Sunday, June 03, 2007

Adirondacks - Saturday: Part Three: Ski Jumping and How It Relates To Climbing

Not every trip of mine is feted through an obsession of some sort, but this trip did have one element that caught my fascination more than climbing itself: ski jumping.

As I noted on Friday's post, I was driving to "Jello"'s when I came around a corner and saw these tall, dark structures rising above the trees and towering into the dark, late-night sky. My first reaction to these "things" was, "What the fuck is that?" In my mind, there shouldn't have been anything that tall out in the middle of nowhere. I was surrounded by rows of trees that filled in the valley I was driving through. On either side, at any moment on the drive from North Hudson to Ray Brook, there were mountains (soon to be seen in daylight with cliffs dripping from the summits) and / or lakes filling out the wilderness that made the drive so dark and enthralling. I knew Lake Placid was nearby, but I also knew it wasn't a city. There shouldn't have been anything more than a few stories high, and certainly nothing a few minutes drive from the downtown area itself. If anything, I figured I would have seen the lights of Lake Placid itself rising up from the town before I saw any towering structures in the dark.

To be clear, these towers could not have been confused with the normal things you'd see rising above the treetops. These were much taller and leaner than a water tower, but denser than cellphone towers at the same time. They weren't radio antennas either, though they did have blinking, red lights at the top. And the vertical section of the towers, if they were alone in their secrecy, would have come across as something that was probably easily explained during the day as "the thing the weird guy on that farm built twenty years before". But what made the whole thing so intriguing was the sharp slope that ran downward from the peak of each tower to the disappearing point of the tree line. It got my blood simmering and I couldn't wait to find out what I was looking at. It was then that I saw the sign: "Olympic Ski Jump Facility Ahead". At once, my simmering blood stimulated my brain cells and asexual endorphins began spewing thoughts of amazement that sent a shiver through the rest of my body. What a thrill! I couldn't believe that I was not only driving past an Olympic landmark, which is exciting in itself because I have always been enamored by the spirit and competition of the Olympics, but past one of the most exciting venues in the Olympics as well.

I don't know what it is, but there is something about watching these competitors, all with a story or a geographic or emotional place whence they came from, as they try to reach the top of the medal strand with flowers in hand, medals dangling around their necks, and anthems making their hearts bleed and eyes swell. Think about the fact that they only get this shot once every four years. If they are hurt, there's no "next year", it's all about that moment in time and no other time else wise. If they fail; if they twist wrong, run too slow, trip or jump to early; if the conditions are poorer for them than they were for their rivals; if somehow the wind blows at the wrong moment, then they'll have to watch the awards ceremony from afar; their dreams crushed; their moment lost - and they'll have to wait another four years to regain just the possibility of that moment again.

Maybe they won't be in their prime by the time the next Olympics rolls around. Or maybe some sixteen year-old who was on the cusp of greatness the first time around will have grown, matured and catapulted to the top of the betting slips as the the new, potential gold medalist. In essence, what makes the Olympics exciting for me is the moment. Much like American sports in general, it's all about that one instant before the action takes place: when the pitcher comes to the set, the quarterback steps under center, as the defender takes on step backward too many away from the two-guard with a hot hand in the closing seconds, when the goalie steps out of goal to meet the rushing skater or dribbler. We live for the moment in American sports, and I think that perspective has translated well into climbing. When I'm on the wall, my entire focus is on that one moment and my emotions range according to the situation I'm in. Is anyone actually afraid of the fall itself? No. They're afraid of that split second before the fall when all these thoughts rush into the brain: where's my last piece, how much rope is out, will the rope hold, is my belayor capable of catching me, will I deck out? It's always about the next move and sometimes what the next hold will bring. It's always about next.

Anyway, I was clearly excited to see the towers in the daylight for the first time. I'm not sure why, but I've always been in love with the risk, power, speed and grace of ski jumping. I know many people think it is a boring sport, but not I. There is something about the fear of plummeting one's body toward the earth on boards strapped to one's feet and ultimately being catapulted into what should be an open space but is actually like a large box that gets smaller and smaller the closer one gets to the ground. Imagine standing at the top and seeing in front of you a long, direct route to an unforgiving edge that leads out to empty space, eventually ending on the white earth that you'll be landing on shortly. Imagine seeing the crowd forming a "U" around the landing site. Imagine the rush of having the courage to compete in such sports. It is why I climb. I can imagine the ski jumper thinking of nothing but the next step, the next move in the process. He sits on the bar, lets go and disembarks downward. He reaches the edge and jumps, lifting his heels backward and shoving his chin toward the tips of his skis, floating, floating, floating until it is time to land; gently settling the skis on the wet snow, one in front of the other for just a long enough time period for the judges to access your style as well as your distance. It gives me shivers just thinking about it.

For me, when I climb, I think of nothing else in the world and all my stresses disappear. It becomes a survival moment for me, as if I'm playing a game that gives my life meaning away from the corporate cubicle and spreadsheets. It's no different than a man in a suit sometimes wishing it were he digging the ditch, only if because it would make him feel like a man for just a few moments. It's a do or die moment. Each move is meticulous. Each position is pushing me to think of only me and nothing else.

Sometimes when I reflect, I can think of myself on the wall as a jumper who is floating through the air with one goal on his mind: to land well enough to be satisfied with the endeavour. To see the steep drop of the ramp melt into the slope of the landing ground below. To look up at the scary crimps above me and realize, once I've reached the top, that the bottom has become the top in one, full swoosh of the body moving the mind upward. It became an obsession of mine every time I drove past the site, probably to the dismay of my passengers because I was the one driving. My heart still races when I think of it.

Ahem, I notice that this post has gone long as well. Midnight bouldering will come in the next post. Sorry!

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