No matter what I did, the heel hook would not stick.
I tried to use different pairs of shoes. I showed up when it was crisp. I recorded myself to see if there was a difference in my hip position between when I stuck the move and when I did not. I meticulously focused on comparing each potential body position – was it better if my left foot smeared as I pulled with the right heel, or if I used it as a back-flag?
Yet, whether or not my heel-hook would stay on – allowing me to pull with it and reach the final hold of the problem – seemed more related to luck and cosmic forces rather than skill or technique. This bothered me. For days, I walked away frustrated, but also intrigued. What was so mystical about this heel hook that made it so difficult? The grade of the boulder was hard for me, but not novel. Every other move was difficult but consistently repeatable.
I considered changing my beta, using the more typical left heel hook that would be harder to reach for my short frame, yet, once established, easier to move off of. There was a chance that if I committed to the left outro, the time invested in the new method would lead to a quicker tick than if I kept trudging forward with my beta.
But I was stubborn.
It became obvious to me that, although standing on top of the boulder would be meaningful, what drove me was not success measured in a tick, but success measured in my understanding of the movement. Better beta is king in rock-climbing, but this boulder presented a gift; my method was the better beta for my shorter frame, yet something about my abilities as a rock-climber made it very inconsistent. It revealed a glaring weakness, and as such, an opportunity. Oddly enough, behind my frustration, I grew excited – there was potential here, to become better.
I would grow more, and learn more, if I studied the beta and understood it better. In that respect, completing the boulder was irrelevant.
The problem became more interesting to me, and, as a result, I kept returning. I was fueled by a mastery mindset – the goal being to continually improve and master climbing, rather than to succeed at one given climb or project. I shifted the goal from being, “stand on top of this boulder and tick a box,” to “understand this heel hook” because the latter – the focus on the process – gave me the best chance of improvement over time and fostered a sustainable relationship with my sport.
I returned with a friend, someone who knew me and my climbing style well, both strengths and weaknesses. The same pattern manifested itself – sometimes the heel would stick and I could do the top, and sometimes it would pop off. My friend found the smallest ripple of rock in the boulder and ticked it with chalk.
“Put your heel here” he said.
At first, I thought this was a distraction. I had the heel placement dialed, and this minute protrusion in the rock was where I was placing it, anyways.
Still, I had an open mind – aware that I was obviously misunderstanding something and needed help. I listened intently, and as I tightened my hips and core to bring the right foot almost level with my shoulder, his tick mark caused me to place it more slowly and precisely.
The finicky heel became nearly consistent, and in a manner of tries I had completed the entire boulder. Before, I simply was not paying enough attention. Not understanding that the heel hook was so difficult because its surface was so poor. I thought only about how tight I was to the wall and how hard I could pull with my hamstring, not about the actual physical surface between my shoe and the boulder.
I sat on top and searched myself for a feeling of satisfaction, of completion.
Certainly, it was there, but it was hard to discern. It wasn’t that extreme high I normally get from instant gratification, the quick yet fleeting buzz. This satisfaction had no contours or edges, it felt shapeless because it was so big, a result of accumulated experiences that together told my story of improvement in climbing.
And it was then I considered what fuels me not only to climb, but to keep coming back to tricky routes or boulders. To invest my time, my energy and my money for a silly piece of rock . What has fueled me to take my life and pivot it around a single activity?
The moment to moment satisfaction that makes climbing fun certainly comes from the movement, the scenery, the adventure, and the joy of trying really hard.
But, such continuous pushing, the inextinguishable flame of love and passion – that type of investment requires a steady and nurturing fuel. The hunger to improve, to learn and to grow can be ravenous at times. Our bodies and minds need steady fuel.
The goal of mastery is a lifelong pursuit because it is impossible to achieve.
The goal of mastery is the most nourishing, consistent fuel out there. It will always keep me coming back.