“What if He Had Fallen?” Yeah. But He Didn’t.

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A few weeks back, as the Grouse Grind was opening for the season, I mentioned to someone that maybe I’d do it again this year. It had been awhile. I was feeling fit. A few days later, when she checked up to see if I’d gone, I said, “No!” With a laugh, like, “of course not. I fucking HATE the Grouse Grind.” Twice in my life I’ve done it. Each time it was freaking miserable. No plans to do it again.

She, on a working visa from Australia, had been thinking of trying it. Knock yourself out, I told her – I won’t be going with you.

Near the top of the Grouse Grind, the trail gets very narrow and steep. By that time, you’ve hiked up a natural step system, dodging first-timers and daily grinders alike. Near the top, it’s wet. If you’re tired, you can’t exactly step to the side. You just have to keep going and hope you don’t slip. It freaking sucks.

Neither time I did the Grind did I slip, tumble or fall. But my body has experienced a lot of falls, and the scars are still in my tissues, my bones and my psyche.

On Saturday, at the bouldering gym, I decided to make a list of those falls. The little kids were there – it was a birthday party, and the last thing I wanted was to struggle with a problem while a bunch of toddlers and pre-teens either darted haphazardly across the mats or floated up the walls like they were staircases. I hid out in the lounge upstairs, searching back in my memory.

  1. Age 11 (or thereabouts). Back toe caught running hurdles, dislocated kneecap and torn ligaments.
  2. Age 8 (or therabouts). Tumbled on a crazy carpet down an icy hill at my elementary school, broken collar bone.

There are four others, with sketchy details due to young age and the passing of time. Maybe these were normal falls, that kids of my generation (I’m in my 40s now) simply experienced as a matter of course. You fall, you get back up, you go on. But they were not insignificant. And my body has never been the same, because your body repairs itself as best it can — but after something breaks, something tears, it’s never exactly what it once was.

I decided to list my falls because, since I’ve started gym bouldering, I’ve become more and more interested in the psychological aspects of climbing. This is me, trying to bring in-depth psychological perspective to something I’ve only ever done in a gym, at relatively low heights, but nonetheless awakens previously unused brain transmitters that can make you feel euphoric and/or teetering on the edge of paralyzing fear.

In my Fundamentals class last Thursday, we were perched, one at a time, midway on the wall where there’s an arete (“edge” in real world speak). Our instructor was teaching us heel hooks by having us maneuver in a specific sequence using a few specific holds.

“Wait, what? What do you want me to do?”

I hung out at the top, feeling nice and stable with two solid footholds and one comfy handhold, my other hand feeling around the corner trying to figure out where I was going. Eventually I shuffled my foot around into the hook, scrunched up in a weird position, and I hesitated before following the shouted instructions coming at me from below.

“I feel like I’m going to fall.”

“Fall how?”

“Off the fucking wall.”

I didn’t, of course. When I got down, I blurted out that I’d fallen during the Introduction to Bouldering workshop a few months ago, and probably had a subsequent head block.

“That shit’s normal,” he said, meaning the fear, the mental blocks. Later that night, after I started to downclimb after cleanly making my way almost to the top of an easy problem but stopping a few holds short of the top, he told me a story about getting a mental block bouldering in Squamish. He went away, thought about it, trained more, came back and sent the problem.

(Squamish, of course, is always the goal for these particular teachers. “When you get to Squamish, you have to mantle at the top. It’s not like in the gym…” Squamish, Squamish, Squamish. Fuck Squamish.)

But I knew that I was telling a bit of a fib when I said it was just about falling in the Intro class. My body’s been broken in the past. It’s panicked at the edge of suspension bridges, 40 years ago and last week. It remembers its old injuries, even if my conscious mind keeps them hidden.

So that’s kind of why I read James Lucas’ article in Climbing, “The Fallen Soloist,” with interest when it came through my social media feed this morning. It seemed to me Lucas was trying to make the point that soloing is dangerous. Let’s not forget that you can be an elite climber and still fall soloing. It’s an important point — because one thing that never really gets discussed in the oft-recycled Alex Honnold dichotomy of “perfection or death,” is the perhaps more common, and more troubling scenario, of “perfection or serious injury.”

Lucas asks what the response would have been if Honnold had fallen on Freerider.

“Would people say that he’d been too confident, that he’d gotten in over his head? Every soloing accident can be categorized as someone being “in over their head”—because if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have fallen.”

But he didn’t fall. Maybe if he’d pushed through in the fall of 2016 he would have, perhaps stumbled in the dark on the slab. But he didn’t. Indeed some would have said he was “in over his head,” if he had died or suffered debilitating injury. But you never really know when you’re going to fall, do you? Whether it’s catching a toe on a hurdle or sliding down an icy hill or crossing a busy street with poor traffic signs.

Back in 2003 I did the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, from St. Jean to Santiago, walking every day. Before I left, I packed all the remedies I anticipated I would need: for migraines and menstrual pain. What killed me? That knee. The knee, and to some extent, the shoulder, and the general imbalance from the mild scoliosis that showed up during a medical exam when I was a teenager.

Near the end of the Camino, my knee was so swollen and painful I had to prop it up every night just so I could sleep. A nice woman from Denmark, who was finishing before me, left me her knee brace so I could manage. When I returned to Canada, after arriving in one piece in Santiago, I had a massage therapist tell me the imbalance in my back caused muscle tone to develop in the wrong spots while I was walking. I’d done the pilgrimage, successfully. But my body was trashed.

My body was trashed last week, too, when I went to see a massage therapist for the first time in years. She’d just moved to Vancouver from Squamish, as it turned out, and refused to climb because of what it does to the hands. Even professional climbers who use proper holds, she said… it still messes up their hands. And her hands, of course, were how she made a living.

During that massage, I made a promise to my body to take better care of it. To support it better. It’s been fighting a long, long time to keep up with the stress I’ve put it through, internally and externally.

But that doesn’t mean stopping climbing. It could be the addiction fully setting in (in the words of that climbing instructor, “Get all your friends into climbing. And if they’re not, get new friends. Only hang out with people who like climbing.” And in the words of his co-instructor, “Climb and then train and then climb and train and you’ll hate climbing but you’ll LOVE climbing…”) but it’s also just nice to feel physically stable. I am unbalanced, physically, which is why I hate yoga. It’s why I’m not a fan of walking. But climbing can make you feel safe and stable. You can use your toes and smear the wall. You can bend your knees and stabilize with different muscles. It’s nice to feel that you can be solid and stable and move smoothly. It feels safe. Until it doesn’t, until sensory memory kicks in and you panic.

A year from now, I am sure, I will read this blog post back and say, “oh dear. You were so addicted. Already. And you’d just started.” I’ve just started. So who knows what’s to come.

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