The Belief of Possibility
This stems from an observation I’ve been gradually building from rock climbing. I’m really getting into this sport, and from my first experiences to my most recent progress one primary theme keeps standing out to me: to break new ground, you must first believe that the ground can be broken. The rest is just follow-through.
My first and only outdoor climbing experience was what really blossomed my fascination with climbing. Two incredibly patient and generous veteran climbers offered another newcomer and me a ride into Connecticut or some other cold New Eastern place while I was at Harvard. We did several routes, and I’m fairly certain that I exhausted the bulk of my physical reserves by the time I was halfway up my first ascent.
But the veteran climbers kept encouraging us to continue and coached us patiently, and I’ll remain forever grateful that they did. The final ascent is the one I remember to this day. It was an dauntingly high route, up two separate rock faces in a corner and like nothing I had ever seen before.
According to one of the real climbers, this was a remarkably simple route - it involved stemming, or placing your feet directly on the two opposing walls. The friction is remarkably strong even on the sheer rock walls without any footholds and is enough to allow for a climb up. The real climber went up first with no trouble at all and thoroughly demonstrated how simple the ascent was.
Then it was my turn, and I found it incredibly difficult to wrap my mind around the notion that it was feasible, let alone simple and effortless to just place my feet on two sheer rock faces and expect that to hold me up. As a consequence, that route was particularly difficult for me and all I really remember about the actual specifics of the climb was how abjectly terrified I was (my fear of heights didn’t help much).
But gradually, as I returned to the bouldering wall at Harvard, I began to see how it was possible to ascend routes that I had never been able to even fathom climbing before. In fact, they became simple. Now, stemming is one of the techniques I enjoy most in climbing, and not only is it effortless but I actively seek out positions in which I’m allowed the opportunity to stem.
This modest beginning set the central theme for my entire experience with climbing. When I first encountered the rock wall at Lifetime, there was an imposing crack route with a grade of 5.9 that I had no idea how to tackle. After reading on basic techniques online, I stumbled upon the Gaston, which involves pulling both hands to the side when inserted into the crack, like pulling open a closed elevator door. As it turns out, it may not actually be the best technique for climbing cracks, but it definitely worked and I ascended the route on my very next visit to the gym. This consequently became my favorite route.
Further revelations of the same kind followed as I continued climbing. Up to this point I had only ever engaged in static climbing, and there were several routes around the 5.10 grade that I just couldn’t seem to climb simply because I couldn’t reach the holds. It was around here that I began to learn about the dyno, which involves essentially leaping to the next hold and grabbing on to it. This seemed like an extraordinarily difficult and error prone move to me at the time, but I decided ultimately to take it in stride and test it out.
I tried it several times on an autobelay route, dynoing with both hands to two holds well above my present height, and after several tries I had a number of definite successes. The key, it turns out, is to not overshoot the holds - the closer the jump is in height to the exact level of the holds, the better, as you don’t have to counter the force of gravity when you grab on to the hold then, and it’s no more difficult than merely grabbing a hold statically.
This revelation suddenly made several routes that were previously impossible trivial, and now dynoing comes very naturally to me. And hence this is right around when I began to notice that the common theme I was seeing in climbing was that there was a marked progression from the perspective of something being impossible to it being trivial, and it amounted essentially to becoming aware of a certain technique, and then believing that that technique was possible and that attainment of it was in reach.
When I see newcomers climbing, it strikes me how utterly difficult some routes that I now find incredibly simple are to them. And then I remember how hard those routes were me as well at one time. And it’s not because I’m more physically fit now than I was before (though I definitely am), but simply because climbing is all about technique, and so much of that technique is subtle and very prone to never being discovered.
And here’s the central point of this little story. Without the belief that a route is possible, there exists no further incentive to think creatively about potential solutions and try new approaches. And so, if a route seems impossible, it will be impossible. And often these routes that seem impossible are entirely within reach - the fascinating thing is many of them seem physically too hard, as in the holds are just too difficult to grab and require too much arm strength, but the truth is in fact the technique for grabbing them is incorrect, or the sequence of holds is off entirely. And so these impossible routes are often capable of being ascended with only guidance in the right course of action and no further training. We were blind, and now we see.
Shortly after my discovery of dynoing I became aware of another fascinating innovation in climbing - angling. Apparently, the angle at which you climb and grab certain holds is of immense importance and makes a tremendous difference in the difficulty of that particular hold. Previously, I had been climbing every single route pretty much straight up with zero angle. It’s painful to think about right now, actually. This has been a fairly recent discovery, and so it’s still quite novel and exciting to me and I’ve taken to climbing many of my old routes from entirely different angles with primary reliance on the angle to help my handholds now.
Another prime example is heel hooking, though I’ve still failed to properly utilize this technique for great good. Apparently you can hook your heel in a hold and lift yourself up that way. It seems a bit hard to me yet but I’m confident I’ll get a hold of the technique eventually and then it’ll be just as trivial as everything else.
And that brings us up to the present, where I’ve been working on a fantastic little V3 bouldering route problem. I mentioned a few months ago to one of my good Harvard buddies, Brandon, that I had been taking up rock climbing and was pretty proud about almost being able to do a 5.10, and he casually replied that he was able to do V2 bouldering routes and a buddy of his was able to do V4 routes. After a quick reference to a conversion guide, I was mortified. V2 is apparently equivalent to 5.11a and V4 is a staggering 5.11c/d/5.12a.
Immediately I realized I had set my sights far too low and that truly, progress in climbing is determined by what you believe is possible. I had been comfortable with making it up a 5.11 by the end of the year, but now I definitely want 5.12a at the least. 5.13 would be wonderful.
In any case, this set me on the V3 as soon as I saw it (interesting thing - I had never even noticed it before, despite frequenting the climbing wall 3 times a week for half a year), and at first it was simply another case of incredulity and the route seeming eons away from my ascending it.
I soon realized, after learning about angling, that the route demanded to be climbed at a certain beginning angle. Once I got that right and figured out the appropriate hand holds, the first move became markedly more simple and easily accomplishable. The second move soon followed, and a dyno accomplished the third remarkably simply. The third move still looks rather improbable to me, and if I had shown myself the move when I had first started climbing I would be duly impressed with myself.
That’s the thing about climbing - it constantly challenges my beliefs about what is possible. All these holds look ridiculously impressive and dangerously fragile, but in reality many of them are incredibly stable, even if it’s the smallest 2cm contact between a toe and a crack in a wall. And the smallest handhold with three fingers can even be possible at the right angle and with the right hold.
I’m still working my way through the V3 problem, but I’m fairly certain I just made a new revelation about the next move and am quite excited to try it out on my next visit. I’ve progressed, through no great accomplishment but experimentation, from viewing this V3 route as impossible to now highly probable. Soon.