The Joy Question

WAS, V8, Leavenworth, on a perfect joyous fall day.

Where’s the joy in climbing?

I ask this question in consultations a lot. It catches people off-guard, and the answers are often illuminating. My least favorite thing about this question is it makes me feel like a life coach.

It’s a kneejerk presumption in the climbing community that everyone is in it for higher numbers. I’ve written about that before. I often ask the joy question to climbers when I already know that they’re motivated by performance and higher numbers. There’s rarely any doubt that a V7 climber wants to climb V8. What’s interesting is finding out what part of that V8 experience actually motivates them to try to attain it.

Much ink has been spilled about whether achievements like Everest are still worthwhile if you pay money to shortcut the hardships. If you could take a pill and suddenly be a climber of a higher grade, would that be attractive? For some climbers, that identity piece is meaningful. They derive confidence and satisfaction from their résumé. They want their name in the summit register. They would take the pill just to be That Person.

For many other climbers, that pill wouldn’t mean shit until they actually went out and climbed some routes. They would take the pill, but only because of the experiences it would grant them later.

And for other climbers still, the pill is silly – it wouldn’t confer any joy, and in fact would effectively be taking joy away. They get their joy from the grind.

When I ask the joy question, this is what I’m trying to strike at. It’s hard to become an elite performer without loving the process – even the parts of the process that feel like suffering. Understanding what parts of the process you love is a huge catalyst for progression. Some of the best climbers in the world got that way because they love the whole process, soup to nuts. They can’t get enough. Progression is easy when you wake up psyched to suffer for it.

We’re not all so lucky. And on the flipside, it’s easy to become a jaded, hard-nosed bastard by not noticing the joy passing by right in front of you.

We all know that numb old fart at the crag – the one whose own accomplishments are so small in the rear view that the only way they can remember how to feel joy is by trying to take accomplishments away from others. One way to avoid the agonizing descent into numb-old-fartdom is by consciously looking for ways to get joy out of climbing.

Not only has this joy realization changed my climbing for the better, but it’s the reason I eventually got into coaching. I realized that I got a ton of joy out of interacting with others, that my own climbing fed off of their energy and success, and that I could exponentially multiply my own satisfaction by turning my attention to the people around me.

For most climbers, the joy of climbing is a fundamental value. There are other values in climbing that may be held higher – especially in the more type 2 disciplines – but for bouldering and sport climbing, joy is usually high up on the list. So the joy question is also a values question. How do we use our values to get better at climbing?

It’s a three step process:

  1. Understand your values.
    What brings me joy in climbing?
  2. Use these values to guide you when picking goals.
    What projects or goals will maximize the parts of climbing that bring me joy?
  3. Use these goals to inform your training.
    How can I be better prepared for these goals, so that I get the most enjoyment?

In his influential essay The Sceptic, David Hume says that people should embrace philosophy not to understand how to achieve things – but what goals we should aim for in the first place. Like many philosophical precepts, this is true in climbing as it is in life.

Yes; we come to a philosopher to be instructed, how we shall chuse (sic) our ends, more than the means for attaining these ends: We want to know what desire we shall gratify, what passion we shall comply with, what appetite we shall indulge.

David Hume, The Sceptic

A simpler way to look at it is the aphorism “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The earlier on in the process you get it right, the more satisfying the process will be. The joy question functions at the lowest tier of the performance pyramid – our identity. This is why I risk feeling like a life coach to push climbers to answer this question. There’s not much point worrying about what grip to train, or how many reps to do for some exercise, if you can’t at least try to answer the joy question.

Let’s say a few climbers are going to Fontainebleau for the first time.

One has it in their head that they’re going to dedicate every single climbing day to trying a single hard project. It’s a higher grade than they’ve ever climbed – not to mention that they’ve never climbed on Font sandstone before.

The other has a few projects in mind, but he’s waiting to show up and climb some before he digs in deep on any of them. If he never feels ready, he might never try any of his potential projects.

Another does no research at all. She figures she’ll buy the guidebook when she gets there. She’s seen a few videos on Instagram, but she doesn’t go out of her way to learn what problems are there, or even what the style of climbing is like.

Before you jump to any conclusion, understand that all of these approaches are totally valid. What determines whether or not it’s a good strategy is the value system of the climber in question. Dissatisfaction with our climbing experiences doesn’t always come from reality being good or bad. Often, it comes from the mismatch of our expectations with that reality.

All of these archetypes of climbers probably all scroll through Instagram coach feeds and listen to podcasts and read this type of hifalutin blog post. Much of this content is full of imperative language. You NEED to warm up like this. You SHOULD stop climbing on such and such problems. We all HAVE TO start doing this exercise, etc. This deluge of dictatorial tripe is, for me, the worst part of participating in the modern climbing community.

All of these climbers may want to be higher performers. All of these climbers may want to reach higher grades. Many climbers want these things. But they often have very different answers to the joy question.

And that’s my favorite thing about the question: it’s hard to answer.

Many climbers waffle around, and wind up with a general answer like they love climbing, or they love the movement. Those are good answers, but they don’t explain why you spend your salary on trips to Rocklands and all your waking hours listening to the Nugget.

The best answer is a specific one.

The feeling of when you stick a move that you’ve been trying for hours, or days.

The feeling of making up beta that works for you, when the “standard beta” didn’t.

The feeling of being completely in flow, lost in the sensations of climbing.

The feeling of sessioning with someone from a different country, without sharing the same language.

The feeling of pushing yourself to the absolute physical limit.

The feeling of doing it faster or better than others.

There are a million good answers – and you don’t have to have only one. But the clearer your answer is, the more effective it is as a value statement.

So, before you embark on your next project, before you get packed for the weekend, before you buy that plane ticket around the world, ask yourself: where’s the joy?

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