I’m on the airplane. Again. This time, I’m going home. I’ve been pining for home for weeks now. I woke up every morning in Morocco and crossed off another day in my hand-drawn calendar in my notebook, something Hazel found highly entertaining. “You know,” she told me one morning after said ritual, “If you spend all your time with one foot in yesterday and one foot in tomorrow, you shit on today”. We had grown tired of being there, already satisfied with our effort on Babel after just one big 24 hour push, but had obligations to stay another 10 days or so to finish filming on the route for the upcoming Reel Rock Film Tour. It was the “work” part of the trip, and even though we were on an all expenses paid trip to an amazing place that most people only dream of visiting, I was having a hard time enjoying it and living in the moment.
The last half of the trip was far less climbing focused and much more “work” focused. We were there to create a film, to tell a story about climbing, and oftentimes those kinds of projects involve less actual climbing than one would assume. My friend Andrew Bisharat just wrote an interesting piece about storytelling in the outdoor industry that seemed to somewhat fit the sentiments I was felt during our trip, although not entirely. He writes, “In today’s world of adventure and climbing, are people genuinely seeking adventures in order to test and change themselves in some meaningful ways? Or are they doing trips just to do trips, and making movies about the trips in order to provide worth and value to their sponsors?”
I think these are really valuable questions to ask and I’ve often had to address such issues myself in recent years. Being a professional athlete can be a tricky balance at times. There’s been more than a few occasions where I’ve had to step back and ask myself why I’m doing what I’m doing and if it’s really something I want, or if it’s just something I think I’m meant to do or am only doing because I can’t figure out what else I have to offer the world. Merging one’s personal goals and passion with career and financial gains can lead the scale of importance to tip too far in the direction of the latter, while emphasis on the former becomes muddled or even disappears entirely. I’ll fully admit that I pursued the idea to climb with Hazel in Morocco after Sender Films approached me and told me I could have a presence in the Reel Rock Tour. Of course I wanted to explore a new aspect of climbing, expand my skills, and visit a new place that supposedly had superb climbing; but if I’m going to be honest with myself, I have to fess up to the fact that the driving motivator did not completely originate from within myself and my passion for climbing, but also an opportunity for media exposure as well. I don’t really see how I could not consider that sort of attention as valuable in my position. My sponsors help me pay my bills and live the life I enjoy. Naturally, I take that into account when I make decisions about trips and projects.
I recounted the details of our epic 24 hour mission on The North Face site here. In a nutshell, Hazel and I tried to onsight free climb a route called Babel, a 2800ft big wall established by Arnaud Petit, Stephanie Bodet, Titi Gentet, and Nicholas Kalisz in 2007. It it 18 pitches long, stacked with mostly mid-5.12 to easy 5.13 climbing, and we wanted to do it in a day. After it was all said and done, I am really proud of our effort. We gave it hell, everything we had, and never once gave up on the idea that we were going to make it to the top and walk off, no matter how slow or tired we were. But we did not onsight all the pitches, nor did we free them all. We essentially failed in our main objective. We did not send.
There was a lot of talk after our attempt as to whether or not we would go back and try for the redpoint. We were totally spent from 24 hours of effort, and I felt mentally and physically empty. I had never climbed a big wall like that before, with such difficult and engaging climbing, daring and dangerous runouts, and for such a long period of time. The entire experience was utterly exhausting. The film crew seemed stressed at first at our hesitation to go back and try again, as if the story wouldn’t be complete without another try, but what if we didn’t want to try again? Well, we didn’t.
“If we go back up, it will only be for the film,” was Hazel’s response to me one night after discussing yet again the option of trying again. She had really put everything she had into freeing every move of Babel. Sure, she fell a few times (4 out of 5 of those times were a result of holds breaking), but she always lowered down to the nearest no hands rest and climbed through the section she had fallen. Of course she didn’t claim to have “sent” the route cleanly, but I believe she felt she had accomplished a very personal success – as did I. The hours we spent up there were some of the most intense and powerful moments in climbing I’ve had. Of all the success and pivotal moments I’ve experienced in my life, that day in Morocco will always stand out to me as one of my greatest challenges, climbing or otherwise. It was my first true big wall experience and the longest and most continuous objective I’ve attempted. I had never before felt so emotionally engaged in my climbing, so mentally and physically depleted, and yet so determined to not give up on our secondary goal of standing on the top of the cliff – a summit – the consolation prize to not freeing the route but still a great accomplishment in our eyes.
“The question that we as storytellers, climbers and adventurers really need to ask is: What is the real story we’re trying to tell? Are we doing something we want to do, or are we doing something we think people want to see?”
We decided not to try again. Hazel and I put so much of ourselves into that first attempt and we just couldn’t summon the motivation. We felt a great sense of satisfaction and satiation after our big day, despite the lack of tangible or newsworthy success. Our approach from the start did not set us up for sure-fire success. If we wanted that, we would have done things differently. We probably would have rappelled the route, ticked and chalked holds, rehearsed pitches, and made sure we had the hardest sequences dialed. But Hazel and I both agreed that that approach was slightly boring in our minds. Maybe it would have made for a better film in the end, or maybe not. Maybe a send would be what the audience would rather see, but I kind of hope not. We decided to climb Babel in a way we believed to be the most challenging and the greatest adventure, and we did it for ourselves. I think that those reasons alone make for a great story, and I hope the film can accurately portray that.
In the end, the film crew agreed with our point of view. We spent the last week of the trip as I said before – reshooting sequences for close-ups and cleaning the route of all the fixed lines used for filming. It was less far less motivating and enjoyable than going climbing, but again, that is part of why we were there. We were tired and ready to be home, but we stayed and did what we had to do, and then we went home. Being a professional athlete is an extremely fortunate position to be in, but as with anything, it has its low moments and requires an ongoing balance in order to maintain both success and honesty. I’m trying to be aware of this challenge, to embrace it and to appreciate it. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be enjoying every moment and struggle that goes along with it, but sometimes I forget and end up crossing off days in my notebook, forgetting today by dwelling on the past or future, “shitting on it,” as Hazel would have said.
I was given the opportunity to visit Morocco and go climbing with magnificent and challenging objective with people who I now consider good friends. I want to thank Hazel for being a most excellent teammate and friend, for embracing my gumbiness and for not making fun of me too much for being afraid of heights. Let’s do it again sometime! To Kris Erickson for taking the time to show us what life in Morocco is all about, for capturing beautiful images of our time there, and for essentially making the trip as safe and productive as possible. To Rob Frost and Alex Lowther for working hard to document the journey, tell our story, and for supporting Hazel and I in our goal. And to all the others we met in Taghia who helped us and made the trip remarkable and special.
Now I’m back in Tahoe, spending the summer learning how to lead trad and build anchors so that I can climb more big walls (without bolts this time), have greater adventures, and more stories to tell.