I chose to write on the two topics that I avoided with my byes: "Failure" and "Solvitur Ambulando".
One humid March day of 2019, I was standing on a 15-inch ledge some 65 feet above ground level.
I was not contemplating the view from said ledge, though I'm sure the sweeping crest of the treetops blanketing the contours of Nam Pha Pa Yai, Thailand would have captivated and astonished. Rather, I had driven my torso and hips into the face of the cliff, anchoring my center of gravity forward in a bid to rest my embattled arms and fingers; to flush the adrenaline, cortisol, and lactic acid from my system; to keep from plunging backwards like a dislodged boulder into that very crest of treetops; and to breathe.
A rope hung from a harness loop mid-waist, not so assuringly. Rather, the heft and vector of it reminded bluntly where gravity would have me. My chin craned upwards, neck muscles indignantly protesting as my sun-beleaguered eyes traced, retraced, and retraced tiny granular protrusions of rock in dire search of a path upward that had a whiff of feasibility. The last bolt (a metal loop affixed to the rock in which I placed gear to attach the rope) was about seven feet below me, so a fall from the ledge would be about fourteen feet until arrested by the rope. The next bolt was conspicuously far above, about 20 feet away by my estimate. If I were to climb to the next bolt and fall before securing the rope, it would be a staggering drop of over 50 feet. I scanned every speck of the gold and silver-splotched wall above, longing for an interim bolt I somehow had missed. There was none.
The weight of my skull on my arching neck, when added to the solemn rope pulling ever downwards and backwards, proved too much for the stabilizers in my inner ear. My chin shot down towards my chest, helmet slapping the rock as my eyes clenched involuntarily.
I began to count hyperventilating breaths to one hundred.
At around sixty-three, my belayer shouted quizzically up from the ground, "Hey! Uh...are you okay?"
I restarted the count. I would start climbing again at one hundred.
...ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred.
I restarted the count.
Why did I choose to be here?
Why would I do this to myself?
In April of 2014, I left Moscow, humbled, defeated, low. The view from the privately chartered shuttle ride to the airport exposed a foreign foreign terrain: my mind had painted its image of Moscow with a coarsely bristled horsehair brush, soaking my memories of the place with a gauzy scrape of hues from numbing frost white to mud-slush brown; yet now, after what had felt in my marrow to be an interminable winter, speckles of verdant growths pierced through the frostbit miasma of the countryside along that anonymous freeway.
There were no verdant growths in my thoughts. Just beige and white and grey and brown unyielding.
I had used a pre-existing medical condition as the pretext for breaking my teaching contract before it reached its proper termination of a calendar year. A woman from my agency had escorted me to a general practitioner, acted as my translator, and related that indeed, the doctor recommended for me to seek medical care back in the US immediately. They didn’t need to know that I was already aware of the issue, that I knew there were no valid treatment options, and that the concern was mostly aesthetic and not threatening. I just wanted to leave, and I didn’t have the character to say so.
I would rendezvous with the woman from the agency again, as she heralded me to a bank to help resolve my last affairs in her country. Those few hours in waiting rooms with her would be some of the most genuine moments of human connection throughout my 8 months in Russia. She asked about my health, politely dancing around the parts that would be too intrusive. She asked of my experiences and impression of her country, and I clumsily offered some broken thoughts I hoped would honor our cultural exchange. She tiredly divulged some of her grievances with our agency, seemingly thankful to have a momentary, sympathetic confidant. We talked about art, and our passions. We envisioned a scenario wherein, maybe a decade later, we would find ourselves seated next to one another on an international flight. She asked if I would recognize her—if I would remember her. I said I would.
Despite how fraying and debilitating the teaching circumstances were, how quickly I drowned in the emotional and mental labor of teaching, and how thickly the guilt of utterly failing at the start of my career weighed upon my lungs, I do believe the most difficult part of the experience was the winter. It was too obvious an externalization of my depression, too direct a metaphor for my brand of self-imposed entropy. Trapped for months in a Soviet-style apartment, in which the heat of pipes of boiling water radiated out from the walls, blistering at all hours without the tenant’s control...my brain coped by swathing itself in a numbing malaise. It disconnected from my body. I ate indiscriminately and without concern for consequence, consuming any paltry comfort that could be afforded to me. I relived a kind of cocooning that I hadn’t experienced since the obesity of my childhood. Working to address my life-long body dysmorphia was far too far up Maszlow’s hierarchy of needs. How could I climb a pyramid if I couldn’t bring myself to leave the apartment?
