Rock climbers are always working on “projects,” but not in the way artists are. A climbing project is a personal challenge; it’s a route or a boulder problem that the climber is consistently attempting in order to (hopefully, eventually) send it (complete it without falling). Projects are personal. A project represents the edge of a climber’s ability. It’s hard enough that it can’t be sent within the first few attempts, but it’s still within the imagined realm of possibility. The rock doesn’t change, so the climber has to change to achieve what the project demands.
My last serious project was in 2019. It was a 5.10c sport route with a powerful, sketchy above the bolt crux move. The rest of the climb was within my existing skillset: technical face climbing below the crux, and juggy 5.9 climbing above it. The crux move was a right hand crimp, left hand sidepull, left heel hook, right leg flag. Once the heel hook was set, I pulled on the crimp and rolled my weight over onto the ball of my left foot, turned the crimp hold into a sketchy mantle, then attempted to maintain balance as I stood up and reached for a sloper high overhead. I often fell when trying to rock onto my left foot, and if I managed to pull off that move, I fell when I tried to hold on to the sloper for the next move. This move consumed me. I visualized it, I talked about it, I tried to imitate it at the indoor gym, and I went back to the crag to fall off it over and over again.
I never stuck the move. When the pandemic hit, I stopped climbing, and the intensity of my relationship to climbing cooled. I haven’t really had projects since, and my outdoor climbing grade maxes out at 5.9. I was more serious about climbing when I was working in restaurants. Climbing provided a sense of control and achievement when my work didn’t. Since I’ve gone fully freelance, I feel more control over my life, so my climbing has relaxed.
But the projecting mindset hasn’t gone away. Some writing is pleasurable and familiar - like “easy” climbing, it requires effort and strength, but not too much, and I’m confident when I’m start that I’ll finish without much trouble. It’s satisfying. Some writing is pleasurable but strange - within my skillset but less familiar, a different genre or style, engaging different muscles.
Then there’s the project. Big. Long-term. Exhausting. No guarantee of completion. It’s the writing that pushes right against the edge of my ability, the kind of undertaking that feels like it could be a massive failure and/or complete waste of time.
There’s usually something learned in the doing, though. And it’s nice to rediscover the fun. Even if I never really send this project - if the experimentation and the multiple attempts lead to a private endpoint of abandonment and not a polished manuscript - the skills developed will transfer to the next project. It’s not all a wash. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.