El Capitan isn’t just about the physical challenge; it offers mental lessons, too
August 3, 2017
Case study subject: Me, Lynn Sanson, 53-year-old climber with a life goal to climb the nose of El Capitan, the greatest rock climb in the world. (It's in Yosemite. Look it up.)
Self diagnosis: While physically capable of completing this route, previous attempts have me questioning whether I have the mental toughness to follow through.
History: Previous attempts at the nose did not yield a summit. These failed attempts revealed that I am prone to bouts of "poop thoughts" about me as a climber and even a person. It's amazing what surfaces when I begin to push into new physical and mental space.
October 2015: Second attempt at this route with my son Tobin. He was psyched and prepared for the send, I was overwhelmed and defeated before I left the ground! Somehow Tobin managed to get me a third of the way up the route before I stated I wanted to bail. Descending that day was a low point for me, yet ultimately it became a catalyst for success in the future.
July 2017: Things were different from 2015. Tobin had already completed two El Cap routes, and his wall skills far surpassed mine. He's done the deal twice; I realized I should follow his lead and trust in his strategy. In the past I have overthought every detail to the point of mental exhaustion, so this is a new way of thinking. While challenging, it's freeing.
Of equal importance, I have worked on cleansing those poop thoughts that have dogged me on the wall in the past. My physical preparation surpassed anything previous, and I knew if I could control my mental angst, we would get this done.
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Day one, the plan was to climb the first four pitches. We start later than I planned. My angst was rising. I needed to relax and trust Tobin. Ultimately we accomplished our goal for that day. I liked this new way of thinking. I was ready for the real launch tomorrow morning. We planned three days and two nights spent on the wall.
We were up early and things were going well. Nobody else was on all of El Cap. What a treat!
But it was time to face down a couple of inevitable truths.
Lynn's universal wall truth No. 1: At some point on this day, for no legitimate reason, I would want to bail.
For me that was as predictable as:
Lynn's universal wall truth No. 2: What goes in you must eventually come out of you.
Enter the Wag Bag and my discovery of Wag Bag therapy. A wag bag is basically a big Ziploc bag.
Here are the five steps:
1. Remain attached to the wall, move harness leg loops out of the drop zone.
2. Poop into the Wag Bag containing magic "poo powder" crystals for odor control. Wipe and seal the bag tightly (important!).
3. Put the sealed bag into your poop tube and attach this to the bottom of your haul bag.
4. Start climbing for the day.
Yes, I know that's only four steps. Stick with me.
It occurred to me that if I could dispose of my physical poop, why couldn't I metaphorically do the same with the poop thoughts that continued to dog me? Here's where the magic happened for me. As those thoughts of doubt, angst and bailing entered my head, I dumped them into that Wag Bag where they belonged. They were waste products, of no benefit for going upward and forward.
You know how good you feel after depositing a big No. 2 in the bathroom, right? I felt the same way after a big mental No. 2 dump. That poop tube was with us throughout the remainder of the route, an aromatic reminder of what it contained. But that aroma also reminded me of what mentally I had dumped in there. Kind of that "lemonade from lemons" way of looking at things.
Lynn's universal wall truth No. 3: When you keep doing one more pitch, followed by another and keep climbing, you eventually reach the summit with your son.
That's Wag Bag therapy. You don't even need an appointment, and after three days and two nights you feel victorious!
Lynn Sanson is expedition director at Jaywalker Lodge in Carbondale. He's also into road biking and skiing.