the box of pain

I was waiting for Bill Ramsey to tie and in and climb when my question came out of nowhere.

“How do you train so much?” I asked Bill. It was the summer of 2005. We were in Rifle Canyon standing underneath the beer-swilling beta-screaming ego-fest of the Antiphil–you know, a standard day in the canyon (oh how I miss all my old friends there!).

He flexed his back and went to pick up a stick.

I’d known Bill for a few year, from my formative climbing days in the Red, so I knew something profound was coming.

Bill  bend down and outlined a box in the dirt with a stick.

“You know what that is?” He said.

“A square?”

“It’s the box of pain. This is one of the philosophies I live by,” he said.

“What the hell is that,” I said.

“This is a box that you measure yourself in.” He set the stick in the middle of the box separating it into a smaller left box and right box.

“It’s a sliding scale. On the one hand have your success and sending.” He pointed to the right box and tapped his stick on the inside. “On the left side,” he said, pointing to the other box, “you have the sucking and failing.”

“The middle, the slide, is the amount of pain and suffering you put in. Think of it like a spectrum of success.”

He slid the stick to the left, making the right box big. “If you train and suffer and have lots of pain, you have this huge box of success and sending on the right.” He paused. I think he might have smiled. He slid the stick to the right. “If you don’t train or suffer and have lots comfort goofing off, you have this little box of success with lots and lots of failing and sucking.” He emphasize his words as if he were spitting them into the ground.

“Depends on what you want to do,” he said. “Do you want to suffer and have lots of sending? Or do you want be comfortable and have lots of failing and sucking?”

Bill dropped the stick, turned and walk over to tie in and promptly send my project in my face.

Perhaps one of the most motivated climbers I’ve ever met, Bill’s little pseudo-lesson stuck with me. While I might never have the organization or state of mind to train quite as regimented and structured as he does, there is truth in his picture, which was about as sharp and crystal clear as a straight edge. The image and the message perhaps had a hand in my attitude towards climbing, at least my sometimes masochistic approach to project sport climbing, which sometimes involves a whole-hearted, do-til-you-die approach of throwing myself at a route until I dumb it down to submission, and it opens its pathetically battered doors for a send, just to get me off its back. I think it’s something that a lot of climbers can relate to, the unbarred effort for the send. It borders on insanity, but I think we all possess a certain degree of that anyways.

Bill’s approach is for sure interesting but not totally unique: The man feeds off of structure training and could probably climb some of the best climbers in the country under the table, or at least bring them to tears  in a weighted pull-up contest. His standard protocol often included climbing all day on whatever 5.14 project he had going, then coming home to train for at least two hours: weighted pull-ups, weighted dead hangs, fingerboard training, systems training…you get the picture. This comprises at least three days a week for him, and is peppered with some cross training of weights and cardio. All this, and he’s gracing the fuzzy edges of his 50s. Pretty damn impressive for an old fart. But after doing just that for maybe even 20+ years (with the I-believe combo of Ibuprofen and Aleve) he’s obviously built up the stamina for long bouts of masochism that us younger, less-organized climbers seem to lack.

I wrote about my approach in Rock and Ice issue 148 (check out this oldie), which oddly seems to work. And like Bill’s structured set, I think perhaps they share the same root.

Bill’s little philosophical answer box has stuck with me these past few years and has come up in a lot of questions as to how different climbers approach their climbing and why what works works. The difference between our approaches and obviously linked to different personality traits, views of success, commitment, structure and organization. Goal setting and attaining. But which one is better, or best, and which one is the failing approach? It is, right now, a question I will continue to mull over as I see, everyday, a new approach from someone different.

Of course, when the meaning of Bill’s lesson finally soaked in, and I had finished belay him, I walked back over to get one last glimpse of his so-called spectrum of success only to find that it had been  trampled on by passing climbers headed for a balls-out attempt of their proj and obscured, seamlessly, back into the dirt.

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