Words by Jonathan Siegrist. Photos by Cameron Maier.
What is it exactly about climbing that elicits such powerful emotion? Anyone who has tried hard, regardless of the grade or objective, has felt the shattering disappointment of failure. And likewise, most have experienced the weightlessness and joy of success. Over the years I’ve noticed a very clear association between suffering and joy – the maddening and also brilliant contrast of our pursuit. The more you suffer for it, the better it feels.
I would never pretend that my process of climbing Pachamama was anything like Harding climbing the Nose or Messner on Everest, but this route turned my attention inward like nothing before. In the end it was not so much my body that led me to success, but my mind. Ease of mind to be exact.
I first tried Pachamama 5.15a/b in late 2016. I knew immediately that it was a level above any route I had ever done. It took me days of lengthy sessions to unpack all of the information on the route. My sequences needed to be perfect to ever imagine passage. Some individual moves still gave me trouble weeks later – which can be quite troubling on a 50 meter route. After a month I was narrowing in on success but I collided with one unexpected battle after the next. Erratic and poor weather, torn and ruined skin, utter exhaustion emotionally.
This was not my first round of failure in 2016. In fact my entire fall was characterized by projects that, despite full effort and near misses, didn’t quite come together in the end. I put a lot of stock emotionally into my trip to Oliana. This would be my chance to redeem myself from the fall, and to prove to myself once again that hard work really does pay off. I trained like hell as usual, I arrived determined, but also wound up.
The route slowly beat me down. Any enthusiasm that I arrived with gradually faded, even as my progress continued. I was so incredibly close to a win that I extended my ticket, twice. Just when I felt I had met the end of the road emotionally I would climb one move higher. Like chasing a jaguar that slows down to accommodate your pace, forever keeping you just an arms length away. In my final week it snowed and soaked the crag. In many ways I welcomed a justification to officially throw in the towel.
My strength (and perhaps my weakness) as an athlete is my orientation towards goals – I obsess over them. When I accept a challenge I do not do it lightly because I know that my stubbornness will drive me to do whatever it takes to succeed. At times this makes it brutally difficult to let go – to let go of persistence, to let go of stress and pump the brakes on determination in the name of happiness.
Often times, the very lesson I need simply forces itself on me in the most powerful and ego-crushing way. I left Spain almost two months later ready to truly let go. I knew I needed some time. I knew I had reached a breaking point. Both with this specific route but furthermore with my climbing in general.
So I left. I reflected on the process, I felt the feelings, I looked ahead and I remembered the past. I could sense that my mind and my ego were holding me back. I did what so many wise people seeking answers would do, I went to Las Vegas.
I went climbing the sun with friends and dogs and I laughed often. I met a beautiful girl. I rested. I had dessert and I drank beers and I just went with it. My six week ‘Return to Spain’ training plans dissolved and I just climbed. I had so much fun.
When I did finally return to Spain just two weeks ago now, I felt a lightness of being that I have never felt at the beginning of a climbing trip with such huge aspirations. Of course I would try the route again but I had already acknowledged to myself that I would not let this process take me down the rabbit hole again. Even if it meant I left empty handed.
It seems a universal truth that only when you let go of something is when you are allowed the pure moment and opportunity to finally have it. I’ve experienced this lesson on a smaller scale but this route showed me the long, poignant, heart-opening version. I did Pachamama only a few days after I returned to Spain; it’s my hardest route to date. And just as I expected, my experience rang true – the more you suffer for it, the better it feels.
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