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The Promise of School Room

The Promise of School Room

Today, a deeply personal story of balancing ego, romantic love, and passion for the outdoors. Written by climber, photographer, and blogger Laura Stade

The Promise of School Room (or why my own ego nearly ruined my love for climbing)

Three years ago, I was three pitches up a climb called School Room (5.6), Utah when I made a decision that would impact me for years. My then boyfriend was belaying me up over a small bulge and I was struggling with the moves. I'd palm the seemingly featureless granite without paying any mind to the position of my feet or the (now obvious) crack, grunt and try and slap my way up, and then fall.

This happened about three times until he said in an annoyed tone, "just grab the piece above you and pull up on it." Feeling defeated, I did so. When I made my way over the bulge and saw him at the belay, he looked at me and looked down at his feet. I got quiet for most of the rest of the climb, and so did he. I remember having the thought while we were rappelling the route that this would be our last climb together, that he'd dump me, and I weirdly assumed it was because I just wasn't measuring up as a climbing partner.

As the light was getting low we exchanged few words, he coiled the rope and organized his gear, and I haphazardly stuffed things into my backpack. I peered over the beautiful cliffs and gullies, the way the pines dotted the perfect white granite, and instead of appreciating the beauty and adventures that lay ahead with my newly-found hobby, I looked him square on and made a silent promise to myself, "One day in the future, when we're broken up, I will be a badass climber and you'll be sorry you abandoned us."

No joking. And I hung on that promise to myself for years, well after we were through.

Not long after the mountain man did, inevitably, dump me, I started pursuing rock climbing in a hard, emotionally-reckless way. I finagled an old, dear friend from high school into a nearly two-month-long climbing trip in the southern California desert. We slept in his van together out in Joshua Tree and woke up to frost covering the car in January. I'd push us out before the sun hit the car, our fingers freezing as we fiddled with the two burner and filling up water bottles for the day. Sam would be moaning about the cold as I created a tick list for the day, but my good-natured friend would eventually put up nearly every route I demanded of him. I didn't bother leading any easy climbs yet myself; I was too caught up in being able to follow higher grades fast, so that when I did start placing gear myself I'd be leading in a grade I found to be acceptable.

If there were days we weren't climbing, I was generally annoyed. I could tell Sam was a little annoyed at times, too. It's hard to appreciate time with another person when someone is so singularly focused on achieving their own objectives. When I got on that plane to go home after our adventure, Sam was gracious and gave me a big bear hug and we made plans to see each other again. How he decided to remain friends with me is still a bit of a mystery.

It was just about being outside and enjoying the moves and feeling mentally relaxed while having fun.

A few months after the Joshua Tree trip, I began to not care about the mountain man ex-boyfriend. I climbed for the rest of the spring frequently but without such a big ego, as I stopped caring quite as much about being an exceptional climber as much as simply enjoying the sport. I was physically very strong, and my lead head got a lot better. It was just about being outside and enjoying the moves and feeling mentally relaxed while having fun. I accumulated gear, and was happy to go to the mountains whenever I found an opportunity to do so. 

But enter in the following climbing season, when I met another mountain man who I admired (and still do), and the ego came back with a vengeance. Though our relationship grew and grew, our climbing relationship began to develop weird neurotic quirks. Matt would enjoy his climbing as he always did, but I began to enjoy it less. I felt this enormous pressure to perform well, to be far better than I was, and I would get angry. Not only did my climbing start to go downhill, my lead head dove to an abysmally low level. I'd stare up at a route and start to get anxious from the get go. I'd start up and feel like a fool, then I'd start to doubt my ability, and then I'd get terrified and ask to be lowered. Matt's mood would then sour, too. On and on this pattern went.

Laura Stade + guidebook,   Indian Creek Utah Fall 2013.

Laura Stade + guidebook, Indian Creek Utah Fall 2013.

It continued on like this for over a year. It wasn't until one spring day last year that I was climbing with friends (Matt was working) that I remembered how much I love climbing. I found myself two-thirds of the way up a route I was leading, in an offwidth, grunting up inch by inch and camming my body after every half foot of progress for a rest, and loving every second.

Huh, that's weird, this is fun again, I thought. I realized it was because I didn't give a shit about whether my friends thought I climbed hard or not. I was climbing because we were in the desert and it was beautiful and the routes there are compelling. I wasn't distracted by thoughts of not measuring up.

Not two weekends after that, Matt and I were out climbing alone together and I was upset again. He'd offer to put up routes and I'd let him, and I'd feel worse and worse about not feeling confident enough to just believe in myself and go for it.  All day I sulked at the wall until I stared up at a route I had asked Matt to lower me off of months prior, and decided I needed to climb it

Depressed as hell with the memory of blaming myself for a breakup years ago because I wasn’t brave enough, strong enough, or good enough, I began to rack up for the route. Half way up I started to tear up. I’ll never be good enough, I thought. I’m a coward, and I’ll never be good at anything. How could anyone love such a coward?

I told Matt to take up, and I hung on a number 3 blue camalot. I took some deep breaths. I felt the warm sun on my back. I heard the wind brushing the valley below us. Ravens flew overhead. I found a comfortable fist jam, yelled Climbing!,  and pushed up with my jammed feet. One blue camalot after the next protected my fall on a sun-cast wall. Beautiful blue sun, I repeated in my head over and over until I made it to the anchor with a smile on my face. I remembered, this is why I climb.

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