Vertical Year: Climbing in the Limelight

As I write this, I am thirty thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean. I am bound for Canmore, an area in the Canadian Rockies which is renowned for classic icefalls, hard mixed climbs and intimidating free-standing ice pillars. After such a huge lead-up, I am stoked to finally get the journey underway and concentrate on my passion: climbing. Now that the Vertical Year has officially begun, I thought I would take some time to reflect on the journey thus far and the challenges which are yet to come…

Vertical Year Launch Party

Josh speaks to the crowd who gathered for the Vertical Year launch party (Photo by Nathan McNeil, Set in Stone Photography)

Putting myself in the Public Eye
One of the hardest decisions was the very first to be made – Should I treat this trip as any other? Or do I take the opportunity to give something back to the community, thus making it a very public affair in doing so?

Climbers are, in my experience, creatures of very little fanfare. They tend to live quiet lives, planning, carrying out and enjoying the fruits of their hard labour with little fuss. Even at the cutting edge, seldom do the climbing elite express their next project or expedition in full detail – only a selection of Alex Honnold’s closest friends knew of his plans to solo Freerider on El Capitan, and very few know of which 8,000m peak Simone Moro will attempt for his next winter ascent. We generally only read about these amazing feats once they’ve been completed.

There are many reasons why I believe this is the case. Climbing, like a lot of individual pursuits, is an internal struggle in which we compete more often with ourselves than with others. The inspiration for our projects generally comes from a very intimate place. It stems from a moment, a picture, a conversation, and is then built upon and driven by obsession. It’s hard to open that kind of internal process to the criticism of the outside world, and to “non-climbers”, no less.

Keeping our projects close to our chests also lifts the pressure of expectation. It makes it easier to speak up when we are uncomfortable or to turn around when the safety margins are too tight. When no-one knows what you are planning to achieve, you don’t have to explain why you didn’t achieve it.

I am not the exception to the rule. Like the majority, I fit the mould described above. On previous trips, no-one other than my prospective climbing partners knew of my aspirations and I expect this will be the case once again in the future. So deciding to take the Vertical Year project and present it to the public was not an easy decision. I don’t think I need to re-visit why I chose to do so – if you have been following this journey so far, you should have a pretty good idea. Even so, it was not an easy decision to make, nor one made in haste.

I knew that doing so would create greater challenges in the future, challenges which could drastically change the character of the journey.

Ice Climbing Yamnuska Mountain Adventures

Ice is Nice (Source: Yamnuska Mountain Adventures)

Complacency & Climbing for myself

As one moves into more and more adventurous styles of climbing, making sound judgments becomes more important. Whether that means progressing from sport climbing to trad, from trad to alpine rock, or venturing into isolated mountain ranges to seek first ascents, sound judgments lead to success and a safe return.

So what could keep me from making sound judgments? The two biggest threats I foresee are:

  • Becoming complacent, and
  • Not climbing for myself

It’s a natural phenomenon we are all subject to – the more we do something, the more it becomes normalised. Or perhaps a better term is habitualised. Habits often serve us well, however they can lead us to come unstuck when we are in high-risk situations. If a risk is normalised, we no longer pay it the attention or respect it is due. When that happens, we leave ourselves open to punishment.

I will climb more during the next 12 months than I am likely to climb in any other period in my life. Therefore, as the year goes on, as I climb more and become more competent, I risk becoming complacent. I risk not fully engaging with the situation and assessing it based on its merits. If I fail to do this, I risk my ability to make sound judgments.

Earlier, I talked about how keeping a project close to your chest relieves the pressure of expectation. The inverse is also true, but although I may have made my intentions very public, I must continue to climb for myself rather than the expectations of others. I need to define my own parameters for success. I have to recognize that what makes sense to me is fluid and subject to change based on numerous factors including experience, conditions, how I feel at the time and how my climbing partner feels at the time.

For onlookers, those expectations will be more fixed and largely based on the goals I have outlined for the project. Did I summit or did I not? Did I climb all thirty-three peaks and eighty objectives or did I not? Did I raise $100,000 for ReachOut Australia and the Climate Council or did I not? If I am unable to separate these two differing states of expectation, making sound judgments becomes unlikely.

I knew this was an additional challenge that would be created by making the project public, hence why the decision to do so was not easy. It will not get any easier either. It is something I will need to remain very conscious of. Climbing based on the expectations of others can also make it feel like work. I am not trying to kid anyone – taking a year off to go climbing is a dream for most of us. Yet I have no doubt that if I do not filter out all the external voices from my own, I will be burnt out long before I get home. I don’t want that.

Complacency and climbing for others are factors which all climbers should focus on in their projects, whether they are working on a hard redpoint or planning an objective in the mountains. Complacency can make you blind to the conditions around you, causing failure or worse. Climbing based on what other people are doing can make a project feel more like work than a labour of love. Whatever your project, I strongly encourage you to reflect on these points for yourself.

The journey has well and truly begun. You can keep up with all the goings on by checking out the Vertical Year website or Facebook page. 

Josh Worley
February 2018

So far, the Vertical Year project has raised over $13,000. It’s a great start but there is still a ways to go! You can help out by chipping in a little bit here.

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?