With hardly another car on the highway an hour before dawn, it was difficult to keep from pressing the pedal to the metal. I was late to pick up my friend for an alpine climb—and I hated it. Excuses filled my mind like competing thought bubbles in a cartoon. “The line at the donut shop was longer than I thought.” “I hit all the red lights on the way out of town.” But when it came down to it, I realized I had no good excuse, nor anybody else to blame. I simply had to own up and take responsibility for my actions—something I might not have realized so clearly before I started climbing.
Many of us spend a lot of energy pointing to or blaming others—other people or circumstances—to explain our own failures, shortcomings or problems in daily life: I would have done a better job on my project at work, but so-and-so didn’t do their part. Or, I would have met the deadline except the printer jammed up on me. But the more time I spend climbing, the more I’ve begun to see these statements for what they are: a shifting of responsibility away from ourselves in general.
Almost 100 feet off the ground in Clear Creek Canyon, I was 100 percent embarrassed. Clawing and fearfully full-body scumming to the chains, I hoped the people on the route next to me didn’t notice my terrible form as I desperately grabbed the chains, quickly clipping a draw and drawing my rope through. Instead of coolly assessing the holds and making a decisive move to the top, I’d chosen to cling and grasp in an ugly battle against falling. Lowering to the ground, I shook my head, realizing I had nothing to say. The same impulse that made me look for excuses when I was late picking up my friend kicked in.
Unhappy with how I’d finished the route, I searched my mind for a place to lay the blame, but ultimately I’d made my own choice to lead the route, and had been in control of my body and mind the entire time. What, was I going to blame the rock for my poor performance? Or the chains? Or the fact that it was cloudy? Or that I was tired from my hike the day before?
“There are strong influences in our society that discourage us from accepting responsibility,” writes Arno Ilgner in The Rock Warrior’s Way. “We expect each intersection in town to have a stop sign and every trail hazard on a ski run to be marked. Our courts are full of lawsuits that seek to blame wet floors or hot coffee for causing injuries that are clearly a result of our inattention. We have made it the job of our government to enact laws requiring seatbelts. All of these things fuel our habitual tendency to blame others for our own mistakes. Slowly but surely, we develop the unconscious conviction that our own safety is someone else’s responsibility.”
“Climbing, by its nature, tends to counteract this socializing influence,” he says. “But most of us continue to bear its mark.”
Ilgner says our egos get in the way of us accepting responsibility for our own shortcomings. Surely we’re not the type of person who’d be late to pick up a friend because we just dinked around in our apartment too long before we left, right? And surely we wouldn’t flail at the top of a sport route unless we had bad beta, or the conditions were sub-optimal, right?
There’s something about climbing that distills all cause and effect. The mountains don’t accept excuses, and don’t care who you blame for your choices and actions. And the less energy we waste in our own minds pointing fingers, the more energy we have to move powerfully in the direction we want to go—and the same thing goes in our daily lives.
Rolling up outside my friend’s apartment five minutes after the appointed time might not have been the worst of my personal sins, but it sure felt good to simply admit, “I’m sorry I’m late. I should have left earlier.”