Please, Yuck my Yum.
We fucked up. Well, okay, I fucked up.
We were supposed to rappel down the north side of the arete, climber jargon for a vertical ridge like the corner of a building, to the base of a classic 3 pitch 5.9 sport route. Instead, we went down the south side and ended up trapped at the bottom of a lichen-covered, crumbling canyon wall, our path to our planned route blocked by a raging torrent of whitewater. Surrounded by towering granite cliffs, the only way out is up, and the only route up, at least according to info I have is a hard 5.10 trad lead, the kind of climbing that requires placing removable gear to protect it. In this case, the kind of gear we left in the car.
The easy thing to do would be to blame the photo in my guidebook. It clearly didn’t show that, at high water, you can’t access the north wall from the southern rappel. I could also blame my partner for not catching the mistake. But, both of those would be casting blame that should fall squarely on my shoulders, and since I fucked up, I feel like it’s my responsibility to get us out of this canyon before the sun goes down and it gets very, very cold. That’s why I’m trying to make my way up the second pitch of a desperate, crumbling bolt line that isn’t listed in the guidebook or on any online post about the area.
So far, I’ve managed to clip two bolts, aggressively rubbing dead black lichen from the rock under my hands and feet to gain purchase on the steepening slab. Above me, the next bolt is at least 15 feet away, across a series of small, scattered fractures that make a, sort of, rightward trending crack line. I breathe twice, a tick I’ve developed before stepping out on an unsure climbing route, and start moving up. The first few moves feel ok, even good. There is a hidden jug for my left hand that makes up for the thin, dirty footholds I’m struggling to stay on top of.
Letting go of the jug, I move another few feet up, the hands degrading into horizontal finger jams in wet, mossy cracks. When I get about 5 feet above the last bolt, I stall. The hand holds narrow, so small that I can barely get two fingers in. The next foothold is a long stretch, with nothing but desperate smears on rotten, lichen lubricated rock in between. Looking down, I realize the route has put my partner, who currently has me on a hanging belay, directly into my fall line. Letting go at this point would mean falling straight towards her, and with my size and the distance from the last bolt, that would almost guarantee that I land on her head, or on the bolted anchor keeping us both from tumbling 40 feet back to the canyon floor. I focus on my breathing and down climb back to the last bolt.
“Take!” I shout as soon as my waist comes parallel with the bolt. My partner pulls up the slack in the rope and holds be tight on the wall.
I take a minute to re-examine the route, then head back up to try another series of moves. I stall around the exact same point. But this time, I almost fall on the down climb. My partner looks genuinely worried, and when she lowers me back to the anchor, it’s clear, pushing onward isn’t something she’s ok with. She tells me something to this effect, and defeated I take out my phone and make the call for search and rescue – we need to get hauled out of the canyon.
I wanted to keep climbing. I wanted to try and push up that crumbling wall. Frankly, I was embarrassed and frustrated about having to call SAR. But, none of that mattered when my partner pulled the plug. She knew what I wasn’t willing to admit to myself, that continuing up route with no extra protection was begging for an accident, and that calling for a haul out with both of us safe and healthy was a lot better than calling for one after a serious fall. The truth is, I wouldn’t have made that call on my own. I needed someone to shut me down. I needed someone to yuck my yum.
Maybe I just run in some weird crowds, but it seems like the phrase “don’t yuck my yum” has become pervasive in any sort of planning or decision making conversation I find myself in. The idea behind the phrase, at least as I understand it, is that it’s problematic to criticize an idea that you don’t support, but one or some other people do. It’s a sort of ‘one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure’, but for ideas instead of broken lawn furniture. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that negativity can kill creative thinking, it’s why drama students play “yes and” while most adults prefer “no but”, and yet I still can’t stand the phrase “don’t yuck my yum”. The truth is, some yums need to yucked. Some ideas aren’t worth consideration. Sometimes, you need negative thinking.
The “positive power of negative thinking” is a concept first pioneered by Julie K. Norem, the Margaret Hamm Professor of Psychology at Wellesley College. Norem’s research led her to conclude that success often depends not on optimism and positivity, but something she calls “defensive pessimism”, a mindset where people envision the worst possible outcomes and prepare accordingly.
As I climber, that’s something I’m well acquainted with. Defensive pessimism is why I carry a steel quick-link on the back of my harness in case I have to bail off a route when things get too dicey. It’s why I do my best to remember a headlamp, extra batteries, extra energy bars and a rain jacket. It’s why I always double check my knot, and why Alex Honnold, one of the world’s most best climbers, known mostly for free-solo climbing without a rope, is quick to point out that even he only free-solos routes a full grade or two below what he would climb on a rope.
Will Gadd, arguably Canada’s most famous climber and adventurer, swears by the power of negative thinking. Speaking at the 2014 Banff Mountain Film and Book festival, Gadd explained his view that “there’s this idea of manifestation, that if you think positive thoughts about something, the universe will deliver it [and] my experience with that in the mountains is that it’s bullshit”.
Instead, he argues that a sort of pessimistic optimism was the key ingredient for his own exploits; being the first person to ice climb up a frozen edge of Niagara Falls, climbing icebergs off the coast of Labrador, or his link-up of some of the most iconic peaks in Canadians Rockies, but doing it with a para-glider.
“All climbers are optimists. [We think] this little thing I put in the crack will work out great, the rope will stretch and I wont hit the ground, That’s sheer optimism.”
He’s right. Without optimism, climbers would never walk up to vertical walls with a few pieces of metal and a rope confident that “yes, I can climb that” and “no, I wont die”. Without optimism, there may never have been a first ascent of Everest, let alone the free climb of the Dawn Wall that set both the climbing and non-climbing world alight in 2015.
Without that bone deep belief that success is possible, even if it’s unlikely, no climber would ascend into the unknown. Equally so, without that negative thinking, a lot fewer climbers would come back in one piece. Edward Whymper, an Italian climber who was one of three surviving members of party of seven who completed the 1865 first ascent of the Matterhorn (the other four perishing in an accident on the descent) wrote in his account of the climb:
“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”
This balance of optimism and defensive pessimism is the difference between believing you can do something and figuring out how to do it, versus just believing that you can do something. It’s one thing to have faith that you can accomplish something ridiculous and then go through a process of checking that ambition, identifying worst case scenarios and figuring out if you have the means and skills to avoid them. It’s something entirely different to have blind faith, lack both the means and skills, and refuse to acknowledge those limitations – like I was doing on that crumbling canyon wall. In those moments, we need someone else to check us, to let us know that, no, it’s not going to be ok to continue up that sketchy climb and risk a serious accident. We need someone to “yuck our yum”, because while I haven’t learned much during my 30 years on this planet, I have learned that human beings are capable of exceptional delusion.
On a wall or in the wilderness, “yum yucking” can be be the difference between injury and safety, even between life and death. In the rest of our lives, it’s probably not so severe. But for me, the lessons I learn on mountains are some of the most important that I carry out of the woods. When someone questions your ideas, it’s up to you whether or not to listen to them. If it’s your climbing partner and you’re hanging over a vertical precipice, it might be a good sign that it’s time to re-examine the plan. If it’s some stranger on the internet, or just your worried mother, that’s your call. Either way, questions and criticism help to temper and strengthen ideas, whether we agree with them or not. So, for what it’s worth, shout out to the yum yuckers. Thanks to all the climbing partners, colleagues and friends who have shut down my stupidest ideas – your negative thinking inspires me.