Creative Fear at Red Rocks

I write software for fun and profit, and writing great software - like all creative work - requires long stretches of deep thought. I don't know where creative insights come from, but two things are clear to me about how to find them:

  1. You can study and obsess over a problem as much as you want, but eventually you have to learn to sit and wait for your subconscious to bake all that work into something coherent.
  2. Sitting and waiting for those insights is excruciating.

I started meditating a couple of years ago as a way to train myself to wait. Sit on a pillow, close your eyes, focus on your breath. If you haven't ever done this, you should download Headspace, take 15 minutes and try it right now. You might think that it's going to be relaxing. Instead you'll discover that you, like me, have been living your entire life with a jabbering little monkey that's terrified of boredom and specializes in drowning out those creative whispers from down deep.

Steven Pressfield calls this "The Resistance." To do great creative work you need to learn to mind this obnoxious thing in your head, to look at it until its jabbering, frothing utterances blend together and quiet down. If you stick around until that happens, you might have a chance at hearing the whispers. Meditation is a great way to practice battle with the monkey, and you should do it, by all means. The monkey's quiet and insidious, and turning down the volume by focusing inward allows you to hear it clearly and practice shutting it down.

There is another way. Instead of turning down your volume, you can crank up the monkey's volume by scaring the shit out of it. Any audacious goal will do, but I've found that there's nothing quite like rock climbing to make the monkey squeal.

The unique thing about using rock climbing as monkey bait is that it works every time, whether you're ready for the confrontation or not. If your defenses drop and the monkey takes over you can feel like a completely different person, immersed in a hallucination where everything feels terrifying. This happened to me last year in a big way on the second day of a climbing trip at Red Rocks, Nevada.

Red Rocks

In 2016 I had this idea that I was going to climb El Cap. I convinced my friend Chris Sha to sign up for some training, and that April we flew out to Red Rocks, Nevada to see how fast we could move on a couple of very long rock routes.

The first day we decided to climb Epinephrine, a classic 5.9, 15 pitches long with a few scary chimneys in the middle to challenge us. This was the perfect route to practice moving fast. For day two we picked out a 5 pitch 5.10d route called "Adventure Punks". The guidebook called it one of the best climbs in the area, but cautioned that it's rarely climbed because of a scary first pitch, a 40 foot runout with a potentially deadly fall. This is not unlike what we'd find on El Cap. Perfect way to practice the head game, right? You might be able to see where this is going.

Epinephrine was just incredible. 1600 feet of amazing climbing on a gorgeous spring day. I hadn't been that far off the ground in over a year, and the monkey's chatter was constant. I felt low-grade anxiety from the moment I stepped off the ground, but I was able to deal with it and enjoy the experience. We moved through all 15 pitches of climbing in about six hours, fast and efficient. Here's a shot from Mountain Project:

My proudest moment of the day came on lead, about 80% of the way through the climb. The guidebook noted that the pitch contained a "sketchy traverse" to the right. At the top of a narrowing crack below a wide roof, I placed a nut, checked the torn-out guidebook page and decided that the crusty wall to my right must be my traverse. Okay, game on.

As I traversed right, the moves started to feel harder than 5.8. Stranger still on such a classic route, every hold was sandy and filthy. One flake crumbled away in my hand. Next came a committing dynamic move up that felt like it would be difficult to reverse. I went for it. I was amped and proud of my commitment. 20 feet or so to the right of that last piece of gear, I pulled around the corner, and suddenly the wind was roaring around my head, just screaming, as I pulled up onto a safe ledge that was obviously off route. Lichen-covered slab stretched above me with no cracks for gear, no bolts for protection.

The monkey's volume jacked WAY up. I started thinking, and I'm not kidding, "Just jump. Just take the fall! You should just take the fall. It's not that far. You'll get hurt, sure, but it'll be easier that way."

The only thing to do was to go back the way I'd come and hope the decaying rock would hold me. If I fell and my gear held, at best I was looking at a huge swinging fall that would smash me into the wall. If the nut popped out I'd fall at least sixty feet. I took five slow, deep breaths and made myself smile at the rock in front of my face. I'd read somewhere that Soviet soldiers would smile as they ran into battle to bump up their endorphine levels.

It sort of worked. I started back. Every move lowered the consequences of a fall. I tried to aggressively enjoy what I was doing, focus on the movement and ignore the consequences. Finally, finally, I was back at my gear, breathing hard, scared, happy, alive. I started again, went left this time, and there was the anchor just to the left of the roof.

Chris and I topped out, celebrated and started the two hour descent to the car. The nervous tension didn't fade, but I was happy about how I'd handled the unexpected mental strength workout. I'd battled with the monkey, and my hope was that this confrontation would make me a little stronger next time. As it turned out, the monkey would have its revenge the next day.

Day 2 - Adventure Punks

I woke up early feeling wrecked, dehydrated and very happy to be in bed. My stoke for climbing was gone. I meditated and got back into bed for another hour. What had we decided to climb today?

