Is sending a project really the ultimate goal in climbing?

By Joseph Legotte


Counting the number of different projects I’ve had in my seven years of climbing would be a daunting task. I can hardly imagine what that’s like for the professional and lifelong climber with an illustrious list of projects-turned-sends. It feels amazing to finally top-out that elusive boulder problem or clip the chains on a long-standing project. The more times I experience this exact elation, I find that the euphoria of “success” diminishes quicker and quicker.

Summiting Bowling Pin Sit at the Buttermilk boulders a year and half ago—my hardest send to date—was the moment I began to understand the implications of success in climbing. I thoroughly enjoyed the view up top and soaking in the satisfaction of knowing how much effort I put in over the past seasons. However nothing could quell the lurking feeling that the process was over—and that was bittersweet. I couldn’t go back to a time when I hadn’t climbed that problem, and it’s original appeal lessened because of it. I should have been immersed in waves of gratitude and accomplishment for “succeeding” on my two-year project, but I wasn’t. I was already thinking about Magnetic North; my sights were irretrievably set on the next big project.

“We are at our best as climbers when we are entrenched in the process of failing as we try to ascend to the top.”

If you’ve been climbing long enough you’ve likely experienced something along these lines. The top is the end, and we are constantly looking towards beginnings and middles. We are at our best as climbers when we are entrenched in the process of failing as we try to ascend to the top. So if failure is what draws us back each day, then it would follow that success is not necessarily found at the top. The idea of the top is what beckons, but the fulfillment of that is not necessarily what keeps us climbing.

Success is each fall that leaves one with a stronger passion for the movement. Success is each piece of micro beta that’s unlocked after days of beating your head against the wall. Success is an acceptance of each failure that occurred along the journey to the top, or perhaps success is finding yourself at the base of the next impossible climb, fully prepared to fail some more.

It’s far too easy during the process to forget this. I have witnessed hundreds of climbers, inside and out, cursing each fall and each failed attempt. They oftentimes know the capacity to complete the climb exists within them, but finding the right balance of physical fitness, mental tenacity, and external conditions can be cause for inexhaustible frustration.

I have been there myself all too often.

Why then is frustration and excessive “failure” the magnetic force that constantly pulls us back? I think it stems from the micro successes we can enjoy as climbers. The bouts of frustration and doubt can be stymied with smatterings of tiny accomplishments. Sometimes it’s as simple as making the next move, as satisfying as touching the next hold, or as tiny as noticing a new foot that’s yet untried.

“The most significant success we can experience as climbers is to simply leave the ground.”

Acknowledging minor successes assists in combating the perceived failures. The feeling of falling at the same point on a climb innumerable times can be savagely disheartening, yet being capable of discovering something as simple a better breathing pattern can allow you to unearth a tranquil flow at the proper moments.

Each attempt is equipped with the possibility of success in an assortment of manners. They are there if you look hard enough.

The most significant success we can experience as climbers is to simply leave the ground. Everything beyond that is a collection of emotions and events that coalesce to give meaning and insight into who we are as climbers, as humans, and as elemental components of the world at large. The only true failure is never leaving the ground and never allowing oneself the endless opportunities to become a better person through climbing.

We are confronted by a torrential spectrum of emotions while climbing: fear, love, passion, sadness, trust, and frustration, among others. We are confronted with challenges, partnerships, relationships, critical decision making, and at many times, life and death. Learning to cope with them on the wall can teach us how to find success when any of those challenges arise in our lives away from climbing.

In reality, climbing an indiscriminate chunk of rock or plastic is a small feat and compares very little to the necessity of filling the world with more love and compassion. This is the overall success of climbing as a whole.

Our community, though small in the scheme of things, is rather adept at striving to enhance people’s lives. Reaching the top of a single climb intimates a relatively insignificant success in comparison. Nevertheless it should still be enjoyed. We all climb for many reasons, and it is imperative that we find enjoyment with it to be successful in the least. Therefore, embrace every miniature success, despite how large the perception of failure may loom over them.

Learn to find solace in the inexorable effort the journey to the top requires. And above all, relish in the success of others, for we are genuinely all in this together.