This is a question that I do not have any scientific or fact based answer for, yet it is one that is interesting to consider. At each level we pursue in climbing, it seems like we have strong personal limits. Remember looking at a climb a few grades higher than you were climbing and thinking it looked completely impossible? When I was first starting to climb, 5.12s didn’t even look in the realm of possibility. I could not conceive of a way that someone could climb such a thing. Now that my climbing has advanced over time, 5.12s look very different. In some cases they look perfectly doable, and in some cases even easy.
Each step of the way we think there must be some limit to what we are able to achieve, but the more we learn about the sport and invest our time into it we are exposed to the numerous ways we can defy our own limits. We see professionals defy general limits. We watch Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra climb the hardest climbs in the world. Climbs that everyone else thought impossible. We watch Alex Honnold’s free soloing push past what any of us thought was possible without rope. He defies the limits our fears have imposed on our climbing ability. We watch young climbers like Ashima climb really hard boulders and routes, and we wonder if they will grow up strong enough to take the limits even further. We watch the new routes alpinist are able to establish. We watch them climb mountains at elevations we didn’t know the human body could withstand. We hear of caves no one even knew were there being discovered. There are locations on our world that had been outside of our limits of knowledge.
Sometimes it feels like there are no limits. Like if we work, push, and try harder we will find that we can accomplish anything. There are climbers and adventurers doing it every day. We are constantly seeing and feeling things beyond our scope, our imagination, or our previously assumed abilities. When discussing world competitions, people often mention that Americans are falling behind to the unbelievable feats and strengths that other countries showcase. The response to why seems to be that we are not trying hard enough, we are not disciplined enough, and that if we worked at it we could too accomplish what now appears miraculous. Are there really limits or do we merely impose the idea of them on ourselves?
On the one hand we see these outstanding examples of limits being pushed into non-existence. On the other hand, we know there are very real limits. There are things your body just cannot do without injury. We each have personal areas where we know that we cannot do more. Sure we push past limits our minds have set, but what about limits our bodies set?
We are all told, with good reason, to listen to the warnings of our bodies and not to push too hard. We even hear of the professionals backing down. There are free solos that Alex Honnold didn’t feel secure enough to do and backed out of. There are days when the weather was too poor and mountaineers retreated or camped out to wait for the end. Sometimes even to wait for another season before trying again. We heard the hardest climbers needed to take breaks from their project. They needed to move on to other things and leave something be for days, weeks, or years. Even the most limitless climbers, find limits. There are things we are not yet ready for. Things we are not secure enough on. Things that will hurt us or even potentially kill us if we do not stop. There are examples of unbreakable limits all around us as well. We have felt them, sometimes with disappointment and sometimes with content.
Are there then limits? Are there things we just cannot do as individuals? The more I think about it all, the simpler the answer actually seems. Our human potential is limitless, but we need to take care of our bodies and learn that sometimes progression needs to be slow. Sometimes we are meant to break limits in certain areas and not others. We need to listen to our bodies, wait until we are ready, but most importantly keep trying within reason. Many of our limits are merely mental barriers. Some of our limits are very real body limits that we must nurture and strengthen. Either way if we keep doing what we love, progressing where we can, and proceeding with caution where we must, we never know how far we might actually get. It is always worth exploring our limits.