The boulder problem was exquisite. Four holds sat arranged in a diamond — a sloper above me, an undercling to my left, a gaston to my right, and a foot below. They beckoned at me, challenging me to find a way through.
Intrigued, I hung on the end of the rope and considered the route. It was sustained, demanding great strength and technique. The climb ascended the wall perfectly, gently overhanging until it culminated in the most difficult sequence I had ever tried.
At first, I could not believe it existed. It felt as if it materialized and grew out of the forest for me to climb; it felt like a dream.
Ironically, given my instant infatuation with the route, I had never given Voodoo, 5.14b, much thought. The seldom touched king line at my favorite local crag, Voodoo is clean and intimidating. That afternoon, I was bored and restless. When my friend suggested I try it, I could not think of a reason not to.
Quickly, Voodoo found its way into an unoccupied corner of my brain and burrowed into it.
Soon, I found a way through the puzzle. As I hiked out, I was uncharacteristically quiet, my brain meticulously shifting through the gears of what it would take to succeed.
Voodoo’s seduction lied in its difficulty — it rested right on the sweet spot, close to my limit but possible. Which way the pendulum struck would be up to me and my potential, an irresistible challenge. Inside of me, a hungry beast began awakening from a long nap, limbs taut and outstretched, preparing to leap at its prey.
This is how my life began to rotate on Voodoo’s axis.
That summer, while my students worked, I would visualize the beta. When I ran, my feet made contact with cement but in my mind I was pressing on the crux left smear. I was fine tuning my body to the nuances of the Voodoo dance even when I was not there.
When I felt a twinge in my finger, I considered the pain only to ignore it. I would be done with work in a week, just as the weather would shift from hot to cool. I was primed, it was lined up and the thought that something could go wrong was unfathomable.
All at once, I made a shift. Shaky, desperate two-hangs turned into near flawless performances in the matter of a single attempt. I found myself pulsing with a confidence I did not know I had, each move feeding my forearms with strength, propelling me to the anchors.
When I arrived at the crux,, my mind suddenly was ahead of my movement and I was airborne.
Though I did not clip the chains, I was giddy, aware this was one of my best climbing performances. My satisfaction naturally detached itself from the outcome, allowing me to access a deep connection to my motivation and my climbing. I sensed I was on the verge of a superb breakthrough, marveling at the places this route could take me. I also felt my finger yowl.
I returned two days later, drawn to Voodoo like a magnet.
I climbed with all pistons firing and was quickly at the first crux. I closed the first crimp and felt like I could tear through the stone itself. As I shifted my weight onto one foot, a sharp pain tore through me.
The rope tightened as quickly as my belayer’s cheers turned to silence. And as quickly as I had built Voodoo up, it fell apart.
When my pulley tore, my identity collapsed with it. As I picked up the pieces I could not ignore how much of my self-worth I attached to a piece of rock, enough to cause deliberate damage to myself, to risk climbing altogether. I felt incredibly foolish, an overwhelming juxtaposition to my mentality only a day before, when I thought I was surmounting a pinnacle of performance.
Summer turned to fall, my finger healed and I climbed. As my planned return drew near, doubt and fear of reinjury crept in. In these moments, I put my head inside the movement, turned the volume up and drowned everything else out. My love of the movement was my gravity, grounding me when I started to float.
Nine months later, I returned. When I pulled on, it felt like no time had passed, as if I were revisiting an old friend I had not seen for years, the relationship so ingrained that time had no effect.
Three weeks later, when I found myself at the end of the hard climbing and two bolts away from the anchors I snapped out of flow and into an agitation strong enough to shift every cell of my body towards taking the next part, the easiest moves on the route, very seriously. Normally, I scream with difficult movements and did so often on Voodoo. Today, I had not made a sound.
So, though I felt in control, I screamed the entire way through the finish, my way of ensuring I gave it everything, even if everything was not required.
Afterwards, the hole Voodoo left within me was cavernous. I was proud and satisfied, but sending was also a loss, a signal to the end of a rare time when a challenge matched my needs so perfectly. For weeks, I felt like a soft fruit without its core, mushy and unstable. It took time, but I would go on to fill the hollowness with new ideas and bigger, harder dreams, because I learned that sometimes daring pays off.The highs Voodoo brought were matched in intensity and frequency by the lows. But, when I climbed on Voodoo, the focus it demanded was surreal. Whatever surface I had beneath me, the good and bad of work and relationships, would suddenly collapse, everything vanishing like pollen rising in a steady current of wind.