Focus

rock climbing
A thin face climb

The solution wasn’t jumping out at her. Nothing about the situation made any sense. Why had he said that? His conclusion wasn’t logical. Her mind worked in overdrive to come up with an answer to the problem, although a part of her feared there might not be one. Maybe I should….. But her chain of thought was broken by the reality of the moment. She looked down at the ground, some 30′ below, and her focus reverted to the rock. The climb was rated 5.12 and named “Second Thoughts,” of all things. And from that point forward, the thing that mattered to her most was the few square feet of rock surrounding her.


She reached out to the side with her left leg and shifted her weight onto her foot. The half-inch thick flake of granite was solid. Thank goodness, she thought, as she took a deep breath and shifted her weight onto it. From her new perch, she was able to reach up to a small crystal at about 11 o’clock and pinched it firmly with her left thumb and index finger. Her grip was like a vice, and she pulled herself up another six inches. Suddenly, she was fully committed to the climb. In that instant, she went from being a psychologist to a rock climber.

Reversing the move would take her back to the safety of the big ledge, but she wasn’t about to go there. She’d noted a hump of sorts from below. Now it was just above her right knee, and she recognized that it could be used for her next foothold. So, she picked up her foot and set it down on top of it. Then, before shifting her weight entirely onto it and committing to the move, she looked around for something to use as a handhold.

The bottom of a small crack looked promising in that regard. When she first explored its options, it seemed useless. But nonetheless, she continued following it upward with her right index finger. And within a few inches, felt it widen just enough to allow her fingertip to go inside, ever so slightly. She twisted and locked it firmly into place. Then she pulled on it to see how solid it was. And it felt good. So, she leaned back, shifted her weight onto her right foot, and stood up. The move gained her a foot of elevation. But more importantly, it opened up a whole new set of climbing possibilities.

Thank God, the shoes really do edge well, she concluded. She straightened on up so that her right hand became shoulder high. The tendons in her right hand were strong, but she didn’t have to use much of that strength with the finger jam. She straightened herself up into a more upright and comfortable position. The foothold had enough of a positive slope for her foot to firmly stick on it. So, she shifted her body weight from her hand down onto her foot and, thus, her legs. By so doing, she removed some of the stress and pain from her hand and was able to relax her upper body. Once stable, she looked up higher and took a deep breath.

As she looked up at the surface of the rock, the sun looked back down and almost blinded her. She realized that if she could lean back on her hand, the angle for looking up would be better and that she might be able to actually see something. But given her hand and foot’s current positions, she knew that wasn’t going to happen. And so, she wasted no more time considering it and began methodically feeling her way around on the rock with her left hand.

Her fingers ran into a sharp edge that was less than an inch thick. Even though it ran at an unfortunate downward angle, she was confident that it would be of use. She speculated, anticipated, and planned hard. Eight years of climbing experience was unfolded, analyzed, and summed up in her brain in a single instant. If she chalked up her fingers well, cocked her hand to the left, and opposed her three middle fingers on the flat side against her thumb, she was sure that she could pull up on it and make the move.

And so, that’s what she did. She dipped her left hand into her chalk bag. Her fingers, once sweaty with anticipation, came out dry and powdery. She turned her hand to the left and reached confidently up to the small, angled ledge. She placed three fingertips into place against the flat edge and then felt around with her thumb until it settled into a position that she could pull against.

As soon as the thumb locked into position, her tongue came out and went into her focus position, just like it always did. She carefully moved her left foot up onto a small ledge and began methodically shifting her weight onto it. She completed the move and, in a few seconds, was standing securely on top of it.

From her new position, she noted a chicken-head shaped rock formation just above and beyond her reach. But she was confident that with an extra foot of height, she’d be able to reach it. She’d seen the feature from below, and it had appeared promising. And now that she was closer, it looked even better.

Above the chicken-head, there was an actual ledge, maybe a foot wide, and there were two big cracks along with various flakes and bulges just above that. The sum of those climbing options, assuming she could get there, silently screamed “easier.” And so, getting to that point became her immediate goal.

Her gaze locked in on the chicken-head. She was aware that once her weight was shifted onto her foot and she stood up, it’d be within her reach. She focused her attention solely on the hold, in a sort of power of positive thinking moment. All of her energy was directed at the 5 cubic inch blob of rock.

Her right finger jam was now about waist high. She had to release it to be able to reach up. If she was going to move up, there really wasn’t a choice, and so she let go and slowly began sliding her hand up the rock. She knew that if she hugged the rock too much while reaching and extending, her feet would fall out from under her, so she was careful to lean away from the surface. There really was no second chance as far as she was concerned, and she wasn’t going to go too fast and fall onto the belay rope. For some, having the rope for protection was of overriding importance. But for her, it had become a useful presence that was her gauge of success. As far as she was concerned, falling off the rock and onto the rope was the boundary between success and failure.

After many climbs, she simply knew the critical value of the friction that sticky climbing shoe sole rubber created when placed against rock. She also understood the importance of the counter-pressure created by keeping your body away from the surface and pushing your feet into the rock. And after plenty of trial and error, she had learned how to successfully assess the sorts of features that her feet would stick on, and her hands and fingers could hold.

The callouses on the tips of her fingers were like sandpaper. And her forearm muscles looked like they were going to pop out of her skin whenever she called on them to go to work. She was confident in her mental and physical climbing condition- she was at the top of her game. And so, she had only a small handful of doubt as she continued with the move.
As her knees almost straightened, she felt her left grip weaken and backed down a bit to take the pressure off of her hand. She rotated her fingers ever so slightly and then began the standing process again. As she rose the second time, her right hand slid up the rock toward the big hold, and she continued staring at it. This time, as her knees straightened, her left hand felt more secure, and she was able to reach up and actually touch the chicken-head.

She knew better than to just grab it before understanding anything about it. She explored its nuances and found it an almost perfect knob for wrapping her whole hand around. And so, at that point, she just grabbed it. The hold was solid and easy to grasp, and by leaning back on it, she was able to just let go with her other hand and press her feet firmly down and into the rock.
She took a deep breath and looked up toward her next move. Because she was leaning back, the sun angle was good, and she could scope out the immediate route. She briefly looked out and up into the sky and noted a disconcerting cloud build-up. The storm information was quickly filed away into the back of her mind, and her focus returned to the subsequent three feet of rock. She was aware that those three feet led to another 100. The thought of that would intimidate many, but not her. She took a moment and reveled in the mystery of the moment. And then, she looked at a small twisted ledge, pondered a crack that split it, and considered her options.

rock climbing
Lead Climbing

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.

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