Oh, yeah. Adventure Punks, the route with the "psychological crux", 40 feet of unprotected climbing up to an insecure move and tiny gear after that. As I lay in bed I could not stop thinking about this detail. I'd exhausted my monkey defenses yesterday and I couldn't ignore it as it began to chatter and weave the sick fantasy world that I'd be forced to inhabit for the rest of the day.

We made breakfast and talked about the plan. Chris was so excited. I tried to pretend that I was too, but I couldn't stop visualizing evil things. We decided that Chris would lead the first pitch, and right there at the table I could see him slipping, hitting the ground next to me and crumpling into a bloody pile. I tried to push this away but couldn't. I started making comments to Chris about how he better not fall, better not deck, and reading him comments from the internet about how dangerous the pitch was.

I was trying to egg him into suggesting that we climb something else. Something easy. Didn't he know what was going on in my head? Of course I should have just told him, but I still thought that I could ignore the monkey into submission. He didn't get the message and my silence decided it. We were going for it.

The hike in was absolutely gorgeous. It had rained the week before and the desert was alive with colorful flowers. Our trail followed a stream bubbling with cool, clear water, dotted with purple blooms that had fallen from the bright trees lining the path. To distract myself from the monkey, I held forth to Chris about meditation and focus and awareness, and told him how helpful my new "practice" was in establishing bullet-proof calm.

The hike, and maybe the bullshit I was spouting, cleared my head and I started to enjoy the hike and, just a little, to look forward to the climbing ahead. This was one of the best routes in the area, after all. For a couple of miles I felt like myself again. I felt like I'd conquered the fear. And I had, until we scrambled up to the base and I saw the route.

photo from Mountain Project

The climb was beautiful, cracks of all widths curving up above us in a massive arc... and as I remember it now, that first move was frankly not that bad. At the time I couldn't see the thing clearly. All I could see was confirmation of the message that the monkey had been chanting all morning, the message I was too tired to ignore. This route was going to kill me. I was sure of it.

I should have called it and tried to switch our plan to something easier. Instead I started in on Chris with more "dark humor". I told him that I was going to leave a few handfuls of rope out so that if he did fall, he wouldn’t drag me along and kill me too. I felt predatory, abusive, but I couldn't stop. Chris dealt with this patiently, told me it was going to be fine and roped up. Once he started climbing I shut up, but the movie kept rolling in my head, more real than the mundane nothing that was actually happening.

I imagined in vivid detail how I'd conduct the rescue operation after. I'd have to climb down, cover Chris's body with my jacket, maybe improvise a tourniquet or splint. We were so far away from cell service that I’d have to run out, screaming to anyone I saw on the trail to go find my friend and take care of him while I, heroically, called in the chopper. The monkey's claws were deep in my brain, in control of every image and thought, getting back at me for ignoring it the day before.

Suddenly Chris was at the anchor and it was my turn to climb. I put my shoes on slowly, and of course my feet were so painful. I'm sure now that I was imagining this. I tried to enjoy each move independently, but I had some trouble with that first crux move and imagined myself on lead, slipping, falling to my death.

I broke through the haze a couple of times. I was able to drown out the monkey by focusing in on the specific physical actions I was taking. Should I use this flake? Can I get my foot higher, breathe and step up? Each respite was temporary. Each move was taking me higher up on this scary climb, and I could just imagine all of the shit that could go wrong. What if the bolts ripped? What if my harness snapped?

I gave up at the top of the third pitch.

At the belay a beautiful idea came to me about how to quit - and when it did, every other evil thought just disappeared. I did want to climb, I told myself... just not this climb. Why not go buy beers and do some easy sport climbs close to the car? Why was I pushing through this just for Chris? This was my trip too!

I climbed up to Chris and told him that I wanted to quit. He was surprised and tried to talk me out of it, but I held firm. There was no way I was going to continue. I resented him not giving in immediately. Didn't he know how much I'd been struggling with this? But how could he know? I hadn't said anything. I'd struggled, suffered and failed inside of my own private hell. Of course I got my way - can I salvage this by saying that the monkey got its way? - and we rappelled off, giving up and giving in.


So what happened here? Nothing bad, outside of the fantasies spinning in my head. I let myself get trapped in a fantasy that was more violent and terrifying than anything that was actually happening around me. Chris was able to focus on the details of the climb without layering on extra meaning; this let him perform and have a great time.

Why do I do this to myself? In a sick way it's fun to pass through the gauntlet, even if it mostly exists in my head. Anything difficult and meaningful is bound to produce this deep sense of doubt. The physical sensations I feel when I sit down to write or make some big decision in my life are tamped-down versions of what happens on a climb. Practicing calm up on a rock wall does make it just a bit easier to take on other challenges. It gets easier to ignore the fear.

I suppose the takeaway from this story is, if you want to practice for creative work you should get out and do something scary. Get hungry, get cold, lace up your shoes and run far enough to get a little scared. Get up on some rock. It won't be as bad as you think, and maybe it'll make it that much easier to start that project you know the monkey's been warning you away from. For my part, I'm dreading the email from Chris after he reads this and invites me back to Red Rocks for another shot at Adventure Punks.

Good luck!


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