Hitting the Wall: Learning that Vertical Limits Aren’t
In 1999, Nick Sagar reached the end of his rope. He had a dream: to climb The Crew, a route at the upper end of the rock-climbing difficulty scale in Rifle State Park, Colorado. In his twenties, Sagar had given his life over to the monomaniacal dedication required to climb 5.14 routes (the highest rating possible on the Yosemite Decimal System), living off a few dollars of sponsorship money with his wife, Heather, munching donated energy bars and living out of a truck parked at the crags for months at a time.
Then Sagar saw the dream crumble before his eyes. During a rest day while preparing for his next attempt, he got the bad news: His sponsorship from a climbing gear company—money he desperately needed to survive while working on the route—failed to come through. Out of money, he had no choice but to abandon his quest for The Crew and head home, seeking work. Sagar knew that he would likely never again be fit enough to ascend the route; never again would he have an entire year to do nothing but live in Rifle Park and train all day every day, like an Olympic decathlete in the year before the games. The loss of sponsorship virtually guaranteed that he would never reach his goal. Sagar removed the gear he’d fixed on the route months earlier. Tears streaming down his face, he packed up his equipment and walked back to camp. He and Heather said good-bye to their friends and drove toward the exit, defeated.
But then a lone figure stepped into the middle of the road, holding something in his hand.
“That’s Herman,” said Nick. “What the heck is he doing?”
Herman Gollner, a dedicated climber in his mid-fifties, had watched Sagar’s quest with quiet admiration. When he heard about Sagar’s situation, he drove back to his home in Aspen, visited his bank, and made a withdrawal. Now, here stood Herman, with a handful of cash, flagging down Sagar’s truck.
“Here, take this,” he said, thrusting the cash at Nick. “You must finish The Crew.”
“No . . . I couldn’t possibly . . . no,” Nick stammered.
“You must take it,” asserted Herman, in his Austrian accent. “You are so close. You may never have a chance again. I am older now—never again to climb at the top—but you . . . maybe I can help you. Please, take it.”
The Sagars reluctantly accepted the cash, and Nick returned to the route for another attempt. This was his Olympic Gold Medal attempt, his shot to come through. He launched into the upper section of the wall, feeling strong, knowing he could do it. But just before the top, he heard a sickening sound—a little crackle under his foot and the skitter of his climbing shoe against stone. He had broken a key foothold!
Like one of those movie scenes in which the hero grasps for something in a dream, only to watch it disappear from his outstretched fingertips as he wakes, Sagar watched the top of the route suddenly fly up out of his grasp as gravity pulled his body off the rock and into midair. The rope snapped tight, and he knew he’d just expended his best effort ever. And now, without the key foothold, the route would be even more difficult.
“I almost wanted to quit,” he said. “But Herman and all my friends believed in me. I couldn’t let them down.” Foothold or not, Sagar was determined to do the route, working on it through the autumn months and into early winter. Finally, on the last possible day of the season, with snow falling all about, Sagar made a final attempt. The overhanging rock shielded his hand holds from snow, but that was the only relief from the weather. Despite subfreezing temperatures and fingers so numb that he could barely feel the smaller edges, Sagar pulled through to the top and fulfilled the dream.
“I learned so much from The Crew,” reflected Sagar three years later, “but very little of the learning was about climbing. I learned that the highest individual achievements are never solo events, that you only reach your best with the help of other people, and their belief in you. It’s a lesson I will never forget, no matter what I do with the rest of my life.”
The adventure of The Crew became not just a climb, but a classroom for life. It was not reaching the top that mattered most, but the lessons—the struggle and the adventure—learned along the way. Says Sagar: “I’m a better person for the experience, not the success.”
I’ve been a rock climber for more than thirty years now, and while I’ll probably never break through to climb 5.14 like Nick Sagar, my whole approach to life and career has been inextricably linked with my development as a climber. I began in my early teenage years, when my stepfather signed me up for a climbing course against my will. (“I’d rather study,” I whined.) At the end of the first day, however, I knew I’d discovered one of the burning passions of my life. Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, I had one of the great climbing centers of the world as my backyard, and some of the greatest climbers in the world as mentors. When I applied to Stanford University as an undergraduate, I noted in my application that one of the main attractions of Stanford was its sandstone buildings and wonderful weather that would enable me to train year-round by climbing on the walls between classes. (Climbing on the walls had long been a tradition with the Stanford Alpine Club, which had even published a small guide to routes on campus.) One day while trying an unclimbed route on the side of the philosophy building in the main Quadrangle, I heard a shuffle of feet behind me and then the voice of emeritus philosophy professor John Goheen: “Really, Mr. Collins. Do you think this is the ultimate solution to the existential dilemma?” I named the climb Kant Be Done.
