The best thing I’ve done for my learning in the outdoors was one of the earliest. In the early 90s seemingly no one in the US, or at least southern Ohio, did anything other than clip bolts, so it was up to me and my set of hexs and stoppers to figure it out. Gym fingers notwithstanding, it didn’t take many leads to learn that “it” meant knowing yourself well enough to punch it when you were up to the task, and bail when you weren’t. A full set of Friends upon high school graduation helped speeden this task, but the fundamentals haven’t changed since I was trying to channel Robbins while shaking my way up 5.9s.
Climbing is a good task master here, as the most contemplative of outdoor pursuits. Mountain biking, and to a lesser extent skiing, let you slam on the mental brakes, while paddling too often brings you along for the ride. With rarely anything other than the opportunity to ponder the exact nature of your doubt, climbing gives you endless minutes to consider if pushing ahead is a good idea. Hopefully you’ll put the agony of your belayers to good use and apply that depth of self-knowledge when gravity is on the other side.
As the later half of the video shows, this stellar local ride has some stretches of buff ribbon through the grass where the only check on speed is you. Even at a fast-for-me clip, I had a functional eternity to consider what would happen if I failed to keep my 4.7 inch tires within the bounds of the 8 inch wide flatness of dirt. I never found that answer, instead I found out what would happen when I lost my nerve. The little french line through the weeds of inevitably held a big hole, and I got bucked hard enough for the bruise on my inner left thigh to be way worse than the pedal gouges on my right calf. I almost held on, and thankfully that juniper shrub wasn’t hiding a boulder.
Knowing where my mental edge lies has been an increasingly vivid theme in my last decade. With solo travel in big wilderness as my default, my safety standards have become almost coextensive with the functional limits of my judgement in the moment. I’ve side slipped and portaged a lot of stuff I almost certainly could have run, and taken plenty of breaks to eat chocolate, drink coffee, and generally make sure my head was exactly where it needed to be. If falling, be it on your skis or bike, out of your boat, or off the deadfall you’re negotiating, is not an option the limiting factor is never raw physical potential. It is the focus to put that ability to use, along with knowing when and how much theoretical and actual ability have become separated.
I don’t have a good answer to how to cultivate this, other than to go out and practice the same skills and decisions in places which both and do not promise big consequences. You’ll never know where the edge was until you go past it, but by far the most important thing is to immediately go back and think about which edge it was you went over.
In this particular instance, I’m content that my bike skills remain where I want them to be, and that the ghost of some nasty concussions are still what push me to slow down. I know my skills can consistently exceed what those phantom worries would suggest, but the question of that gap holding steady, along with my sense of it, is a constant issue. As it should be.
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