When I arrived in Orlando, Moscow felt like a fever dream, but my stasis born there felt all too tangible. I was greeted by family and friends as an intrepid world-traveler—a seeker. Perhaps, though what I found was an arcane emptiness. I was jobless, and without prospects. I crashed on a friend’s couch—for months. The linear narrative of a prosperous American life whittled a little more of my sense of self-worth away each day. My job applications went unanswered. My limbs went listless.
Through the haze of lethargy and self-loathing, all that I could understand—in a primal, subconscious way—was that I needed to move.
Nam Pha Pa Yai, Thailand
I needed to move. I lost count of how many hundreds of breaths I had used to stall.
My poor belayer bellowed up, “You need to try now!”
And so I did. I had been rehearsing a possible sequence of movements in my mind’s eye to confront the sparse limestone wall with the meek defense of an educated guess.
Left toe into a shaded divot. Right pointer and middle finger into a sharp pocket. The smallest tug on the right bicep as the hips rock their weight over the left toe, then a bold stand-up through the left leg as the left arm inverts, flipping the elbow skyward, to push the left palm against a smooth bulge to stabilize through opposition, turning the torso to the right. Wedge the right toe hard into a vertical crack. Release left toe, swing the leg under and to the right for counterbalance. Free the left hand, extend through left obliques, push the ribcage low and to the left to bring the left hand into the vertical crack. Stand from the right leg.
I managed to execute my choreography, fingers relaxed and breathing even, until standing within that thin vertical crevice. All of my planning and orchestrations, though effective, had only bought me an 8 foot gain. The next bolt loomed unimpressed 12 feet above on a low-friction dihedral, and the resource of the crack in the wall would soon peter out into nothingness. My neck seized with the onset of panic; my joints froze at the prospect of the fall. Typically, falling while rock climbing is much less dangerous than the general public would believe. That, however, doesn’t override primordial, evolutionary fear. And unfortunately, this spot was an exception: the very ledge that granted me as much rest as I needed also presented a very real hazard through my fall trajectory.
There were three options: continue, climb back down, or fall. I suppose the fourth would have been to stay until overcome by fatigue and raging fear, then fall.
I wiggled my left foot higher to rouse myself onward, then almost immediately retracted it in a tumult of anxiety and disappointment. I tried to breathe. I hastily set to imprinting this new, higher perspective in my mind, absorbing any helpful shadowed knob or slippery bump to form the next sequence of visualized choreography. When my body was on the verge of giving out, I climbed back down to the ledge, wheezed, and eventually climbed even further down to the safety of the last bolt.
“Ok, I’m done. Lower me.”
I failed even at failing, not granting myself the necessary experience of falling.
The rest of the weekend at Nam Pha Pa Yai was lined with small victories, people watching, and late-night play with one climber’s oddly thorough collection of glow-in-the-dark poi and juggling paraphernalia. Despite the ease and social comfort that pervaded our cabal of climbers and the lush Thai topography, my mind incessantly returned to that route, Cafe Bolan, and the sequence.
Left toe into a shaded divot. Right pointer and middle finger into a sharp pocket...
Always leaving. I left Orlando behind, and with it, I hoped, a version of myself that wouldn’t be representative of my future. As I started climbing in Orlando in the summer of 2014, my body brought forth truths that I had consciously neglected. Change was necessary.
In Tallahassee, I had a new teaching job, and a chance to amend past failings. That was the hope, anyway. Though the next run-in with teaching would become its own matted tangle of failures to unravel, the city came with a heartfelt circle of friends that would lead me out of my cocoon and into adventure.
I made a friend my first day climbing at Tallahassee’s gym. We watched each other grapple with a delicate, balance-oriented problem, and soon found ourselves egging the other on with pretense-less enthusiasm. She adopted me into her inner-circle of friends, and they took me out to Tennessee for my first outdoor-climbing trip. I had never even been camping as an adult, and discovered with great woe that flip-flops are not suitable attire for rocky terrain. They taught me the ropes, in all senses of the phrase.
As they took me climbing outdoors more frequently, I began to build a relationship with the rock. What was first illegible and painfully demoralizing slowly became the hallowed floor of my dance studio.
