Learning New Tricks from an Old Dog

The author and his dog are happy in the mountains. Photo by Mandi Franz.

The author and his dog are happy in the mountains. Photo by Mandi Franz.

My dog taught me something this morning when I tried to teach her a new trick with a piece of fresh-fried bacon: it’s possible to want something too badly, to try too hard and miss a key opportunity.

Take redpoint jitters, for example.

Two weeks ago, I climbed through the main crux of a 5.13a called Wild Thing on Independence Pass, Colo. I was fresh. Killing it. I should have sent it right then. But I imploded.

My shoes skittered on the lichenous ramp en route to the anchors. Confidence vaporized. I tried to hold it together, yet I already knew somehow it was over. My feet skated some more, brushing dirty grit into space – space that swallowed my resolve. I grabbed a quickdraw that dangled at my face like a demon in my ear, telling me to give up already.

“F*****k!” I yelled into the silent, snow-capped mountains. What the hell? How did I botch that?

It would have been my first hard redpoint since my open-heart surgery last October. I wanted it bad.

I tried to redpoint twice more. I could have easily done it on the second try, too, but I was too jittery with doubt, desire and frustration. Perhaps a bit of entitlement as well. I whiffed at the crux even though I had it wired and was still feeling strong.

Mental flubs infuriate me. To feel potential within and then fail to summon it forth just rips me in two. It’s like trying to escape an invisible cage.

To my surprise, (this is a classic script of redpoint climbing) I climbed best on the third, hopeless try of the day, and almost did it. I was relaxed and in the moment because all the other garbage was finally out of my head.

When I returned a week later, I knew the true challenge would be getting into that state of focus while I was still fresh. Somehow, I had to completely let go of how desperately I wanted the day to end with success.

Meanwhile, in the week leading up to then, the goal had taken on a new shape. Part of the reason I was bummed at “not sending when I should have,” is because clipping the anchors three tries later would seem anticlimactic – a delayed inevitability. For Wild Thing, a new goal occurred to me that made it fresh and exciting again: when I finally reached the anchors, how cool would it be to keep climbing, and try to top out not just the 11-bolt route, but the 75-foot boulder that houses the route? It would entail onsighting an unknown boulder problem on dirty rock that never gets climbed. It would ensure either a victory whip or a fall above the anchors.

I was excited and trying not to care when my wife and I returned to the base of Wild Rock on July 4.

Tom Moulin stays relaxed on Wild Thing, Independence Pass, Colo. Photo by Derek Franz.

Tom Moulin stays relaxed on Wild Thing, Independence Pass, Colo. Photo by Derek Franz.

That’s another unexpected gift from open-heart surgery. This season it’s been easier to let go of high expectations and care less about achievements, knowing simply that I’m damn lucky to be back on the rock in any capacity.

The theme of this season has been to have fun, try my best, and not care too much beyond that. I’m so grateful for everything I continue to learn through this recovery process, and all indicators suggest that my mental game is getting better than ever!

My heart got the usual flutters as I tied in. Whenever I noticed the butterflies, I concentrated on empty thoughts. Climbing became nothing more than a cycle of breathing and moving.

I sent! Not only did I clip the anchors, I climbed past them, toe hooking and mantling onto the summit of the boulder. I almost fell once as I did so, and it would have been OK, thrilling even, and I could have walked away almost as satisfied, having clipped the anchors in a clean fashion.

I was glad I didn’t reach my original goal that first day. In the end, I felt like I was able to realize a bigger vision that was more rewarding.

Some of the best moments for me are when it becomes so clear what makes me tick, what brings me joy, and where my ego holds me back again and again through a fear of failure.

I find many of those moments in climbing. Or when I’m trying to teach the dog a new trick.

This morning Soleille sat there on the tile, looking up with excited disbelief at the bacon in my hand. I’ve dropped many treats for her to catch in the past, and she almost always catches them, but I’d never offered her fresh bacon before.

The juicy hunk of fat bounced between her eyes and fell to the floor. It took a full second for her to catch up to what had happened.

We tried the trick again and again, but it never came together. Instead of getting better at catching the bacon, Soleille became more timid than ever. She even stooped down onto her belly, groveling, which was the opposite of what I was encouraging her to do.

She showed me how wanting something too badly – such as not believing your wildest fantasies can come true, and that such a thing could happen RIGHT NOW – can cause the opportunity to vanish like a wet bar of soap shooting from a hand that’s squeezing too tight.

That’s what “Cougar” meant in the movie Top Gun when he turned in his pilot’s wings: “I’m holding on too tight – I’ve lost the edge.”

That’s the trick, not holding on too tight.

Derek Franz writes a blog for SplitterChoss.com once a month. To find more of his writing, visit www.derekfranz.com.

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