October 10: The Art of Winning

“Did I win?” the ten-year-old boy asked as I lowered him from a climb. Baron, a sandy haired kid with a bowl cut, was my charge for an hour-long private belay session and had just finished flailing his way up a 5.7 route. I had no idea how to answer this question which was asked without a trace of irony or self-mockery.

“Uh, yes?” My eyes involuntarily darted to his mother, who was reclining on the padded floor behind us, watching her son’s every move.

I’d been about to start my own workout when Von, the gym employee who wears a button down shirt, waistcoat, bow tie, and dress shoes without fail (the gym uniform is a black t-shirt with the gym name in white letters across the front), asked if I’d be willing to do a private.

“He’s climbed outside before. He’s very advanced,” Baron’s mother informed me within seconds of our introduction. I nodded politely. I have yet to find a West LA parent who inderestimates his or her kid’s climbing ability.

“When he was four, we wanted to take him outside. The guy who was guiding us wouldn’t work with kids that young. We begged him to take Baron. He said he’d do it, but don’t expect to get your money back if he cries. Afterwards, he was amazed and said he’d never seen a kid that young climb that high.”

“Wow,” I said, nodding.

“We went to that wall they used in the movie Planet of the Apes.” Though I hadn’t seen the movie, this was one of the few walls in the LA area I’d been to, so I nodded again.

After trying on 6 different pairs of shoes (we started with size 5, his alleged shoe size, and worked our way up to 7.5), Baron and I headed over to the slab wall. It’s a slightly less than vertical wall (the opposite of an overhang), which means that the climber does more of the work with his legs. This is the wall we start most beginners on. I asked Baron which route he wanted to climb.

“Which one’s the hardest?” He asked. I indicated a 5.11b consisting of tiny red crimps and credit card feet. This, of course, was the climb Baron wanted to do.

Baron’s feet never left the ground. Eventually, I suggested we try a different route, an orange 5.8 on the same section of wall, estimating that this was near the upper limit of what he’d be able to climb.

“Which one’s the second hardest?” he asked.

“He’s stubborn,” his mom called out from where she was observing. It sounded like this was a point of pride for her.

Baron proceeded to fall off the dark blue 5.10b repeatedly. Eventually, he decided he’d climb the 5.10b with the help of an unlimited number of additional holds from other routes. He wanted to know if this still counted as climbing 5.10b. I told him it did not.

I finally got Baron to try a 5.7, which he completed with some effort. We then moved to an overhung wall. I suggested a green 5.9, but yet again, he wanted to know which climb was the hardest. I indicated a 5.11c and prayed he wouldn’t try it. Showing some sense of his own limitations, Baron selected a 5.10a instead. After failing to get beyond the first move, he agreed to switch to the green 5.9.

Baron was clearly athletic and not afraid of heights, but his technique was poor. His lack of footwork and tendency to pull with his arms meant he tired fast on the overhung 5.9. As he alternated between climbing and resting, I tried to offer tips about using his feet and balancing his weight. My success was limited. His mom came up next to us and began telling him specifically where to move his hands and feet, offering suggestions every time he seemed to hesitate.

“Mom, I’m resting,” Baron said, clearly annoyed.

“He’s so stubborn,” his mom repeated, winking at me.

“He’s strong,” I said, uncertain whether I was allowed to agree that her son was stubborn or if that was a privilege reserved for parents.

“Oh yes. He’s got legs like his daddy, strong like oak trees. And crazy upper body strength. He gets that from his dad too.” I nodded, trying to remember if I’d ever heard the phrase “strong like an oak” used outside of books and movies.

“But he’s got my agility,” she added with a conspiratorial grin. I would not have pegged this woman as agile, but judging by her tone and expression, having her agility was a good thing.

“Wow, that’s a lucky combination,” I said. Baron’s mom returned to directing her son’s every move. I considered explaining to her that she was stunting his ability to develop the problem-solving skills necessary for climbing. What will Baron do when he has to try to figure out how to get up a wall without his mom?

“Am I good?” Baron asked when I lowered him from the climb.

“Yes. Of course!” I said after only a slight pause. “Most people your age can’t climb just one color.” This seemed to satisfy him. I wondered what would’ve have happened if I’d said “no.” Would he have quit climbing on the spot? Does he only enjoy the sport because he thinks he’s good at it? What happens when he gets more into it and reads about a dude named Alex Honnold? 

In 6th grade, my math teacher told our class that there was always going to be someone out there who was smarter, faster, stronger, better in every category than we were, and that was life; we had to deal with it. At the time, I’d struggled to wrap my head around this idea. What was the point of existing if someone else could do what you were doing only better?

When I first started rock climbing at the age of 9, I’d enjoyed being good for my age and the praise I’d received, but did little to ensure steady improvement. Eventually, someone came along who was younger and better. I stopped climbing when I entered high school so I’d have more time to pursue other sports, sports for which I still received praise. When I got to levels where I no longer received praise for those sports, I quit them as well. It took a two year stint as the worst player on Yale’s varsity softball team to realize I was selecting my “passions” based on what I was good at rather than what I actually enjoyed. I guess this is more or less the future I imagine for Baron unless his mentality changes (or he becomes the next Alex Honnold).

I’m still not sure I have an answer to what the point of existing is if someone else can do what you’re doing better, but I do know that it’s not a productive line of thought. I’ve interpreted it as license to do what makes you happy.

On her son’s last climb of the session, Baron’s mom resumed her narrative of their time at Planet of the Apes wall.

“He’s fearless; he climbed 600 feet in the air, and it didn’t scare him.” The Planet of the Apes wall is a top rope wall. A standard rope is at most 70 meters, which means on a top rope route, the climber isn’t getting more than 35 meters off the ground, 115 feet. I realized then that I was being incredibly petty. We all live with our own delusions (though they might seem reasonable enough to us). What did I care if Baron’s mom thought her son had been 60, 600, or 6,000 feet off the ground? My job was to make sure the kid had a good time climbing.

I lowered Baron for the last time. Back on the ground he turned to me. “Did I struggle less than other kids on that climb?”

I’m pretty sure this was the moment where I was supposed to give him a speech about how climbing is about competing with yourself, striving to be the best that you can be, etc., etc. But I’m also pretty sure any impassioned speech I could have given, no matter how poignant and filled with introspection, would have gone in one ear and out the other as it would have for me at that age. To this day, I’m not sure I fully subscribe to the “you’re only competing against yourself” philosophy. It’s the intellectually and morally superior philosophy, but if I’m being honest with myself, I only ever use it as a crutch in situations where I know I’m not going to win.

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