Why attend to your Match Burning?
Dear Why Team member,
At this writing, on March 5th, I am on a flight home from Monterrey Mexico after climbing in an area called the Potrero Chico in the Sierra Madre Mountains.
The mountains are spectacular - rising sharply to heights of 2000 feet. Every climbing route we took had great variety and we were gifted with sunny days and cool breezes.
As usual, every adventurous trip I take with my climbing guide Matt Walker brings new insights and revelations.
On our first morning of climbing, this past Friday, we did a few single pitch climbs to work out the cobwebs and get our rhythm down before taking on our first multi-pitch climb of the day. A single pitch is usually about 80 to 90 feet because of rope length. You climb to the first pitch - where you tie off - gather up the rope and either repel back down or go higher to climb more pitches. After a few challenging single-pitch climbs we dove into a spectacular multi-pitch, which of course takes you higher and higher up the mountain. While the climbing difficulty may be similar, as you may know/imagine, it gets a lot more exciting the higher up you go.
It has been about nine months since my last serious rock face, so our first multi-pitch climb on our first day was particularly exhilarating.
Since climbing my first rock face 7 years ago at age 52, my guide Matt Walker has continually challenged me to grow my skills. To prepare for these particular mountains in Mexico, he stressed some specific training and the importance of pace, taking moments on the rock face between difficult segments to pause, breathe, relax, and then re-engage.
If you haven’t connected the dots already, there are many metaphors for life learned on the side of a mountain. It is one of the many reasons why I love to climb. This time, Matt shared with me a powerful metaphor called the ‘box of matches’ which was an insight more helpful in the Sierra Madre mountains than on any other climb I had encountered.
Consider that your available energy is like a box that contains a limited number of matches; every match you burn is one less match available for you to burn. To climb long challenging routes for several hours requires being smarter with regard to how you climb. Arms and hands are best used for balance while letting the stronger legs do most of the work. Too much arm and hand effort, for example, will result in more matches burned than necessary - and there are only so many matches in your box.
More than on any other climb I have done, to be successful, I had to be aware of my pace - be aware of the number of matches I was burning.
I had to take many moments to pause and breathe deeply - especially if I had just come through a very stressful portion of a climb. I had to be more present with where I was on the journey and less in a hurry to get to my destination.
During our first multi-pitch climb on our first day, my mouth became very dry. Matt said that it was my nervous system - the amygdala’s response to danger - which releases adrenaline into the body while shutting down what is unnecessary to survival in the heat of the moment, like the need for saliva. Unfortunately for a climber, the adrenaline can also reduce peripheral vision, thus reducing the ability to even see new paths upward.
I remember one very challenging moment where my hand holds were small, and my arms were rapidly losing strength when I fortunately happened to turn my head enough to see a very helpful spot to place my foot. I was so concerned with the holds I did have; I almost didn’t see the foot placement that kept me from falling. When I saw it, I verbally said with relief: “there you are”, which revealed to me my confidence in a way forward if only I could find it.
While adrenaline is helpful for focus, it can reduce our ability to be creative. Focusing too much energy on a challenge at hand can shut down our ability to see other less stressful and more creative options; options that would mean less match burning. Adrenaline can certainly serve us, but it can remove vital perspective helpful to progressing up a mountain and in life. When secure holds and foot placements were finally found, again, it was important to pause, take a deep breath and relax - especially if I had just come through an intense section of a climb. It was important to relax, turn down the adrenaline, and turn up the creativity. These were long routes and to have two full days and many hours of climbing, attending to my match burning was paramount.
Many times, in life, daring and ‘growing’ is much easier when you have a skilled partner, that’s why I climb with Matt. To gain new climbing skills and progress through tough sections of a climb, I had several moments when I had to go for a move I hadn’t done before. I would yell up to Matt above, who had my rope secured, “you got me?” and then I would feel a little tightening on my lifeline which conveyed to me that he did; it was then that I would lean in and go for it. Of course, again, after these moves, it was very important to pause, relax, breathe deeply and then re-engage with the mountain.
Another reminder received while climbing in Mexico was how beneficial even the smallest step up can be. The small steps upward, sometimes only a few inches higher, require minimal energy and can open up new opportunities for hand and foot placements; just the feeling of progress, no matter how little, can provide encouragement and hope. Oh sure, those big, beautiful foot holds two feet or more higher than where you’re standing are tempting, but they require much more energy and too many of them hit your endurance, burning your matches more than necessary. Pace on the mountain is as important as pace in a race. Conscious awareness of the difference between a sprint and a marathon are just as important on the side of a mountain.
As you engage in your life’s work and the work of life, consider how the ‘box of matches’ insight may serve your highest aspirations. What healthy behaviors, such as more sleep, could add a match or two to your daily box of matches? How could attending to your pace throughout your day, knowing small steps can make a big difference, help keep you from burning out - burning out all your matches?
This week and beyond - may these insights I received in the Mountains of Mexico help you to more often
burn brightly 🔥 without burning out!
Make it a great week!
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