October 23, 2008

Bouldering Therapy 101: Robyn Puro conquers ‘Thriller’ (and herself) in Yosemite National Park [Climbing Sequence: Photo Slideshow].

“Bouldering Therapy” via Robyn Puro, from elephant journal’s Holiday 2008 issue. Photos by Paul Barraza

I’d finally cut ties with my corrupt, evil, horrible, poisonous boss and was eager to rid my home-office of negative juju. I wasn’t entirely sure how I had gotten myself into that situation, but “the mindful life” it was not. My days had been full of angry phone calls. My mistake was viewing the job as a challenging project to take on; their mistake was hiring me to serve as a scapegoat for their relative incompetence.

Putting in my notice relieved me of the elephant sitting on my chest, but there was a good bit of residual dung to be cleaned up. I rearranged my furniture, flung the windows open and blasted jazz through my stereo speakers in hopes of shooing away the memories. In a last ditch effort, I wandered around my house waving smoldering sticks of incense through the air like an orchestral conductor. Still, I felt contaminated. The aftertaste had not only seeped into my living room, but settled into a corner of my soul.

So, desperate, I opted for self-help therapy—the kind I know best. I booked a flight to California, to go bouldering in Yosemite National Park.

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I’ve been climbing rocks for a dozen years now. I’m a boulderer, specifically—I climb short and powerful routes, or “problems,” on boulders without a rope or harness. Climbing has been the portal through which I’ve experienced this Earth, exploring 15 countries sprinkled across five different continents, traveling for 100 weeks over the last decade in search of big rocks. This quest has had me slurping noodles in Thailand, napping in French forests, imitating monkeys on a two-month solo journey to South Africa (that one was tough).

Inexplicably, however, my explorations hadn’t led to Yosemite—the birthplace of American climbing. A cleansing of the soul seemed to be as good an excuse as any to go—so I packed my climbing shoes and, before I knew it…was setting up my tent in Camp 4.

Within minutes I set out into the forest. Armed with a map, I spent days wandering through the trees, looking for particular boulders and feeling their handholds. If the problem looked appealing, I’d lace up my climbing shoes and give it a whirl. Sometimes I would make it to the top, often I would fail miserably.

On climbing days, I would search out to a new spot, sampling as many different areas as I could. On non-climbing days, I took scenic hikes to Upper Yosemite Falls or found a sun spot in a meadow to do yoga or read my book.

My camping stove died within the first 24 hours. My only source of hot water thereafter was what I could carry back from the cafeteria in my travel mug. As a result, breakfast was raw oats with fruit, lunch was peanut butter and water came from the bathroom spigot. Supper was a can of tuna, my primary source of protein—though sometimes I’d dress it up with a chunk of bread and cheese plus a swig of Californian wine from the grocery store. When night fell I would crawl into my tent, hunker deep down into my sleeping bag, turn off my lantern…and use every meditative technique I could muster to prevent my brain from drag racing through the difficult events that got me there to begin with.

One problem called “Thriller” caught my eye. On non-climbing days I’d often detour through the forest so I could pass by this boulder and stare at the holds. It had long been hailed as one of the most sought after problems in the States. I could see the appeal. It was gorgeous—tall, difficult, clean and aesthetic. Once in a while I would stand at its base, press my cheek against the cool stone and stare skyward at the looming monolith. Other times I’d scramble around the backside to the top of the boulder and lie down on my belly so I could study the holds from up above. It had only ever seen one female ascent, a few years earlier—if there was any one problem I coveted, this was it. The few other climbers I encountered weren’t particularly optimistic when I mumbled my desire to conquer this problem. Still, I attempted Thriller on three different days during those two weeks, working new methods, figuring out new moves. Each of those days I’d get just a little closer to the top, and learn a tiny bit more about what it would actually take to “send” it.

Really, this is the beauty of rock climbing—it’s a microcosm of life. The big lessons are the same, they just come in highly concentrated doses: Keep Ego in Check + Focus + Trust Yourself + Commit = Success!

On my final day in Yosemite, I gave Thriller one more go. Friends and family had arrived from the Bay Area for the day, and the energy level was high. Together we unlocked the final sequence and, like magic, the entire puzzle came together. I succeeded in climbing Thriller that day, claiming the second female ascent—and a good measure of mental clarity.

It reminded me why what I do at each moment is so important. Not the moment five seconds ago; not the moment five seconds from now. If I can stay in the present, peripheral chatter falls away. And then, who knows what I could accomplish?

There is something to stepping outside of the box, to actually see what kind of box you have built around yourself. I left one behind that was chaotic, claustrophobic…and (ironically) moved into a tent that was a mere 27 square feet of green nylon. But its simplicity reminded me of the essentials, calmed my mind, and then opened a door to a much larger world.

Somewhere along the way, climbing introduced me to myself. And I imagine that this is why I will be seeking adventure through climbing for many years to come.

Robyn Puro is one of those folks who believe her two dogs are really people in furry outfits. An avid climber, writer, eater and number-cruncher living in Boulder, Colorado, Robin blogs about food—and occasionally manages to drag her boyfriend to a yoga class. For more: t4three.blogspot.com

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