The waving helix of my spine rolled through the negative space,
hoisting my hips above my head
as the framework inverted,
unfolding my heels into a crook
of unrecorded history
which freed my hands
tickling the atoms
by the echo
of a past self.
I was my body.
I was glorious.
One rainy March day of 2011, I stood on the top of a campus parking garage, some 35 feet above ground level.
It wasn’t a crisis so much as it was customary. I got on the 3-foot ledge and spent a long while watching the onslaught of raindrops hurtling towards the inevitable asphalt. I envisioned joining the raindrops.
I had spent too much of my life here. Too much time with this noise, without cause or direction. Too much time subtracted from a future that didn’t belong to me, nor I to it. Too much time as this person.
The raindrops knew their way.
I failed to fall.
The following week of that March, 2019, I returned with my crew of Bangkok climbing friends to the campgrounds of Nam Pha Pa Yai, far from the clangor and exuberant chaos of the city. It would be my last trip with these friends, and my last outdoor climbs of a year spent working and living abroad. It felt like a lucid dream, conjuring images of rocks and routes from France, Thailand, Laos, and Malaysia, clutching to images of the faces that supported and spirited me away.
Though there were other routes to climb, I found myself once again at the base of Cafe Bolan, rehearsing in my head the sequence after that lonesome ledge.
Left toe into a shaded divot. Right pointer and middle finger into a sharp pocket. The smallest tug on the right bicep as the hips rock their weight over the left toe…
The bottom three-quarters of the route were familiar, though tiring. There’s a treacherous series of moves where one has to span the body across an airy gap to two opposing and slippery perpendicular faces, then make miniscule balance corrections up the faces, until finally daring to pivot the full bodyweight off of one side and over to a whisper of a lip far off to the other.
I reached the ledge, panting openly and shaking my fingers loose. I had been over-gripping, I noted, and had expended a fair amount of endurance unnecessarily. Thankfully, I had the ledge. I started counting breaths to one hundred. At one hundred, I would climb.
...ninety-nine, one hundred.
I put my left toe into the shaded divot, my right pointer and middle finger into the sharp pocket, gave the smallest tug on the right bicep, and pushed off of the ledge.
I made it into the vertical crack that had been my high point the previous week. I took a long inhale, eyes on shadowed knobs, slippery nubs, and granular protrusions.
Come on. Execute.
I wiggled my left foot higher in the crack, then put my full weight on it, releasing my right hand and inverting the right arm so that my fingers could latch the underside of a rocky rim. My right heel came higher than my waist, pushing down hard on a knob to bring me fully out of the crack, left hand coming out and pushing down against the wall to bring my center of gravity over my right heel. My hips spiralled left as the left toe shot out to a slippery nub, then the left knee bent and turned down and into the wall, stretching my torso up, up, up. My left hand bounced up to a hidden pocket, then my right hand came too, letting my right leg come up and out wide in a triangulating stabilization.
I was at the bolt!
I spotted a crack in the dihedral and jammed my left hand in, giving me the full support of the arm without any strain to the fingers. Both feet came up high and directly under my pelvis, granting a position where my right hand could be free to attach gear to the bolt.
My left hand, though well-jammed, blocked me off from the bolt, which was to my left. My right hand stretched across my torso like a straight jacket, awkwardly bumping my gear against the bolt, but not attaching it in.
One attempt. Two attempts.
Twenty feet above the ledge. There’s no down-climbing from here. Get this right, or take the massive fall.
On the fourth, I managed to attach my gear to the bolt. But the rope still wasn’t in. My right hand awkwardly grasped the rope billowing from my harness. Having brought almost the entire length of the rope up with me, my bicep screamed at the heft of it as it pulled against gravity.
Get in. Get in!
It was in. Disbelief. Relief. Release.
The levity of stupefaction almost hauled me above the overhung dihedral by itself. As I lurched above the bolt, I found myself in generous, gentle terrain. The last 12 feet of the route were fluid jubilation.
I rigged the anchor system at the top of the route, forearms numb and dense with lactic acid, fingers twitching. My shoulders heaved as my lungs swelled and contracted greedily.
Far below, the tiny figure of my belayer screamed up, “FUCK YEAH!”
A breeze across my cheek turned my regard out to the valley. The outpouring of the afternoon sun set the rustling contours of the canopy ablaze like a pointillistic kaleidoscope. Exultant towers of gold and silver-splotched limestone pierced the azure sky to tickle fine wisps of vagrant clouds.
I was my body. I was glorious.