This weekend, I finally made it to Yosemite in person. I went with two wonderful friends (Colleen and Tory) and got to attempt outdoor rock climbing for the first time since I was barely 15 years old. Yesterday, weclimbed the lower part of the Nose at El Capitan, focusing on crack climbing. There were other climbers at the site as well. Some, like us, were there for a day or two of single pitch routes — that means they were climbing up about 60 feet or so, then descending back down. Others were attacking the entire 2900 foot face with huge sacks of food and plans to spend multiple days and nights dangling from the side of the wall. They were taking on one of the best and most famous climbs on planet earth.
I loved all of it.
The technicality of crack climbing, the sheer immensity of the precipice above us, and the recognition that just around the corner from here, on this very same piece of rock, is where Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson had, only two months earlier — after 6 or 7 years of strenuous effort — managed to pull off the first free ascent of “The Dawn Wall,” supposedly the hardest free ascent in history and one that attracted more mainstream media attention than anything the rock climbing world had ever seen.
This was not my first time being an absolute beginner, close in time and space, to an event that had pulled a niche sport out of its sub-cultural obscurity and propelled it to the front of the peering eyes of a global audience.
A little over 20 years earlier, I was in “the dawn” of my own “surf life.” I had been surfing for about a month, but hadn’t really stood up and successfully ridden a wave on my shortboard, yet.
I was surfing every day, but every paddle out had been met with fall, after fall, after fall.
In my defense, I was trying to learn during one of the largest winters on record, with waves ranging in the 6′ – 8′ range for most of that period of December, 1994. Nonetheless, the experience had proved — let’s say — humbling. For Christmas that year, our family decided to drive north from our place in Pismo Beach to go visit my Grandfather up in Santa Cruz.
One evening — I believe it was December 23rd (though there is a chance it could have been the 24th) — my parents drove me down to the Santa Cruz Wharf and I suited up and paddled out for the first time at a spot called Cowell’s — the very tail-end of a world-famous surf break called Steamer Lane. At Cowell’s the waves were only waist- or chest- high, about half the size of the waves I had been struggling with back home, and were much less steep as well. The reduced size and steepness combined to give me my first successfully ridden wave. I don’t remember the details or how many waves I caught, but I do remember the feeling. I was “STOKED!”
While I was splashing around in Santa Cruz, 45 minutes up Highway 1, Mark Foo, one of the world’s most famous and accomplished big wave surfers, was surfing a surf spot that had only achieved widespread attention in the previous year or two — a cold, murky, shark-infested monster of a wave called Mavericks. In addition to incredible skill in heavy water, Foo had a flair for self-promotion and had gained notoriety for his macabre philosophy: “If you want to ride the ultimate wave, you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price.”
Unfortunately, on the day that I had my first surfing victory, that tribute got exacted: Mark fell on a medium-sized wave, got pulled over with the breaking lip, was driven deep into the dark, cold Northern California waters and didn’t come back up.
An hour later, his body was found floating near the Half Moon Bay Harbor and was pulled from the sea.
The waves had been incredibly big and dramatic all week long — it was the largest surf any one had ever seen in California and the surf media — newly awakened to the fact that Hawaii didn’t have a monopoly on big waves –was keen to capture evidence of the limits being pushed in these cold waters. On top of that, a few days earlier, a kid from Santa Cruz about my age named Jay Moriarity had ended up taking what would become the most famous wipeout of the era. The photos of his crucifiction on an angry snarling and medieval monster of a wave at “Mavs” was even more impressive.
With the arrival of Foo, alongside other big wave luminaries like Brock Little and Ken Bradshaw, the media had been on hand in full force to document the action.
Now, it was the first time a big wave surfer had died on camera — and to have it be Foo, arguably the most famous on earth — at this new, and incredibly photogenic spot — provided all the ingredients for a media frenzy.
Mark’s death in particular, and more importantly, Mavericks role as the baddest of dragons for aspiring surf knights to challenge more generally, dominated the mainstream media throughout my first year of surfing. Simply put: ever since that first day of successful wave-sliding,Mavericks has always occupied a huge place in my mind.
And it always snuck in in the form of a question, bubbling up from the deep recesses of my psyche: “will I ever truly want to surf waves like that? And if so, will I be able to? And if so, will I die just as Mark had?”
Now to be clear, this mix curiosity and uncertainty about where my own limits might be wasn’t what drove me to surf. No. Losing myself in the moment each time I paddled out had been the main driver behind this new obsession, but Mavericks had always served up the big question — would I ever be up for taking on that “ultimate challenge.”
Eventually, through a natural progression, I ended up progressing to a place where Mavericks proved at first, possible, and then later comfortable. I still have days with butterflys, but for the most part, Mavericks is a place that I feel at ease with. It has provided me with some of my most “alive” moments ever as well as a huge amount of introspection about life, death, purpose and even evolutionary psychology.
One of the primary lessons that my experience of surfing has gifted to me is as true as it is trite — the journey really is the reward.
Though ultimately, I got to a place where I was able to surf Mavericks, that was not the thing that made all of the effort worth it.
Rather, as I’ve pointed out in another recent post on Surfing, Flow, and Good Work, the experience of losing myself in the task, almost daily, was the payment for my effort.
In his book, Drive, Dan Pink talks about what motivates humans and distills it down to a simple model with three components: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.
I love that model, particularly his nuanced understanding of Mastery. Pink understands that Mastery is about the “urge to get better at stuff” — which is different than saying that Mastery is about getting to a place of “having mastered something.”
Having mastered something — weather walls, waves, the design of information technologies or the rhythm of a well-honed speech — can deliver accollades, but not motivation. For that, the rewards had really better be intrinsic and frequent.
Truth be told, I have no idea what actually lies ahead for me in the world of climbing. I now have the basic tools (harness, chalk bag, shoes) though I haven’t yet started accumulating the remaining gear — all of those ropes and safety devices.
I’m not focused on getting to a place where I can climb the Nose of El Cap. If that happens, it will happen. Instead, I’m looking forward to the road between here and there, a road filled with losing myself into new sets of challenges. I’m starting by leveraging the wisdom of others, and digital technology, to start building a basic understanding of what this stuff is all about. In that way, I’m just taking the same approach that I did when I finally picked up kite surfing a couple of years ago. Deloitte, the world’s largest business consulting firm, actually talked a bit about my use of that approach in their report on Unlocking the Passion of the Explorer. It falls in line with the digital learning insights that John Seely Brown, John Hagel, and Duleesha Kulasooriya from Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, have been outlining for years now.
I’m watching this great intro to crack climbing series on youtube, “surfing” around online for tips on niche subjects like how to deal with gnarly climber hands and will, no doubt, be picking the brain of every climber I meet, for tips. That practice of “gleaning as much wisdom from others as I can” combined with a whole bunch of actual doing (don’t forget about the doing!) should have me on my way up steeper chunks of granite in no time.