You Can Do This

by | April 29, 2024

In the spirit of the view that a little self-help never hurts to share, the Jackson Hole Economics editors diverge from our usual focus on the political economy to delve into the world of climbing and self-reliance.

You know the feeling. Your eyes dart side to side, looking for something, anything. Your heart is pounding, breathing is rapid. Palms get sweaty, fast. Your mind races, trying to figure out a solution. But it is so hard to think. 

Panic is an amazing dynamic, refined by evolution to automatically drive a series of adaptive physiological responses. Cortisol increases, stimulating blood flow. Epinephrine courses, masking pain and adding power to muscles. Vision gets acute, focus increases. Chemicals do their thing. Attack or escape. 

The problem is, neither attack or escape is an option. You are 400 feet up a blank granite wall in southern Arizona and what you really need to do is calm down and think. 

I have been climbing rocks since the first George Bush was President of the United States. From my local crag in the ‘Gunks’ of the Hudson Valley of New York to Yosemite, Alaska, the Alps, the Andes and Asia, I sought out bigger and bigger objectives. Hundred-foot technical climbs gave way to thousand-foot walls to high alpine peaks above 20,000 feet. I got pretty good. But like most passions, climbing has waxed and waned in my life. And for much of the past decade, it has waned, replaced in priority by the all-consuming demands of little children, a start-up business and too much travel.  

A year ago, when I had all but accepted that my hard, technical climbing days were behind me, a friend asked me to take him climbing in the Gunks. I dusted off old gear I had first bought twenty years ago and agreed, with some trepidation. You see, lead climbing with traditional gear can be intimidating. There are technical aspects that get easier with practice, and if you are out of practice, it can feel scary even if you used to do it a lot. If you talk to a pilot, they will often say the same about flying airplanes. When you haven’t done it in a while, best to get back into it slowly, step by step. After all, the consequences of bad decisions are extreme. 

Somehow, the most famous climb in the Gunks was free, with no one on the route. High Exposure is a stunning 200-foot route worthy of its name, and perhaps the most exciting ‘moderate’ climb in the country. It isn’t technically too hard, but it is very exposed and gives the climber a sense of wild air. Afterwards, I tried to explain the transporting feeling this way: it was like meeting one’s spouse again, for the first time, and falling in love all over again. 

And so, I ended up 400 feet up this granite face in Cochise Stronghold, in the southern Arizona just north of the border with Mexico. Instead of getting back into it step by step like a good old pilot, I did what newly in-love people often do, and let excitement exceed caution. A last-minute offer from Christian, an old climbing friend, to go to a remote area to climb stuff where we may or may not have route descriptions? Big, hard granite walls probably beyond my technical abilities? Adventure climbing, away from people, away from cell signals? Check, check, check. 

Love is blind, as they say. 

When you lead a rock pitch in traditional climbing, you carry lots of gear that you can place in cracks in the rock and run the rope through. If you fall, you fall below your last piece of gear and your belayer and the gear act to arrest your fall. And on a multi-pitch climb, the idea is you climb up to about where your rope runs out and then build an anchor with more gear, attach yourself safely to it, and bring up your second.  Then you do it again and again until you get to the top. 

My problem, 400 feet up this Arizona wall, was that I had used up most of my gear getting to where I was and now needed to build an anchor.  The wall was mostly vertical, my feet were smeared on blank stuff with friction, and my hands were wedged in a small vertical crack. And, I realized, there were not any other features close by. This crack was all I had, and most of my gear was gone. 

Wait, how did I use up so much of my gear? And why didn’t I plan for a better spot to build an anchor? All of a sudden, it hit me like a two by four. I was way out of practice. And in trouble.  

In climbing there is something called sewing machine legs. When you start to feel panic creep in, your legs sometimes begin to shake in a way that oddly mimics how a sewing machine works. And since you have a lot of hardware attached to your harness, it makes a distinctive and disconcerting clanging sound that increases in pitch in tune with fear. As that old symphony started up, I tried to figure out what to do. 

Could I down climb to a better spot? No, a decent spot was too far and likely beyond my technical abilities as climbing down is harder than up. Could I climb up to a better spot? No, I didn’t have enough rope left. Could I call for help from my partner? Even in my accelerating haze of irrational thinking I knew that was ridiculous, given Christian was hundreds of feet below me with no way to get up to me unless I belayed him up. 

Legs playing music, lactic acid in my arms building, breathing shallow, I force myself to do the one thing I know I can do. I close my eyes and focus on my breathing. I count to ten. Then I remind myself that I have been doing this for decades. I might be out of practice, but I still know what to do. But then the panic comes back and this is how it goes for what feels like an hour, but is surely just minutes. 

A tug of war between “I can do this” and “I can’t do this.” 

Slow your breathing. Hang from one arm, rest the other. Switch. Calm your shaking legs. 

I place one cam and it is solid. Now an old stopper. Finally, I manage to wedge in a super old tri-cam, my last piece of gear. Equalize the pieces. I look at my anchor over and over again. I test each placement. I go over the steps again. I think through the direction of a potential fall, the force on the anchor. Again. 

I can do this. 

I clip into my newly built anchor, lean back on the hanging belay, trust my life to what I built, and let out a long breath. 

Filed Under: Featured

About the Author

Alex is the co-founder of Jackson Hole Economics, a non-profit research organization which provides analysis of key topics in the political economy, and develops actionable ideas for how sustainable growth can be achieved

Alex is also the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Novata, a mission-driven and technology-powered public benefit corporation designed to improve the process of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) diligence in the private markets. Backed by a unique consortium, which includes the Ford Foundation, S&P Global, Hamilton Lane and Omidyar Network, Novata has created an independent, unbiased and flexible platform for the private markets to more consistently measure, analyze and report on relevant ESG data.

With two decades of experience in the financial and non-profit spaces, Alex has led a number of sustainable growth and transformation efforts. He is a former CEO of GAM Holdings and Chief Investment Officer of UBS, and also served as the Chief Financial Officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he created the foundation's strategic investment fund.

Alex was a White House Fellow and an assistant to the Secretary of Defense. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Franklin Resources, Inc. (Franklin Templeton), a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Chair of the Advisory Board of Project Syndicate and a board member of the American Alpine Club. Alex also writes regularly for various news outlets and is the author of Babu's Bindi and The Big Thing: Brave Bea, both children's books.

Alex holds a JD from Columbia Law School, where he was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar, an MBA from Columbia Business School, and a BA from Princeton University.

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