Climbing: The Art of Letting Go

Matt Davis levitates in "The Crack House" outside Moab, Utah. Photo by Derek Franz.

Matt Davis levitates in “The Crack House” outside Moab, Utah. Photo by Derek Franz.

Climbing is more than it appears. It’s not just pulling myself up rock or ice. It is a reflection of everything I’m feeling – confidence, insecurity, distraction, focus, optimism – the hodgepodge I’m continually trying to balance every day in life.

For me to climb well, I have to feel as though I’m living well. Therefore, climbing is a motivator for me to be a better person, to live in such a way that I feel square with life or that I’m living in a balanced way.

When I’m frustrated with work, bills, relationships – if there’s anything I can’t let go of in the back of my mind – it shows up on the rock.

“F********CK!” I screamed from the end of my rope in Rifle Mountain Park last Thursday. Another tiny, silly fluke of a mistake had thwarted my redpoint on one of the longest, hardest projects I’ve ever attempted, a 5.13c called “Sometimes Always.” I’d been one-hanging the route for a couple weeks. I’d reached the point where I felt like I could climb circles around the 17-bolt route, except I’d bumble into a silly mistake every time. On that recent attempt, I’d climbed through the high crux feeling strong and then the rope flopped between my foot and the rock, causing me to slip. I felt like a clown who couldn’t pull himself together. Adding to the frustration was a sense of desperation. My busy schedule this summer has only allowed me an average of one climbing day per week, and last Thursday was my last chance to send the project before a two-week hiatus. And the hot July sun was creeping over the wall, which meant I had one more hour to make it happen. Otherwise, there was no telling what my fitness would be like when I returned.

Meanwhile, outside of climbing, I’ve been stressed with finances and impending medical costs for a heart condition I have. When these situations stack up, I get impatient with myself, even when I know better.

Of course there’s plenty in my life to be happy about, just like there was plenty about my climbing day to enjoy last Thursday, but like many people, I have a tendency to focus on the few things that aren’t perfect. Dwelling on imperfection is not conducive to success; I know this, but I dwell anyway.

In fact, it’s been my experience that the condition of the mind is much more important than physical fitness when it comes to climbing. Two weeks before my recent wobbler, I had nearly sent the route. When I warmed up that morning, my muscles felt sore from the get go, even on routes I normally don’t get pumped on. But my mind had a laser focus. In spite of my physical fatigue, I was in the flow. Every movement was precise, without hesitation. I’d never felt so poor and so good at the same time. I wasn’t even planning to try the project that day because of how sore I felt from the moment I got out of bed, but I was climbing too well not to. Low and behold, I damn near sent. Somehow I stuck the “foot dyno” on the high crux and didn’t fall until I reached the 12a headwall, where I finally ran out of gas after redlining for 40 feet. It changed my personal definition of “a muerte” – or climbing to the utter end – as the Spaniards say.

Having climbed so high on the route when my body was so fatigued, I knew I was close to success, but I couldn’t quite stick the foot dyno on subsequent attempts, no matter how fresh I felt. What is wrong with me? I wondered. I knew it was something in my head.

After my clumsy foot slip on the rope last Thursday, with precious shade slipping away, I still had one more shot. I was almost too scared to try because of my potential disappointment.

The only chance I have to do well is to let go of all my anger, I thought. I had to forget everything. Anything that didn’t have to do with the next move was a distraction. It didn’t matter how many times I had failed before, or in how many different ways I’d botched my previous chances. To think more optimistically, I had to embrace what I had in that moment, which was one more opportunity. Besides that, I reminded myself, climbing is my recreation. Fall or send, I was in my happy place! That’s what mattered. I held onto that thought, and by the time I left the ground I was having fun again. Any notion of a deadline was forgotten. I hiked.

As much as climbing has to do with holding on, it’s equally important to let go. It’s a continual learning experience that encourages me to practice better habits in the rest of my life. That’s why – in spite of all the F-bombs I’ve dropped – I can say this strange sport truly helps me be a better person.

Derek Franz writes for on the first Monday of every month. More of his writing can be found at

One Response to Climbing: The Art of Letting Go

  1. Nice article Derek. Great reminder about perspective. Thanks again.

    don mcgrath November 30, 2014 at 11:33 am
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