We celebrate the firsts because for the person who is willing to go first, there is a strong willingness to fail. It takes courage to step out on the limb when one is not sure it will hold them. It takes tenacity to try, try again when one is not sure that what one is trying is even possible. It takes patience to allow optimism. It takes a vision, a strength of mind to believe what is not seen.
It is easy to be the third, the forth or the tenth person to do it.
It is easy because you know it is possible. And telling yourself something that has been done by others is easy. To tell yourself something is possible before you ever see it done, that is hard.
There is a phenomenon often witnessed in climbing when a number of people are trying the same route or boulder problem. Everyone will be falling, but willing themselves and their friends to try again. Then one person will unlock the combination of the right sequence and the right amount of strength and mobility and complete (send) the route. After that, the inspiration in the group goes up and sure enough, the route will be accomplished by the other climbers. We call this phenomenon the send train.
It happens in large part because it is now certain the route is climbable and not only that, there is a thought, ‘if that guy can do it, surely, I can too.’ It is a part of human nature to mimic what we witness. In fact, this is how most of us learn a new sport. We mimic the actions of others and then learn from our mistakes, continue to witness, and the learning continues.
According to what we have chosen for competition and in what the community enjoys reading about, we love the effort and the courage it takes. Winning an Oscar happened with Alex Honnold’s solo ascent of El Cap. Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson introduced the larger world to the drama of climbing first ascents free with The Grand Wall. Competitions value the climber having no previous knowledge of the route and not having the ability to watch others before attempting the route, regardless of bouldering or lead climbing. Speed climbing is a rehearsal of movements and moving as fast as possible.
And yet, within the larger climbing community, outside of the competition arena, so many boulder problems are now described and explained in guides online with videos showing you how to climb it. The same is not done for route climbing since video taping roped climbing is a much more complex thing. When bouldering however, I have been with folks who refuse to even try the boulder problem without first watching the video. As a coach, my heart breaks a little when this happens. This is when outside becomes the gym experience. Everyone watching everyone else and figuring out how to mimic what they see.
At this, I become nostalgic for the wildness of the sport I love. I long for the silence and intimacy of just yourself and a partner or two. I miss the struggle akin to what we witnessed on The Dawn Wall where the rock holds onto her sequence urging you to learn more about who you are and how you can grow, not just in strength, but in strength of character. Nature challenges your courage and willingness to lose again, and then to pick yourself up and continue to try. And a partner holds your secrets, desires for you as strongly as you desire for yourself. That is where the wild in the story of climbing resides, and that is the true potential value.