Rock climbing for me has been the ultimate classroom, with lessons applicable to all aspects of life, including business, management, leadership, and scientific study. It is a sport from which you do not always get a second chance to learn from your mistakes—death tends to stop the learning process—but I’ve been fortunate to survive my own blunders. In this chapter, I offer five of my favorite lessons from climbing as a classroom, and how they apply to life and work outside of climbing:
1.Climb to fallure, not failure: How to succeed without reaching the top
2.Climb in the future, today: How to succeed by changing your frame of mind
3.Separate probability from consequence: How to succeed—and stay alive—by understanding the true risks
4.Form the Partner’s Pact: How to succeed by practicing the discipline of first who, then what
5.Don’t confuse luck and competence: How to not let success kill you
LESSON 1. CLIMB TO FALLURE, NOT FAILURE: HOW TO SUCCEED WITHOUT REACHING THE TOP
Matt and I walked around the bend in the trail and I stopped dead in my tracks, looking at an absolutely beautiful sheet of rock—smooth and slightly overhanging, with a thin fingertip-sized seam splitting right up the middle of the gray-and-silver granite wall in the Colorado Rockies Front Range. “You can see why I named the route Crystal Ball,” Matt said, pointing to a baseball-sized quartzite handhold fifty feet up the climb.
We roped up and I set off up the route, shooting for an on-sight ascent. An on-sight means that on your first try you lead the climb without any prior information about the moves (other than what you can determine looking from the ground) and without any artificial aid. Other climbers may have climbed the route before you, but they have not given you any information on how to climb the difficult sections, nor have you watched anyone else attempt the route. For you, in other words, the route is an entirely blank page, no matter how many other climbers have ascended the route. You get one chance for an on-sight. Once you start to climb, if you blow it (and thereby fall onto the rope), you’ve forever lost the chance.
Ten feet below the crystal, my feet began to skitter about, slipping off slick pebbles, and I curled my thumb around a little edge, thinking to myself, “If I can just get a little weight off my fingers . . .” The adrenaline of the on-sight attempt made me overgrip every hold, clamping down as hard as I could—like an overanxious runner who goes out too fast in the first 800 meters, only to pay the price for the indiscretion with lactic acid and gasping breaths.
If you’ve ever taken a pull-up test, you can get a sense for the feel of a hard sport climb. With the first pull-up, you feel really strong—like you can do this forever. But when you get close to your limit, the movement that earlier felt so easy becomes impossibly hard. If you could just let go of the bar and rest for a minute, you could do two or three more pulls-ups, easy. But when you try to do all of your pull-ups in one hang, you hit a wall; drawing on all your will, you just can’t get over the bar again. End of session.
A hard sport climb is similar to a pull-up session: It’s a race to the top before you run out of power. The moves that would be so easy if they were moves one, two, and three become much harder when placed higher on the route, at, say, moves twenty-five, twenty-six, and twenty-seven. (A move is simply a hand movement. If you move your right hand from one hold to the next, it counts as a single move.) As we say in the realm of steep routes, “the clock is ticking” as soon as you leave the ground. You only have so many minutes and seconds before you will reach a point where your arms and fingers unwrap and uncurl, and you go plummeting down until (hopefully) the rope catches you.
“Breath, Jim. Relax.” Matt’s voice soothed me for a moment.
I gathered a bit of composure while hooking my thumb and rest- ing my fingers, trying to get my breathing to settle down. But to little avail. My mind chattered away: “Should I go right hand or left hand to the sideways edge above? . . . If I get it wrong, there’s no way I can reverse . . . and even if I get it right, I’m not sure I’ll have enough power to pull up to the crystal ball. . . . And if I can’t get to the crystal ball, there’s no way I’ll be able to get the rope clipped into the next point of protection. . . . How far would I fall? . . . Matt’s a good belayer. . . . I hope I checked my knot . . . God, my fingers hurt . . . but this is the on-sight . . . don’t blow it. . . . You only get one chance to on-sight the route. . . . But what if I go for it and I can’t clip? I’ll take a huge fall . . . But I won’t hit anything . . . I’ll just fly off into space . . . It’s only scary, but not unsafe. . . . Just do it. . . . Just punch for it. . . . What have you got to lose? . . . I wonder if I can go right left right . . . But I don’t like to take big falls . . .”
Tick, tick, tick—the clock ran on while I hesitated.
“Okay, Matt, here I go.”
From the Hardcover edition.