A Momentary, But Edifying, Lapse Of Focus

This past Friday, I went climbing in the Shawangunks with my wife and daughter; we were guided by Carolyn Riccardi of Eastern Mountain Sports and received some wonderful instruction throughout the day. My daughter attempted some elementary routes as did my wife and I. I also attempted and succeeded in climbing a slightly harder route–for me: the 5.7 rated Nice Crack Climb, whose most tricky part is a bouldering move to get off the ground. It took me six attempts to get past that; a very satisfying if exhausting accomplishment. A little higher up, a crack needs a little work as well, and here, I spent a little time figuring out how to move up. Finally, I saw what had to be done; I would have to twist my body sideways bringing my left hand across to the right and then as I pulled myself across laterally, to reach up with my right hand to a very useful little hold that was now visible. I reached across and moved up–and then, in the very next instant, I had slipped and was dangling on the rope in mid-air, expertly and safely belayed by our guide below.

I had started my celebrations a little too early–and I had paid for it. Not for the first time, I was rudely reminded that it is best to wait till the finish line is reached before tooting one’s trumpet.

In that fraction of a second before I slipped, I had experienced a surge of elation. I had figured out how I was going to get out of this jam and move on to the top of the crag’s face. Till then, I had been tired, a little sweaty, my hands scraped and blistered in a couple of spots; I had started to experience some doubt about my ability–as a very inexperienced climber–to solve this face’s challenges. And then, when the ‘solution’ presented itself to me, I thought I had glimpsed the promised land, the end of the route. I had already started to imagine the backslapping and congratulations I would receive once I had rappelled down. And in that fraction of a second, my mind and body weren’t working together. And so I slipped.

I got back on the route and finished it, this time making sure that I remained focused on completing the move. And I did indeed, celebrate with the rest of my climbing companions once I got back down. That glow was worth basking in; but the most important lesson hadn’t been the fact that I had completed my first challenging route in the ‘Gunks. Rather, I had gained insight into something I had read in many accounts of climbing: that it requires concentration and focus at all times, that the worst mistakes happen when you take your eyes off the prize. Many climbers write of how this intense focus can be intensely pleasurable, allowing them to feel a level of awareness of their body and mind that they do not experience elsewhere. I think I have the faintest glimmering of an idea of what they are getting at now. For this permanently distracted person, that focus seems especially alluring. It sends out a siren call of sorts, beckoning me away from my desk.

10 comments on “A Momentary, But Edifying, Lapse Of Focus

  1. Amit M says:

    Climbing is addictive Samir! You’ll find yourself drawn back to the rocks, thinking about moves and routes and waiting for the weekends to climb. The focus needed is the best part about climbing for me. After a day’s climbing, you’re physically drained but mentally so relaxed, it’s amazing! Happy climbing!

  2. Amarnath says:

    Off-topic.
    In addition to your blog, I read the Philosopher’s Stone by Robert Paul Wolff. He is giving a lecture on Friday, Oct 6 12:15-2:00 pm at the Heyman Center of Columbia Univ. You may like him.
    What good is a liberal education?

  3. Amit says:

    There's supposed to be a hand-hold there?! Where is that mother-%$#$ hold?! Oh, a FINGER hold?! Whydoidothis? Why am I in this shit town that seems to get dirtier, muddier, and noiser each time I visit? Seriously risking, with each visit, pissing off the only person in the whole world who tolerates living with me for more than a day? Why am I not out drinking with my best friends on a Saturday night instead of waking up at 5am on a Sunday morning? To carry this damn bag with all this metal inside it and this stupid rope that will come out tangled no matter how carefully I've coiled it last night? Why can't I make more time to go see the children of the people I literally grew up with? Whydoidothis? Why do I instead spend my weekends hanging out with people who are younger than my tattoo? And only to be out-climbed by them again and again? To be reminded just how physically uncoordinated I am each time I try to tie a knot that any child can get right? Why do I lose sleep, lose skin, screw up my fingers, ditch work, the work that pays for all this, waiting for Friday night so I can remove my precious gear store from its hiding place at home and lovingly pack everything in excited anticipation for tomorrow? Why am I unable to get excited about anydamnthingelse these days? Even the things I used to get sooo excited or mooooved about before this stupid hobby came along? Why does it feel so good to be outside even though I know that there really is nothing ground-breaking to achieve here, just to keep falling off the same places and on the same moves that seem so humanly impossible to complete? Whydoidothis? Because once you start on your way up a route, especially one that scares you, you really can't be thinking about anything else. Anything. It's impossible. And that is SO mentally refreshing that it's addictive. (Pic. credit: Siddhant Shrivastava @siddhantcode.)

    A post shared by Amit Manikoth (@amitmanikoth) on

  4. Amit says:

    Whoops, sorry Samir, didn’t realize the entire Instagram post would get embedded as a comment. Just meant to add the link.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      What a great photo, and a great post. Resonates a great deal. Your last name is very familiar; you don’t happen to have an uncle named Ravi who has a brother named Vijay do you?

      • Amit M says:

        Haha, no I don’t. ‘Manikoth’ is a small town in Kerala, so I’m guessing a lot of people with roots there will have the same family name.

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