(Photo: Courtesy of Sasha DiGiulian)

The Importance of Falling, Again and Again

And why I can't live without personal projects—even if they don't mean anything to anyone else

Courtesy of Sasha DiGiulian(Photo)

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People I meet who don’t know climbing often ask me, “Do you ever fall?” At first, it seems like a ridiculous question. I fall every day, countless times, sometimes off the same pebble sticking out of the wall.

I beat my hands up until they bleed, torn from unsuccessful efforts. I squish my feet into downsized rubber shoes to heighten sensitivity and control. I go through this process repetitively, fighting for the slight chance that, this time, I won’t fall. And when I finally don’t, I feel this unparalleled, overwhelming sensation of personal satisfaction. On some trips, that moment never happens.

But really, how much does that send matter? Is the successful climb that much more significant than the climbs of the previous days, when I fell and fell?

Recently, I returned to Spain to work on a specific personal project: a climb at a crag called Oliana. I spent the first half of the year there, first training with Patxi Usobiaga, then climbing outside with friends. I kept falling, and the send eluded me.

I had graduated from Columbia University in 2016 and was starting my first year with no school commitments. Earning my degree is one of my proudest achievements—it even trumps winning the world championships—but once I took off the cap and gown for good, I felt aimless. I didn’t know what would come next. It didn’t help that my transition back into full-time climbing was rocky. I nursed a bad back injury for the first few months, and though I traveled and climbed in many incredible places, I felt uneasy. I like to juggle a lot of responsibilities—events, business opportunities, work with nonprofits—which at times may be a self-defense mechanism. There’s less pressure to do just one thing superbly. While in school, wearing a lot of hats gave me built-in excuses: if I failed at something, I could blame the workload.

Those circumstances prompted me to think deeply about what climbing means to me and what objectives I should consider noteworthy in the future. 

What I have learned is that the challenges that fire me up don’t need to have significance to anyone but myself.

I have no concrete answers. But what I have learned is that the challenges that fire me up don’t need to have significance to anyone but myself. Moving forward, this is what I want to prioritize: test myself on terrain that I’m passionate about, try my hardest, and have fun. I want to seek the elusive flow that comes when I’m climbing my best. The point is that the reason a personal project is significant—regardless of what boundary it does or not break, what definition of success it meets—is because it matters to me.

Oliana, for whatever reason, mattered. I didn’t want to fail on this rock. After dedicating August and September to a focused training plan, constructed by Edu Marin, I returned to Oliana. My first day back on the route, I broke past a point that I had always fallen on throughout the spring. The moves felt like they were flowing together, and the burly cruxes felt well within my range.

On October 31, after just over a week of trying the climb, rehearsing sequences, and refining my beta, I sent it. When I started off the ground and climbed through the second main crux sequence, midway on the route, I had a smile on my face. I felt like this was my time. I didn’t know how I knew that, and I still had almost a hundred of feet of climbing to go. But something felt right. I tapped into this flow, hitting all the holds exactly how I wanted to. When I clipped my rope into the chains at the top, I actually thought I might be dreaming. As I lowered myself to the ground, everything felt perfect. I felt proud of how I climbed, motivated by the progress that I proved to myself was possible, and genuinely excited.

I climb because it’s the space in my life where I feel the most in control. My world is still when I’m on the wall, and my worries are about whether I’m going to hold onto that next little crimper. Whether I can accurately twist my body into the position it needs to be to make the subsequent move possible. The subtleties that make all the difference between success and failure.

And that feeling when I get to the top, it's like a hit of self-confidence-boosting dopamine. I feel good about myself when I climb something that I've worked hard on; there is this sense of confidence that comes with clipping the chains that has nothing to do with how anyone else in the world thinks of me or how I look at myself in the mirror. It feels damn good. 

Good enough to convince me to enjoy that fleeting high, then move on to the next project. And keep falling.

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Lead Photo: Courtesy of Sasha DiGiulian

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