Not long ago I ran into my old pal James on he street. Hadn’t seen him in over year. “Whatcha been up to?” he asked.
“Oh, exciting stuff,” I said. “Read a couple of books I enjoyed. Got some good runs in. Made a spaghetti sauce I was pleased with. You?”
“Not so much,” he said. Then, as if it had slipped his mind: “I did climb El Cap.”
That would be the mountain in Yosemite National Park.
Let me put this in perspective for those who aren’t climbers. El Capitan is a vertical granite wall 3000 feet high. When you think about climbing El Cap, imagine this procedure: You put on a climbing harness. You walk up to the base of the cliff. You step up onto the rock face. And then, sometime later, you hoist yourself over the top. By sometime, I mean days later.
In James’s case, it was three days. Seventy two hours on the cliff face.
I drilled for details.
“How do you go to the bathroom?”
“How do you sleep?”
“You unfold a bed and hang from it.” Or you find one of the few places where the rock kind of noses out to create a short ledge about the dimensions of a toboggan. Usually sloping out.
I asked him how hard it was.
“I had prepared myself that it was going to be really, really hard,” he said. “It was harder.” Not so much physically, he said — he had trained for it — but psychologically. Spending whole days with nothing underneath you but space. “You wouldn’t think that would be so bad, but it totally gets to you. You feel undermined. I don’t know how you’d train for that except maybe being dangled below an airplane for twelve hours or so.”
He and his climbing partner, there were many times when they didn’t think they’d make it, he said. And then they did. They made it.
They’d planned to be done by the morning of the third day, but they fell behind their expected pace and didn’t reach the top till dusk. They decided to walk out, back to the car. There was a path. Turned out it was the wrong path, one that took them into the next valley. Soon they were very lost, deep in the bush, with just the shirts on their back, in the pitch darkness.
“Were you scared?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you what happened at that moment,” he said. “We looked at each other and said, ‘It’s funny. Normally, if you just dropped us into these circumstances — lost in the wilderness of another country in the middle of the night, exhausted, without food — we would be scared. But because of what we just accomplished, this is nothing. This is not stressful. Soon the sun’ll be up and we’ll get our bearings and we’ll stroll on out of here.'” And they did.
This is the case for pushing a little into the rough zone: it makes everything after seem smooth. The more you do, the more you can do, the more the whole catastrophe seems manageable. Every time we choose to do the more difficult thing today, we make tomorrow more interesting.
Big Day, Big Three Days: it is all epic.