The sunsets reminded me of home. Skies ablaze and moody. Ever changing. I would marvel at the dying of day while sipping a beer in my camp chair, feeling beat up, creaky, exhausted. Utterly content. Yep: I was in the Eastern Sierras again, where you can successfully kick your own ass, again and again.
We spent most of our time in the Buttermilks, climbing high balls that gnaw at your mental rigor and eat away your skin. I don't know many climbers who come to the milks and initially think, wow, this place really suits my style. Rather, most people discover a unique set of challenges when they grapple up the giant dinosaur eggs sprawled out at the base of Mt. Tom.
It has been nearly four years since I lived in the Sierras, yet the landscapes and towns of this obscure niche in the world still feel like a second home. I walked into Wilson's Eastside Sports and remembered the last time I was there, buying a Patagonia dress on clearance.
Ty, the lanky store owner, saw Jarred and I mulling around the crash pad section and said, "Well, I wasn't sure when I'd see you two again." We talked about the strange weather and the shop's decision to quit selling ski gear. Apparently this year the local Alpine school couldn't teach backcountry avalanche courses due to lack of snowpack.
Black Sheep switched locations from behind the Spellbinder's bookstore to its own storefront right next to Wilson's. I was happy to see that my favorite of all coffee shops in the entire universe, Stellar Brew in Mammoth Lakes, remains in its quintessential blue home off the main road leading to the mountains.
Jarred and I stopped in three times to enjoy their unbeatable selection of gluten free goodies and fresh bowls and wraps. When I walked into that little shop, I walked into my last season living there. I remembered working in its narrow kitchen, ducking my head to wash dishes, shredding carrots and slinging soups like nobody's business. I still work there, in another life. But in this reality, I am a tourist now of the Sierras. I am but one of the hundreds of climbers passing through.
The volume of climbers in the Buttermilks and Tablelands this year blew me away. In 2011, even on the busiest of spring break weeks, there were half the cars in the parking lots as there were on the weekends this trip. Among the masses were big name climbers; with the celebrities of pebble wrestling came the camera crews and swarms of spectators. The vast majority of us climbers continue to work our problems, sending and not sending, in obscurity.
Sending and not sending. I came to Bishop with a checklist of problems I wanted to crush. All three of these problems remain unchecked. But I am not leaving California feeling like I failed, as I might have in my earlier years of climbing. Sure, it is temporarily a let down to fall, again and again, throwing for the top-out jug on Seven Spanish Angels.
But the gratification is not always in standing on top. It is the incremental progress that can also bestow feelings of accomplishment. Sure, it felt great to send my hardest grade this trip. But what felt even better was cruising through moves that once felt at my limit. No, I didn't grab the victory jug on the problems I wanted to send--but next trip, maybe.
In recent years, I have harbored a self-created pressure to be better than I am, to be stronger and more talented. What I am learning, though, is to embrace where I am, and to be grateful, even when I don't "succeed," at least not in the ways I intended to.
The hard problems I sent this trip were ones not on my ticklist. They were unexpected climbs: lines I tried at whim, 'cause they were there. We hear about this phenomena in climbing often--how success comes in unintended ways, at unexpected times. When the pressure's off.
I thought about this at times when I was chalking up to give a go on a project. What expectations hold us back from our best performance? I want to succeed, as we all do. But I cannot want things into existence.
Part of the process of climbing that translates so beautifully into larger life is this fostering of a balance between trying hard and letting go of expectations--between will power and patience.
The "flow" state of mind surpasses language. I cannot describe the mental state I am in when I send something physically at my limit. It is elusive. I wonder how the professionals, in front of flashing cameras and screaming fans, dive so fully into their bodies. I suppose it is a matter of practice. Practice and patience. Achieving mastery in anything, I assume, is achieving mastery over our fears and doubts, which seem to be born of expectations.
So my ticklist asks me to return to old projects in Bishop next trip, which I gladly will, as an annual homecoming of sorts. But I left with these thoughts, as well as a pair of new friends from Norway who were a big part of our trip's enjoyment. Not to mention a fiancée, and some photographs to share with you all of Sierra sunsets, sending, not sending, and other such good things.