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Seeking the right route

A little over a month ago, my friend Katie and I were in the midst of a gally rally, running around the North Cascades in her VW Synchro, dreaming and scheming and enjoying a little retreat from Big City life. In between climbing and jumping into an icy-cold river, and fixing a flat tire on the side of a mountain, I asked her a pointed question:

“When was the last time you woke up in the morning and said to yourself, honestly and without prefacing, what do I want?”

storm clouds ncnp
The North Cascades’ thought-provoking grandeur.

We were talking about the struggle of juxtaposing the path to achieving our dreams with the trajectories of the relationships, expectations, and responsibilities we have as human beings in the communities we claim and are claimed by. I had asked myself this very question when I moved back to the US from Afghanistan, during my quest to figure out a new career. Looking back, it was a fruitful thought experiment. I’m nearly done with this BSN program and ready to launch back into the world in a way that finally promises to engage what I want both personally and professionally. There is a balance now that I lacked before. I lacked it because I didn’t know how to find it until I asked myself that question.Dehgulmoveinday_rhmroqIt turns out, though, that we have to keep asking the question as we move forward through life—if we wish to keep progressing, we need to keep honing in on the details, even as the bigger picture gets narrowed.

This became clear to me several weeks ago, when the same guidance I tried to offer Katie was reflected back to me via my friend Sam. We were resting on the floor of the climbing gym, packing up for the night while I told him of my interest in training harder, more focused. He asked me, pointedly: “Ok. But have you decided what it is exactly that you want to get better at? What place are you training to climb for? What is your goal route? What type of climbing do you want most?”

I was a little lost for words because, well, I want to be able to climb everything, right?! I want to be better. Stronger, lighter, and less fearful. Strong enough to finish a 5.13 clean. Cool-headed enough to lead 5.11 outside. Coordinated enough to stick dynos. Skilled enough with my rope management to climb all the multipitch routes I salivate over. Knowledgeable enough to tackle a long alpine day. TRAD. So much trad. All. The. Trad.

Does that sound focused? I saw Sam’s point.

moonlight rib
My first nighttime climb, on a very spunky Fourth of July in the Needles, SD.

Since I began climbing 7 years ago, I’ve mainly focused on just…climbing. Having fun, getting myself up progressively harder routes, venturing to a handful of out-of-state crags, and enjoying my growing connections throughout the climbing community without really thinking about making a goal-focused tick list and orienting a real training program around short- and long-term projects. And that was fine. I wasn’t in a place during the past 7 years to give more focused attention to my identity and goals as a climber. At least half the time, I was in the middle of moving out of the country, or back in, and trying to do damage control on my bank accounts and personal relationships. Climbing completely hooked me from the beginning, but more of my energy was needed in simply figuring out who the hell I was as a human being, where I was going, where I had been and needed to avoid further, and what exactly I wanted from the bigger picture. For myself, and for no one else.

Climbing was an outlet, a refuge, during that period. I had needed it to be uncomplicated, undemanding. Something I could pour into physically to achieve mental quiet. Now that I’m a little more put together in the rest of my life (ha!), I’m able to let my passion for climbing expand into something that I quite literally plan a great deal of my life around—including my career. I’ve been able to move beyond flailing and blindly “going-for-it”, and now have the space to pour myself mentally into more calculated, smart, aesthetic climbing.

catinthehat
Michael Pang photo

Since that evening at the gym, I’ve been giving much thought to this important question. I’m sure many of you can relate, as climbers or not, that it’s sometimes easy to confuse admiration and respect for our mentors with aspirations to be like them and do what they do. At least for me, I have for a long time thought that my overall climbing goal needed to be getting stronger so I could climb harder, pumpier, more aggressive and overhung and scary sport routes. Or to be able to boulder hard, overhung, dynamic problems. Why? Partially because it’s fun, and physically, I’m a fairly strong woman, and I’m competitive with myself.

