Climbing Masochism

Hands
Fellow climber Matt Davis shows off his bloody hands. Photo courtesy of Shay Skinner. Check out more of Shay’s photography on her blog /skin/ /ˈpōətrē/ photography HERE

By Outdoor Prolink Editorial Intern Sara Aranda. Sara likes to climb, trail run, travel and adventure. She comes from California but is making Boulder, Colorado her new home. Sara also works at Movement Climbing + Fitness in Boulder. Look for more blog posts and photos from Sara coming soon!

The texture of the crack digs into my skin. Hands swimming, one foot over the other. Thumbs down or thumbs up. It’s just a man-made simulation in a gym in Denver, but it doesn’t hurt any less. The crack widens and I have to use my whole fist and forearm to keep my body towards the wall. I’m voluntarily suffering. I finish the climb and am lowered to the ground. My hands throb and the skin along my forearms and wrists are scraped up. My climbing partner has to help cut the tape from my hands; my arms are too pumped and feel like heavy clubs of swollen muscle and tendon. I can’t straighten my fingers until the fluids settle out of my arm. Is this self-mutilation?

All I know is that I love it.

Sara climbing on the Manure Pile Buttress in Yosemite National Park.
Sara climbing on the Manure Pile Buttress in Yosemite National Park.

In a lot of ways, climbing requires a smidgen of insanity. I attempt to defy gravity, forget about heights, mentally block out any fear of falling or injury. On longer climbs I’m often battling hunger, thirst, and fatigue. Climbers place their bodies under tremendous stress. I was climbing with my buddy Alain in Yosemite, on the third pitch of the Rostrum (it was my first time on the route), when my left hand suddenly closed on itself without me consciously telling it to. My hand just made a fist and I couldn’t open it. There was no pain or sensation at all, really; my arm was simply contracting as if it had a mind of its own. It lasted almost five minutes, and I couldn’t do anything except be hauled up by Alain onto the ledge. I didn’t know what it meant, but I sure didn’t want to risk any serious injury. I definitely was pushing myself to a new limit, a degree at which my body was starting to fail – which had never happened before.

Fellow climber Ashton Phillips on Generic Crack in Indian Creek. Bjorn Bauer Photography.

I do try to be aware of what I ask of my body, but sometimes I have no idea what I’m capable of until I actually push myself there. When I train on sport routes in the gym, there are times when my mind is telling me to let go, give up, stop. Of course I listen sometimes. But other times, I take a few purposeful breaths and force myself to keep going. I amaze myself by what I can hold on to. I’m beginning to train my body to maintain strength under great stress and fatigue. There’s only one way to get stronger, right? And I feel the results when I climb outside. My endurance always amazes me.

Intern Sara out on a run with fellow trail runners Audrey Sherman and Eliza Earle.
Sara snaps a photo while out on a run with fellow trail runners Audrey Sherman and Eliza Earle.

This relationship with pain and suffering of course spans across several sports and activities, and I am drawn to those that push me to the edge and sometimes force me to fall apart, such as distance trail running. Why? It’s still a question I ask myself all the time, and it’s most definitely a question others ask me as well. Humans are incredible beings. We’ve explored almost all there is to explore here on Earth, our population is outrageous, and our technology is the stuff of our previous generations’ science fiction. What voids are left? Space, the deep sea…yes, well these are things quite beyond most of us. But maybe the final frontier is actually ourselves. I do believe that one reason humans physically and mentally push themselves is for the sake of self-exploration.

“‘There are thousands of people who’ve died in the mountains,’ [Reinhold] Messner says solemnly. ‘I can’t defend an idea that has had so many deaths as a consequence. We cannot defend it, but we still go to the mountains. We must be aware that danger is everywhere and in every second. Going to the mountains is not conquering something. It’s so we can feel like we’re being reborn when we’re back in civilization.'” – From an article that appeared in Climbing Magazine, 2014

View from atop Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne, YNP.
View from atop Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne, YNP.

I specifically chase the mountains because they mirror me: a work in progress. They crumble and rise, they establish boundaries and yet remain as content as they are, the most humbling and self-enlightening of all landscapes. They will teach you more about yourself than a hundred skyscrapers ever could. And while I prefer the mountains, all wild landscapes offer inherent challenges and opportunities for all that is to be learned from facing yourself. They definitely bring me back to some very animalistic roots.

Sara hiked 700 miles of the Pacific Crest Tail during the Spring of 2014.
Sara hiked 700 miles of the Pacific Crest Tail during the Spring of 2014.
“The effects of crack climbing.” Hands of Jon Griffin and Alexa Flower in the unforgiving desert of Utah. Bjorn Bauer Photography.

It amazes me with what humans are capable of, how they can override their brains to a degree, become primal and purely mechanic, and force their bodies to perform feats that otherwise seem superfluous. But there’s something sublime there, when your body is in overhaul, where all resources are being expended to accomplish one simple task: just taking one more step, or making one more move, just one after another. Nothing in your peripherals matters anymore, and you’ve created this space where only you exist. The blood pumping through your veins does not judge you for wanting this athletic feat, it just does what it does best. Things may hurt and fall apart, but somehow things still go forth, go on strong – conquer without question, do as told without hesitation, to the best of its ability. You can dig, and there will always be something there, a new frontier, a new ecstasy, a new-found love for the human body and its relationship to the world. But you have to push yourself there, test your limits, find yourself at the brink of exhaustion – that’s where the soil is the most pliable, most rewarding, most sublime.

Sara fighting fierce snowy winds on the Pacific Crest Trail, 2014.
Sara fights fierce snowy winds on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Thus I train to be strong for the sake of being strong. I train to be agile for the sake of being agile. Sure I have specific goals: a marathon someday, or maybe El Capitan in a day if I dream big enough. But these accomplishments will just be perks of the strength and endurance that I hope to develop. The real deal is just knowing that I can overcome a variety of obstacles when they come my way, let alone the beautiful places running and climbing tends to take me.

This is why I put up with the pain and discomfort. I reach the end and it all changes – any and all grief turns to pure joy, and there is an overwhelming sense of satisfaction. And maybe, just maybe, I discovered a new aspect to myself along the way.

Sara pushes through 3,000 ft of elevation gain during the 20K Tioga Pass Road Race.
Sara pushes through 3,000 ft of elevation gain during the 20K Tioga Pass Race.

Why do you suffer through the pain? Tell us with the hashtag #dirtbagdreams.

Fellow climber Brianda Hernandez makes it happen on an Unnamed V6 in Curry Village, Yosemite National Park. Courtesy of Cynthia Chavez.
Fellow climber Brianda Hernandez makes it happen on an Unnamed V6 in Curry Village, Yosemite National Park. Courtesy of Cynthia Chavez.
Fellow climber Alain DeLaTejera toughens up for an epic night after a late top-out on Astroman, Yosemite National Park
Fellow climber Alain DeLaTejera toughens up for an epic night after a late top-out on Astroman, Yosemite National Park.
Hunter Damiani wants it bad on his First Ascent of
Local artist and pro-boulderer Hunter Damiani wants it bad on his First Ascent of Fountain of Youth (V10), Flagstaff Mountain, CO.
Fellow climber Damien Nicodemi suffers a broken ankle after taking a fall on Zodiac, Yosemite National Park.
Fellow climber Damien Nicodemi suffers a broken ankle after taking a fall during his rope-solo of the Zodiac, Yosemite National Park.

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