Training for El Capitan on Goof Proof Roof. March 1988 Photo: Stuart Wagstaff

Training for El Capitan on Goof Proof Roof. March 1988 Photo: Stuart Wagstaff


My twenty-three-year-old frame hangs in a harness connected to three camming unit’s prying grip on the inside of a crack, eight hundred feet off the valley floor on "The Nose" route of El Capitan. My eyes pan across the architecture of granite and back again, then land on a dogfight between two swallows trying to out-maneuver each other for reasons unknown to me. My partner John works his way up the wide crack of the last of the "Stove legs" pitches, which will lead him to a ledge called Dolt Tower. I look up at the face above and a visceral feeling of unworthiness infuses my being. The sheer size and steepness of the rock face calls upon a feeling that this arena is for others, not me.   

A man from a party below arrived at the same foot stool sized belay stance I inhabited and said, "What are you doing?"

I replied, "What do you mean?"

He said, "I can see you are belaying your leader, but what are you doing?"

I said, "Nothing."

To my surprise he replied, "If you are not improving your situation in tiny ways every moment, you'll never make it." After he said that, I realized that there were endless small tasks that needed my attention. Re-stacking the rope, cleaning up the now unused elements of the anchor and having a snack to maintain my energy. My impromptu mentor pointed out there was always something to be done if I had a goal. Waiting to see if things turn out is not a great way to have them turn out. Practical advice for this big arena. So, I got busy and it seemed to work.

John and I made it up the Nose route on El Capitan that trip. I arrived at the top with a sense of worthiness that in the end could not have been more ephemeral. By the time I arrived back in the valley, foot sore from the snowy trudge down from the heights of the summit, I was planning something harder.

There is wisdom in taking direct action to improve one’s situation. But what situation is being improved? I have spent a lifetime chasing summits in a dogfight with myself and others, trying to out maneuver the emptiness I feel inside. Achievement never quenched my inner thirst for long, I was a slave to doing and abandoning the part of me that was happy to witness the architecture of rock or the wonder of a swallow’s flight.

Effort is worth something, but it is not the only thing. If I cannot be happy being still, then likely, I am a slave to the perceived success that comes from doing. This is dangerous. The mindset of having to succeed can negatively affect my decisions. Extrinsic motivation is not a true source of worthiness or good decisions. Loving a thing is. Doing anything from the heart is an act of creation. The act of creation connects me to my true self and worthiness. When I find and connect to source, I feel that I am enough. Working from this place I make better decisions. And then I forget. And then I remember. And so on.

Of all of the events and achievements of the Apollo missions, the single most profound impact for the astronaut’s happened when they took time away from performing tasks. Rusty Schweickart and Edgar Mitchell had life changing experiences in the moments where they looked out over the universe in profound wonder. A sense of oneness overwhelmed them. We can do that anywhere.