But more so, I’ve come to realize, it’s probably because this is what the majority of my climbing mentors do—at least, speaking of the ones I’m in closest proximity to. I am consistently awed by their abilities and in many ways, I work to emulate them. So when I hear Erin talking about wanting to send China Man, or Tyler talking about his 5.12d project, or Sam working on healing his injured finger so he can climb 5.13 again (all of these routes being hard sport), it’s hard for me to not feel like I should want those accomplishments too.vantagesillyThis is the problem with being competitive and hungry for The Top. An ethic that was instilled in me by my dad, The Top is something that I frequently fight with internally. Even though my dad meant it as a pathway to financial security and freedom, it spills over into everything I do. It’s a double-edged sword. Inherently, it is Ego-based, which I dislike. I try to avoid operating in ways that cultivate and feed Ego, because it is never fully satisfied and as such, decisions rooted in the Ego tend to lead us off our true paths. Yet, I will readily acknowledge that this drive to be one of the best at whatever I do has gotten me to a lot of places in the world—geographically and professionally—experiences that would not have happened if I’d settled for giving less than my all.

But it has also caused me to lose my way, and my self, more than once. So, as a climber I think I have for a long time been rejecting this need for pinnacle success. (It’s just climbing, for god’s sake. No one really cares! I just want to have fun!) 

What I’ve learned is to take my dad’s wisdom (find out what it takes to be at the height of your field/interest and how to get there), and pair it with heart instead of Ego. When you live from the heart, you are following your true path. You can still have goals, and still have strategies for reaching them, but when they are rooted in your truth then the work of the journey will be enriching instead of potentially destructive. So, I’m training as a climber. And in order to make my training and my quest for improvement actually mean anything, I’ve been trying to figure out what I really want out of climbing right now, instead of what I’ve perhaps mislead myself to think I want. Then one day—in the shower, of course—I finally admitted to myself: I don’t love steep, overhung, pumpy climbing. I might be strong enough to do it and capable of leading more of it if I work on my head game, but I just don’t love it, and that’s okay.

What I do love are balance-y, technical, long routes. I love figuring out rope management (even if I currently suck at it) and all the logistics that go with multiple pitches. I love the problem solving and self-sufficiency and fluid movement involved in climbing cracks, even if I’m a total newb at them. Call me crazy, but I’m actually enticed by the idea of fighting horrible offwidths. I love getting way up high in an alpine setting, and I even love the long, bushwhacking approaches that it takes to get there. Something in me likes a good, all-around, quad-whomping sufferfest because, well, I know I have the endurance and lung capacity and ferocity to burn through several thousand feet of elevation and still be able to climb—and this means there will be fewer people to compete with for a route. And I can eat a lot when I’m done.outerspaceledgebrokensummit

Katie Wright photo

I know what you’re thinking. That still doesn’t sound very focused, Mackenzie.

No. No, it doesn’t, because it’s a process I’m just diving into, so damnit, give me some time. None of this is to say that I’m no longer pushing myself on hard, steep sport routes, or that I won’t jump at the chance to climb outdoors, pretty much anywhere, with someone who’s equally stoked. I still want to send that 5.12a kneebar route in the gym. I want to get back on the teeny knobs at Smith, and the fully-committed stem challenge of the Lower Gorge’s Pure Palm, even if it scared the shit out of me.

The important thing is that this lesson I’ve been learning to apply in the other areas of my life—that of giving oneself the space and freedom to unapologetically admit what one does and does not want—has worked its way into my climbing life, and I love that. It feels like a relief to have been asked this question. I hadn’t realized that I needed to ask myself whether my route goals were truly mine, or whether I’d passively absorbed them from the friends I climb with.

No matter how much they inspire me, my drive to climb isn’t going to be pure and fully mine if it’s not coming from my own heart. Having realized this, I now feel more grounded in my progression as a climber. I have an ever-growing sense of where to steer myself, and feel more capable of being present and self-reflexive as I train harder and smarter.

As in climbing, in life.


“Why ? Why, why, why do I do this ???”    — Chuck Pratt.

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