There may be no “I” in team, but there absolutely is one in “climb.” In fact it’s nestled right there in the center of the word as if to indicate its position at the very core of the discipline. More so than any other athletic pursuit there is a sense of individuality that comes from climbing and it quickly becomes readily apparent that we will either succeed or fail solely on our own merits. There is no team to rely on, no compatriots to share the exuberance of victory or soften the sting of defeat. As a climber if you fail to finish it’s all on you. If you doggedly work a route and finally overcome the obstacle set before you by God or man, the victory is yours alone – not shared and passed around like a trophy that was mutually earned. It is in this simple, foundational truth we find that which makes our sport forever unique.
From the time our feet leave the ground, all the beta we have gathered, the sequencing we pantomimed, even the adrenaline-churning music pumping through our ear buds fades away. In its place the nature of the beast morphs into a continuing series of personal challenges that a climber must address, choose their response to, and overcome. Will the friction hold on the dime chip where you’ve trusted your foot? Did you flag the opposing leg to maintain sufficient balance on a particularly stretchy move? Is the lactic acid building in your arms accumulating at a pace faster than you can disperse it? We process these “will it work?” equations dozens, if not hundreds of times during each ascent – often without realizing that they occur.
As a single piece of broken code can render the most sophisticated piece of software useless, one miscalculation can jettison a climb that heretofore had been executed flawlessly. At the same time by successfully orchestrating the symphony of moves, technique, and mental fortitude, the climber finds himself at the top – a sacred piece of real estate fought and won solely by the efforts of the individual.
Equally important to note is that the glory of victory (for even failure is success deferred) is a renewable resource. There is no less pride due to a novice climber who fights their way to the top of a 5.5 route than for one who clips the anchors atop a 5.15. Rather, it is a sliding scale. As climbers we identify our physical and mental limits, set our sights on something that lies right on the fringe of the “can’t do it” zone, and we go at it. Then we do it again. Once that has been achieved (be it minutes or months later), we level our crosshairs on the next most difficult challenge and start back at square one. Rinse and repeat.
It is this pursuit of individual success that drives us to do what may well terrify us. It places worth on the chalky sweat (and yes, sometimes blood) that we leave on the rock altar as an offering towards future victory. Most of all it is the realization that should be a foundational part of every climber’s ambition: when you succeed it is because you as an individual overcame everything thrown in your path and fought your way to the top. Bonus points if you looked good doing it.