“It’s probably negative 20 out, and I can’t feel my feet… but at least it’s windy!” Jimmy Chin is 20,000 ft. above sea level, climbing near-vertical snow and ice as his team pushes towards the summit of Meru’s Shark’s Fin, and he’s smiling. In fact, the one thing that most struck me when I re-watched the film, Meru, a few weeks ago was Chin’s unfailing ability to laugh at a situation, no matter how fucked up it got. It was remarkable; a mastery of the human spirit almost as difficult as the technical, mixed climbing he faced, and it got me wondering, “Why the hell am I not doing that?”
On a good day, I’m a casual climber, at best. I can stomp my way up a 50 degree snow slope with an ice axe and climb 5.11a in the gym. I get outside every weekend, and I love throwing my body at big, endurance-heavy hiking trips. Even though the outings I embark upon are rarely death-defying, I can often get cranky or anxious when lack of sleep, altitude headaches, or food issues begin to prod at my delicate insides. To me, Chin’s attitude was a marvel. Here I was, furrowing my brow at a mellow sport climb or a 13,000 foot peak while he was giggling his way up Mt. Everest and then fucking skiing down it!
After re-watching Meru, I was on a quest to find out what made this dude tick. A friend recommended the Tim Ferriss Podcast episode that featured Jimmy Chin, and I listened to it intently on a late night drive out to Anza Borrego State Park. I was, once again, blown away by his understated poise. Chin doesn’t fit the “bro profile” that many mountaineers fall into. Instead, his voice has an incredibly intentional, measured softness that’s almost catlike as he calmly describes traversing the infamous “House of Cards” pitch. Listening to him recount feeling “small and, in a way, very expansive” reminded me that no matter how intense things get in the outdoors, it sure as hell beats sitting in an office.
I decided to give myself a project. I would laugh when a climb terrified me or when a migraine started to creep across my skull. I would take deep breaths and push on when lead climbing within my skill-level, and I would giggle like a maniac when taking a fall or when one of my fingers bled. I would put matter before mind, and goddamn it, I would muscle my body into smiling through the insanity.
Guess what? It worked.
I am now that girl who shrieks and cackles when taking a whipper on an overhang at the climbing gym and then jumps right back on the wall. I’ve on-sighted routes outside when I thought I was going to puke, and I’ve even begun masochistically looking forward to several 12+ hour suffer-fests that my like-minded friends have placed on the calendar. I made a conscious decision to allow my joy to rip a hole inside my fear and discomfort; now joy reigns.
“Here’s Phil. Phil, the bottle. Our fourth member of the team.” Chin sarcastically muses about the group’s pee bottle as they lounge inside an exposed portaledge at around 19,000 feet on the Shark’s Fin, giving an MTV Cribs-style tour of their living arrangements. Everywhere you look, there could be things to complain about, but he and Conrad Anker are grinning like the cat that ate the canary. “Where else do you get a view like that?” Chin smiles as the camera pulls away, his humble intensity looming inside a mellow chuckle.
As I begin to climb harder and more often, I think that humor and grace might be the ultimate path to enlightenment when things go sideways or get sketchy in the mountains. After all, complaining won’t solve anything, and laughing into a 50 mph headwind sounds a hell of a lot more fun than shouting into it.