Gadd’s Truth: Pride Comes Before…

Will Gadd climbs new routes on Irish sea stacks in Donegal, Ireland, on 23 March, 2020. // John Price / Red Bull Content Pool // SI202004170115 // Usage for editorial use only //

Most of the climbers I know aren’t strongly religious, and, speaking from personal experience, often have bleakly non-spiritual minds. When we see Jesus on a cross, our minds often fall far below the deep spiritual meaning of suffering and instead wonder how long he could hold his weight in that position, or how we’d train for that tough move. This makes our prayers—when we take long falls—all the more hypocritical and ridiculous: “Please hold, please, God, please let the gear hold! Really sorry about the Jesus stuff!”

On really long falls you have time to ponder the decisions that led to the fall, the possible outcomes and get some final prayers in (apparently there are no atheists when it comes to long falls).

Christian Pondella 

My decision-making about the route I last took a big fall on had been roughly equivalent to an average toddler’s reaction to fresh cookie (Mine! Want it! Must have it NOW!); and all that was going to determine the outcome was a piece of metal I’d wedged into a crack while thinking happy thoughts about how great the climb had been going. I remember how that metal “nut” felt: Pretty good, rock decent, probably could have placed it slightly better, wish I had, but pretty good, but for a fall this long? Why didn’t I set it a little better? And this was on sandstone, is it good enough to hold? Oh, God…

There’s a variable, but always memorable, series of events that occurs around long falls, and it happens in weirdly warped time. Sometimes, right before the fall you know it’s not going well—your muscles scream, you desperately fight for continued progress while your vision narrows into tiny circles. Each second is a minute and less than an instant, each centimetre of progress a heroic gold medal, each downward movement a direct curse for that Jesus gag from earlier. If there were a soundtrack, it would be your heartbeat accelerating until finally the hand of God grabs the back of your harness (guess that Crucifix bit didn’t go over well) and you’re outta of there. Other times you’re climbing like the second coming of Adam Ondra (this Czech climber is a saint in the rock-climbing world) and then that foothold was a tad sandy and, whoa, where did I place my last piece of gear again? Shit, that far down. And I’m going to fall the same distance past it as I was above it, plus rope stretch and the extra rope my hung-over belayer has out? Oh no…

Christian Pondella

But first you hang suspended in the aerial void for a split-second of time like one of those Roadrunner cartoons where no thought bubble is necessary because it’s obvious the Coyote is going to punch a hole in the dirt far below.

Then things happen fast. First, your hair lifts up (especially in the old days when we didn’t wear helmets but did have big hair); then the wind noise in your ears begins. After about five metres, the wind is really loud, but on a truly long fall it goes away after about 10 metres as you notice the straps on your gear starting to flap in the wind like they want off the ride. Odd thoughts may come into your mind, mixed the practical: “Hmmm, wonder if I’m going to miss that ledge,” and, “did I leave enough food out for the cat if I hit it and go to the hospital?“ You’re now going about 50 km/h, and accelerating at some Newtonian constant you wish you’d memorized. After about 20 metres, you’re going 70 km/h and you realize you don’t have a cat and you’ve missed the ledge. The air starts to push on your hands as they make circular motions to keep you upright. It’s kinda cool emotionally, but it’s brainstem-level-wrong.

John Price

It’s easy to go through all five stages of the Kübler Ross grief cycle in a few seconds of falling. Denial: “No!” Anger: “Damn sand!” Bargaining: “Please God, if I live through this I’ll always place more gear in the future, promise!” Depression: “I’m an idiot, and I always will be for climbing in the first place, I should have listened to my priest…” Acceptance: “OK, this could be bad, better brace for impact.”

And then the rope slowly goes tight until it’s like a guitar string, and you feel your internal organs compress like a really violent elevator ride coming to an end. The vertical energy is translated into horizontal, and for some reason my mind does weird things like offering me the appropriate, if useless, Miley Cyrus lyric, “I came in like a wrecking ball!

And if that nut way, way above you is good, and if you don’t hit the wall too hard and break your ankles and if your belayer holds the rope—then your prayers are answered, the wind stops and usually I laugh hysterically in relief while hanging there like an adrenaline-soaked Muppet. Or, it gets worse. I don’t know what happens then personally, but from the wrecks I’ve seen—it doesn’t look fun.

Christian Pondella 

And this is why, across wilderness sports, our gear is sacred—even if most of us are atheists (outside of the fall). Catholics hang their crucifixes on the walls of their shrines with great care, and we do the same with our life-saving bits on our pegboard (more parallels there, which I’ll ignore) gear racks and our gear shrines. Even if you’re splitting a room you’ve still got gear space in there; even if it’s half the closet and your roommate hates you because your climbing/kayaking/hiking/ski gear smells like Moses after he walked across the desert. And you might not have cleaned the bathroom since move-in day, but the camping gear is sparking clean, dry and ready to rock. Or maybe you’ve survived a few long falls and actually bought a house, but you don’t park in your garage because, well, garages are for gear and the older you get the more you need.

Now, it’s time to go clean my garage while drinking my holy drink (Red Bull, not wine) and eating my sacred chocolate chip cookies. There’s a route I’d like to do tomorrow, Inshallah. 

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue. (“Gadd’s Truth,” page 16).


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