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On Falling and Failing - Jess Taverna

On Falling and Failing - Jess Taverna
November 06, 2011 - 

I’m not much of a “project” climber. I prefer onsighting to redpointing, not because I think it’s more pure or anything like that, but partly because I like the challenge of new things and partly--most importantly for this tale--because it’s mentally easier for me. I know many climbers can relate to the problem of psyching yourself out on redpoint attempts, of the pressure to finally send a given route building up in your mind so much that it becomes difficult to simply climb, to let the moves you know by heart unfold as smoothly as they should.


While it isn’t my usual thing, one route in particular has become, somehow, a longstanding project--a four-year long project in fact. The route is located at a small, not-exactly-destination-worthy crag that we usually hit up a couple times each summer when temps are too hot for other areas, and most often for post-work short evening sessions. So “working on this route for four years” means getting on it about 2-3 days each year, with about 2-3 attempts each session. That said, it’s the only route I’ve continued to go back to for such a long period of time, a route I should have dispatched by now, a route that lingers in my mind as a dreaded nemesis.

When I first tried it four years ago, it was probably a bit above my pay grade. I struggled with quite a few individual moves, working to find exactly the right feet to make some long reaches feel reasonable. I fell a ton and remember thinking that I really needed more power if I was ever going to send--the route is short (just 21 hand moves...and yes, I’ve counted) and powerful; if I could just get stronger, these individual moves would feel easier and the thing would go down.

Fast forward four years: I’ve acquired the necessary power and then some; none of the individual moves feel all that difficult and most of them I can do with minimal fuss over feet and such. And yet I still haven’t sent. Instead, I’ve one-hung the route in just about every way possible. While I’ve got the first twelve moves wired, on different attempts I’ve fallen (just the once) on pretty much every single one of the subsequent nine moves. It’s always something different: a wrong foot used, a missed thumb catch, being squared-up when I should be backstepping, lazy body positioning, fumbling fingers around each other as I reach for a pocket, and on and on.

The most recent burn--and possibly last for a while--was the worst. I’d made it to the clipping hold for the last bolt, just five moves from the chains. I felt great--I wasn’t pumped at all and felt comfortably in control. With my left hand in the good clipping hold, I reached down and grabbed the rope, beginning to pull up slack to make the clip, right foot slipped and was off. I felt my body move, the first hint of an impending barndoor, and with my right hand already off the rock and on the rope, there was little I could do to stop it. I distinctly remember thinking, first, “this can’t be happening,” and then “I’ve still got this, just make the clip and get your hand back on the wall.” As the barndoor progressed, I continued to pull up rope, desperate to clip, but the momentum of my foot slipping off the wall was too much and my fully-extended right leg swung me around and off. By the time I fell, my back was nearly to the wall. As the rope came tight, stopping me a couple bolts lower, I simply slumped in my harness and dropped chin to chest. My partner, accustomed to loud roars and growled obscenities following such falls (inappropriate and obnoxious crag behavior, I know), seemed stunned at my silence. Eventually, I muttered “just lower me.” On the ground, I untied, pulled the rope, and with a sigh told her, “I’m done. I just can’t do this route.”

On previous attempts, I felt defiant when I fell--I was angry about getting too complacent and subsequently too lazy on the burn; I was annoyed that I’d made a mistake. But this latest incident was just one “lazy mistake” too many. I felt defeated, not by any physical shortcomings, but by my own desire to send--this route was in my head and not in a good way. A the time, it represented everything I’ve always hated about projecting.

But then.....this is where the happy ending comes in, right? This is where I tell you how I rested for a bit, belayed my friends, fed off their psyche, and got back on for that successful burn, right? Sorry, not that kind of story. We’re used to blog posts and magazine pieces about success and sends--I mean, who wants to write (let alone read) about failing? But the reality is that we all “fail” much more often than we succeed in climbing. Sometimes, it helps to reflect on those experiences and tell those stories. And perhaps in the process realize that, as climbers, we gain as much from falling as we do from sending...more on that thought to come.


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