This story is dedicated to anyone who has the experience of getting stopped, getting shut down by the voices of “you should . . .” whispering in their minds, and by believing they must ‘eat the whole elephant’ all at once.
BACKSTORY: I’ve been rock climbing now for just over 20 years. I pride myself on the fact that although I have little natural talent, and don’t climb very hard grades, I keep showing up and do have some decent leads under my belt, plus quite a breadth of experience.
One of my constant companions is Fear and its pal, Self-Judgement. Those two rascals have worked together in very interesting ways to keep my reality in this one area of my life relatively small, even as I grow and expand in amazing ways in other areas of my life. Climbing is one place where I have been psychologically the most stuck. Until this summer.
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This summer, my husband Chris invited me to join him in Southern France, where he was photographing and interviewing two climbers for a book that will be published this coming spring. We had a lovely couple of weeks in Provence before meeting Adam Ondra in Briançon, in the French Alps, where he was competing on the climbing World Cup circuit. [Go ahead and Google “Adam Ondra” — you’ll get a better feel for just how incredible this 22-year-old Czechoslovakian Wünderkind athlete really is on rock . . . better than I could describe here. Note he's been climbing since he was 3 years old.]
So, I’m tagging along on the first day shooting, which was a few days before the comp in Briançon. We are in the impressive National Parc des Écrins, at a small, hidden and rather overhanging area of shaded rock, just down the hill from the main parking, and across the river. Adam, his darling girlfriend Iva (pronounced “Eva”), Chris, and I walked into the climbing area where about ten or so very serious European climbers were hanging out, working on the very difficult routes. The Euros were cool, but definitely recognized Adam; the kid who had won the World Cup the year before in both roped climbing and bouldering (first time that had ever been done), and who had made big news in the climbing world when he successfully climbed the hardest sport climbing route in the world (5.15c) in March of 2013 (when he was 20 years old).
Adam was completely himself, open and humble, slowly putting on his harness, chatting with Iva, interacting as a few guys came up to him to say 'hi.' Then he walked up to some climb that several parties had been working on, falling, hanging on, trying again — and floated up it. A master at work.
After Chris got rigged to take photos from the top of the crag, about 50 feet above, Adam got on a bit harder climb for Chris to shoot. Adam climbed the route three times, each time falling at the crux. Each time he was somewhat upset after he fell, but it dissolved after a few minutes as he rested for the next attempt. After three tries, it was enough.
There was an even more difficult climb just to the right that Adam had expressed interest in trying when we first arrived. After his three tries on the first, Chris asked Adam if he was going to try the harder climb that day. And when Adam replied, that is the moment he changed my life.
“No,” he said. “I don’t want to try something too difficult, something I would probably fail on. I must keep my confidence high before a competition.”
* * * *
That didn’t change your life, I know. But allow me to explain. Here was this 22-year-old boy/man, a wildly gifted athlete who climbs at a level that didn’t even exist when I began climbing. In that moment, what I heard was a person who is also a master of his own choices, who knows how to set himself up for success. I heard, even in the tone of his voice, that he did not act prompted by any ‘shoulds’ coming from outside of his own knowing. He had internalized and sorted pertinent outside information (both from his long years of training and practice, and from what was happening in the moment) and was gently clear on what HE needed right then to take care of himself, with a greater goal in mind. Even the best climber in the world faces climbs that, without careful practice, are too difficult.
I had conceptually understood all of these ideas before, even speaking about it myself to others. But it clicked at some deep level with the utterance of two sentences from this young man’s mouth.
* * *
Returning back home, the implications of Adam’s words that day (as well as how he carried himself and all the wise things he said in his interview) sank in further. I realized, not only in my brain, but somehow also in my body, that I could choose 100% for myself what I wanted to climb and how I wanted to climb it. I changed my approach.
Instead of passively following the routes that Chris would lead, I chose to warm up on really, really easy things — to warm my mind up. I banned the voices that said I really should be able to walk up to a climb and do it from the ground up without hanging on the quick draw. That I really should be a better climber by now. That I am probably the worst climber at the crag. That if I was able do that climb, it was probably easy for its grade. Fear and Self-Judgement got smaller in the spaciousness of my own choosing.
I found I was able to build my confidence bit by bit, and so feel like I genuinely wanted to try something a bit harder. Then I allowed myself to break down and practice that harder climb, bit by bit, learning it the way I used to learn a piano concerto.
We are all changing each other’s lives all the time. I give gratitude to young Adam for speaking the right words just at the right time, to open up a new world of possibility for me; a world of less “shoulds,” and no whole elephants.