Recently, I’ve been working with my favorite climbing wordsmith and Rock and Ice editor at large Andrew Bisharat
on a story about Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra’s race to send the hardest sport climb in the world, La Dura Dura (5.15c). [See the next issue,
No. 213, for the feature].
Both Sharma and Ondra spent weeks on the route, put in countless efforts, trained specifically and failed over and over. But then something happened and
they succeeded. Interestingly, they only succeeded when they stopped trying.
In the article, Ondra writes, “When I set off I felt significantly weaker than the day before. I barely made it through the first part. Somehow I miraculously
didn't fall off those terrible two moves that had tested me so much in the past and I managed to reach the jug … My mind was empty, I had no
worries and no doubts. Perhaps this did the trick.”
Sharma said something similar: “That was a trippy thing. I just forgot about the goal. I was just using this time on the route as my training. Not training
for something. Just training to be a master … ”
So often climbing writers and athletes talk about “letting go of effort” or “beginner’s mind,” conditions where the mind is empty and open, with no preferences
and therefore ready for anything. Apparently, that’s how you climb the hardest sport routes in the world and just yesterday at the crag I heard somebody
shouting up advice to his partner: “Let go to hold on! Don’t focus on the outcome!” But how do you achieve that state of grace free of expectation?
In the past, the Zen notion of shoshin or beginner’s mind was revolutionary, but after 50 years in western cultural consciousness, Zen maxims
are in danger of becoming a little cliché and if you’re not careful you can buy into the mistaken idea that all you have to do is “let go.” This mental
disposition is said to be the prerequisite for peak performance, but it’s interesting to me that “not trying” is only useful after you’ve put in extraordinary
effort and suffered great doubt.
Effort and emptiness go together like charcoal and bratwurst. Without the first you won’t ever enjoy the sausage. In other words, beginner’s mind isn’t
really useful if you’re actually a beginner. It’s only helpful if you’re an expert. Letting go of the goal only works after you’ve broken your mind
by trying so hard for success. It’s tempting to focus on abstract concepts like emptiness and forget about the blood, sweat and tears.
Climbing well is the work of a lifetime but some people are better than others and some are masters. Small gestures give it away. For example, take a look
at this video about Ondra donating bone marrow and dispatching Sicily’s first 9a. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing (cause, hate to say it,
the faux-U2 euro music really sucks, in my opinion) fast forward to the two-minute mark and simply watch for 20 seconds as Ondra ties his bowline.
It’s like a magic trick, an amazing demonstration of countless hours of training, yet simultaneously effortless and flowing. That’s how you climb the
hardest route in the world. You do it like Ondra ties his knot.
[2:00 to 2:20]