A year later

I’m sat in the desert sun on a slightly melting yoga mat stretching my shoulder. I’m ill, and my body feels stiff and angry. I look up at Air Swedin, and my headachy mind wanders back to where it all started six years ago, spring 2010. Completely in love with this route and a strange lanky kid from Canada, it was one of the best trips ever. Air Swedin is a beautiful piece of rock architecture—your eye is drawn to the perfect crack in the face, and then it peters out, your eye jumping to the chalk smears on the knife-edge arête a meter to the left. Your heart skips a beat and asks, Surely not? Yep! You bust out onto the arête, slap wildly with your left hand, and, with feet smearing desperately, you snatch the closed crack as a crimp with the right. And forget about being able to place gear….

As I sit beneath the route again, I look at it differently. My first reaction is emotive. That piece of rock and I have history; it totally dictated the six years of my life following our meeting. Four years of shoulder troubles followed by a year of rest and uncertainty and finally a year of post operation rehab and supposed recovery. How would my life have looked had I not done this route? What hard routes would I have climbed? What trips would I have been on? Would I be standing here right now?

The last few years have taught me a lot about seeing things as they are and not painting experience with emotion, not wishing for things to be different. When my shoulder hurt I used to only fight it, resist it, want things to change. I won’t lie, I still do that. A lot. Somewhere along the line though, I realized the worst pain is the reaction to the pain, it’s the stress and the worry that things will stay as they are and I won’t be fixed. My shoulder pain is laden with another kind of sticky emotion too, composed of memories, stories, wants and desires that hurts way more than burning myself on a stove or a splinter under the nail. It’s kind of like heartache but worse, since I’ve always cared more about climbing than men.

It’s a strange thing to become a grown up and learn that you and you alone are the master of your own unhappiness. Sure, you can be unlucky. External realities like getting an injury, losing money or heartbreak can make things harder, but really it’s the reaction to these circumstances that’s painful; and you’re responsible for that. Understanding that I am the master of my own misery is both a terrible thing and a beautiful thing. It’s terrible because I can no longer get that dark enjoyment from pointing the finger outwardly at other people or events. On the other side of the coin, it’s a beautiful thing to learn, because being the master of your own sadness also means that you alone have the key to your freedom.

Despite learning this small truth, I lie in the sun irritated that I’m ill and I still don’t have full range of motion in my shoulder, even though a few days from now it will be exactly a year from the operation. I thought I’d be crushing by now. I’m angry with the surgeon for not telling me recovery would be so slow. I’m angry with myself for doing this route with weak shoulders. I’m angry that I haven’t climbed hard in two years. I’m angry with the Mexican man I shared a sauna with who gave me a two-week long flu. Being aware of all this anger and dissatisfaction shows me that having the key to my own freedom is not as easy as unlocking the door. It’s a journey longer than my life will last. Perhaps I now have a small sliver of understanding as to why Didier ran away to a monastery after failing to climb the Cobra Crack. He’d gambled all his chips, and it broke him. But as I lie here with subtle bubbling anger under my skin, at least I’m aware. Someone wise once said that a well-defined problem is already half solved. Awareness is the first step.

So now I try to look at the rock just as it is. Not as a route, not as a Labrum destroyer, not as the cause of the last six years of my life. Instead of allowing my eyes to be driven by the climber in me, or by the injured professional climber in me, I try to look at the wall as it is with no story and no emotion. I look at the other parts of the wall that you can’t climb, the unusual pastel colors, the beautiful curves and the changes in angle. I like the shadows that the corners cast, and before I know it, the last six years feel like a funny joke. Climbing Air Swedin was like dropping a pebble in a pool, and the ripples of the last six years came full circle and brought me back to this exact same spot. Different shoulder, different man, same shit…. Life is all just practice. People like to practice so they can make money or climb hard. I like to put energy into practicing happiness. When I’m happy, I’m kind, I’m energetic, I’m funny and I climb well.

I move into my snow angel test. Lying with my back on the ground, I try to make a snow angel, palms up. As my arms reach 11 o’clock, the left smoothly glides up, and my bicep comes to rest against my ear. The right arm gets jammed at 11 like a broken clock, and it takes a few adjustments to get it to complete the circle. It still hurts! I shouldn’t be here, I should be with my PT, I think. I should have done things differently. If only this route didn’t exist. One whole year! Here my mind goes again, wishing things were different.

I stand up and look at the young lad who has (perhaps unwisely) followed me to Indian Creek this spring, just as I had fatally followed a lanky kid here six springs ago. With the same illness from the same Mexican, a shagged shoulder himself, next to no crack climbing ability and a dwindling tea supply, he should really pack his bags and go back to Yorkshire. But here he is, impossibly pretty and impossibly psyched, throwing me a smile to match. “Should we bring all the cams?” he asks. “I reckon so,” I reply.

Comments 3

  • Sam
    11/28/16

    Beautiful. I can relate. cheers to you and to staying happy

  • 01/14/17

    Hey hazel you seem like a very cool gal and i really enjoy your writing quite a bit.  When i was climbing more, i was just like you - when i was happy and just feeling good oVerall in life i climbed alot better than i thought i ever would, which still wasnt very hard in terms of the grades like solid 5.10 TRad and solid 5.11 sPort.  I always equatted it to either climbing out of love or climbing out of fear, and with tge laTter never working for me at all!

    Do ever make it to seattLe?  Or have you ever climbed at index?  Its really great - i’d love to meet you if you are ever in the northwest -  Stay strong and keep sending!!
    Bissell

  • 01/15/17

    Hi Hazel.  Thank you so much for this post.  I just stumbled across it and it couldn’t have been more opportune.  recovering from medical procedures, wanting to climb more and searching for happiness myself, your words exactly echoed what i am going through myself.  it was as if you took the words out of my head and heart and put them on paper.  you’re an inspiration.

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