There’s something magical about failure. It sucks, absolutely, but it is honest.

Within 60 seconds of touching the wall, I was on my back, head against a rock, bleeding. My head was inside a helmet, and it had actually only gently tapped the ground next to the rock. The blood was from a tiny gash in my finger, which would only offer 5 drops total before scabbing. Objectively, I was fine, just shaken. My feet were probably all of 3 feet above the ground when I fell, so the rope was at its longest, and had enough stretch at that length to allow my harness to get all the way to the ground, slightly slower than an unprotected fall. Had I not been swearing, I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear a cartoonish “boing.”

I jumped back up to the rock, knowing that I’d be a complete mess if I thought about it too long after the adrenaline ebbed. “It’s just a hard start,” I told myself, “get to that crack and you’ll be fine, it looked mostly easy above there when Susie did it. Bring your A-game, you need it now at the bottom, you don’t need to save it for up higher.”

I’m used to being semi-athletic and at least semi-mediocre at most things. Even though I’m miles from special, it’s such an improvement over my fat clumsy childhood that I feel like a winner every day. My past experience rock climbing had been: it’s fun to hang out with climbers, but when it’s your time to climb, just muscle and grunt and heave and flail your way up, you’ll get there eventually. Twenty minutes later, I was maybe 15 feet off the ground. It was becoming evident that positive self-talk and a can-do attitude weren’t going to get me up the rock by themselves. Should I smear some more blood from my finger on the rock as a sacrifice to the climbing gods? What I really needed was skill. And strength. Two things one does not develop by merely socially climbing once every few weeks.

“Okay, focus. No more nervous girly chatter. Believe that the things you don’t think you can grip are actually great holds. Listen to Susie’s advice and figure out how to make them happen, nobody wins if you argue. Don’t worry about your pride, awkward progress is way better than poised stagnation. Try new approaches. Try the same thing over again. Try over to the right. Try over to the left.”

Another 15 minutes had passed, and I had made it 5 feet higher. I was about one fifth of the way through the climb. Focus and determination weren’t cutting it either. Anna had already left without climbing, needing to get home. My hands could no longer grip the holds I knew should be solid, my twitching calf muscles were dancing a jig off of the few footholds I could find. What now, give up?

I’d joked about giving up earlier, but actually doing it? That’s a blow to the ego. I don’t like to quit. I once rode an Olympic distance triathlon one-legged because my bike pedal fell out and I couldn’t get it back in. I hadn’t been injured or in danger, so I didn’t quit. I wasn’t in danger or injured now, but… 10 more minutes of struggle with zero progress, and it was very obvious: I just couldn’t do this climb. I finally threw in the towel.

I watched the rock go by as Susie lowered me to the ground, and the trees and view as we hiked out. In failing to reach the top, I finally had an honest assessment of my skills, strength, and abilities that I didn’t get from half-assing my way up easier routes. I knew that I needed to engage my brain to learn technique, I actually needed to WORK to earn my place here. Challenge accepted.

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