all the moves, had it in two majorly overlapping parts, and I was regularly spotting her on the last section of the climb. On one of her best goes, she fell on the last tough move. This itself deserves mention, as the landing is intimidating and letting go of her fear was a personal crux for Steph. If you want to know more about her process on this climb, you’ll have to ask her. Suffice to say that watching her work through her doubt, fear, and overwhelm on this line was one of the best parts of the trip for me

Steph in project mode, Warpaint and all, on Un Petit Hueco.

Photo: Carlos Tkacz

    At the same time, I was working through my own doubts. The 1st move of my project was the crux, and, over the course of 7-8 sessions, I tried that move hundreds of times – literally – and never once stuck it. Never once. I got closer and closer, but it didn’t happen. It reminded of that math paradox someone told me about when I was in jr. high: say you are standing in front of a wall, and you move forward, cutting your distance from the wall in half. Then, you halve your distance again. And again. No matter how many times you move forward by half the distance you’re standing at, you will never touch the wall.

    While I grappled with this feeling of mathematical paradoxism, I watched people send the climb, sometimes in a couple of goes. I carried on. I tend towards short, intense climbs and had been in this position before. In the past, I allowed my frustration to channel into aggression and thugged my way through. This didn’t work here. The harder I tried on the move, it seemed, the farther I was from sticking it.

    I had moments where I wanted to quit, where I wanted to decry the feet as too scrunchy or the conditions as too hot or utilize any of the other thousand things we as climbers tell ourselves to take the sting out of failure – all of them true some of the time but never when we mentally want them to be the most – but I couldn’t. I cared, it mattered, the line was beautiful, the movement engaging, and, as I watched Steph throw herself into her project, I followed suit.

    The breakthrough came through on our second to last climbing day – I stuck the move. I bundled the match, which set you up for the jump, and I didn’t stick it again that day, but I stuck it! For one glorious moment, the hundreds of failed attempts ceased to matter, and I found myself, for once, not on my ass on the pads.

    My subsequent attempts did not go so well, but I was tired, I had tasted glory, and I had one more day to send before we left for the States.

Carlos coming close on the classic and beautiful Shosoloza.

Photo: Stephanie Letourneau

    I won’t drag this on; neither Steph nor I sent on our last day. It took maybe 20 more tries to repeat my success from the previous day on the first move. Then I stuck it six times in a row, and it began to feel, not easy, but fluid. I managed the match every time, but the jump move, a move that I could do every time in isolation without too much fuss… well, I never did it from the beginning.

    The walk back to the car was a hard one for us both. My skin hurt, my muscles were tired, and I reflected on the previous 10 weeks of climbing, especially on the last week. Disappointment flared in my ego, and I considered going back to the climb in the morning. We did not need to leave the Cederbergs until noon, and we didn’t really have all that much to do. I could get up early… and I thought about all the efforts I had put into all the climbs I had sent and on the ones I hadn’t. I thought about how I had never so continuously tried to push myself so hard, and how my mind had struggled, at times, to stay motivated. Then I thought about the mornings I had spent reading, the evenings Steph and I had spent talking and playing cards. I thought about home, and realized that, in ten weeks, the Rocklands had become a home to us, and how I would miss the place as much as I would miss another chance to send. I hit on it then – climbing mattered, this I had already reaffirmed for myself, and, though we hadn’t sent, we had climbed a ton, we had given our all, we had learned, and we were leaving exhausted in every way. That mattered more than sending.

    So, I didn’t go back in the next day. Instead, I enjoyed the morning, having coffee and breakfast with Steph, and took my time saying goodbye to all the wonderful people we had met. I took the time to soak in the place one last time and to remind myself that a place is more than the chalk-covered rocks I try and climb. I also thought about home, California, and how thankful I am that I get to continue the effort in the Eastern Sierras. There are ore projects, more battles to fight, more efforts to dedicate, and I know I’ll be approaching the season a batter climber for my time in the Rocklands. I also know that the process of improving my climbing will continue to bleed into the rest of my life, making me a better person at the same time.

    Besides, I’ll be back to Africa next year, and I’ll send it then.

Carlos and Steph selfie it up at the waterfall near the Alpha Farm.

Written by Carlos Tkacz. 

When not traveling, Stephanie and Carlos live the van life in Bishop, California, where you can find them either in the classroom or on the rocks. Carlos has been climbing for nearly ten years and hopes to keep pushing himself mentally and physically for many more, until he either achieves enlightenment or dies trying, both of which seem much the same to him.

Check out Carlos' new blog "Boulder Bushido"


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