For my birthday every year, I treat myself to learn or see something different. Sailing (BVI), surfing (Sayulita, Mexico), skiing (Vail), trips to Bhutan and Burma. Some of the things I try or places I visit I take to like a fish to water, to some I don’t. But you never know before you try, right?
This year it’s rock climbing. On my last trip to Colorado, I got myself a guide. On a beautiful clear summer Sunday, I experienced one of the most exhilarating, terrifying days I have had in a long time. If you told me what I’d do, I’d call you crazy. I am afraid of heights.
So off we take, my guide and I, to an area between Vail and Aspen called Red Cliff. I get the basics on how to tie knots, put on the harness and belay and rappel. I am off to my first few climbs. In hindsight, true cakewalks. Relatively vertical, but tons of good foot- and handholds and a mere 30-40 feet each. I am about to say, “Glad you spared me this one.” pointing to a vertical wall of solid, smooth rock of about 90 feet, he says, “That’s your last one for the day.” “You’re kidding, right?” “Absolutely no. Go for it, you have the skills.” I must go for it.
When we are in the car driving home that afternoon, I am truly incredulous. And for parts of the last climb, I don’t have any memories. When I re-live the day, it occurs to me how truly reflective it is of life in a much broader way.
1. Many things in life that are worth doing are very scary. Go for them anyhow.
My heart is pounding. About 30 feet up, I straddle a piece of rock with vertical cracks, my fingers around small holds. Not enough to pull me up safely. I look down at my guide. I shout, “Where do I go now?” Silence. He knows I can find my own way. How long will I be able to hold on? If I make the wrong move and fall, will he/the anchor hold? Then just fear, unspecified. There is literally no way out other than through. I take a few deep breaths. I think fear does not serve me now. My heart steadies. I find about two inches to the right to wrap my right hand around, pulling myself up while straightening my legs. I get through it. I find a way. If you ask me it is useless to be told to be fearless. The secret is to be afraid, and then do it anyhow, whatever it is you put your mind to.
2. Don’t be too close, or you lose sight of what matters.
I am glued to the rock, my face about three inches from the wall. There is no way I can figure out the approach the guide and I discussed, from so close. All I see is a square foot of solid rock. I need to start looking and feeling around, trying to create some distance, a centimeter at a time. The slightest expansion creates perspective and space and lets me plan the next moves. I plant my right foot, then see something that looks like a small crack to wrap my right hand around. A few breaths, then I notice the pattern the big crack makes in the face. I am back on track.
3. NEVER EVER get turned away by the enormity of the task. Break it down into small steps.
Standing in front of the rock, neck craned, looking at the 90 feet wall, it seems impossible. The guide and I plan the approach. Moving to the right and then along a large crack halfway up the face. I find the first hold with the rubber soles of my climbing shoes. I plant the right foot. It slides off, a little bit of slack in the rope, I plunge three feet, knocking my knees and shins against the rock. The harness stops me a couple of feet off the ground. “Show me your shoes.” He scrapes wet dirt off the soles. I go again. Next I know he shouts up: “Half way there” and I think “@#$% half way, how do I manage the other @#$% half. ” I go on, move by move, slowly, and somehow I make it to the overhang.
4. Don’t forget to enjoy the ride.
Halfway up the last face, my guide says: “Relax a little. Sit back and look around, it’s beautiful from up there isn’t it.” It is. I am looking at my favorite stretch of land between Minturn and Aspen, with creeks and meadows, and the gigantic Rocky Mountains as a backdrop. Mount Elbert maybe, which I had hiked the month before. I feel grand and small. If the guide hadn’t reminded me, I would have forgotten. What a shame. Isn’t the journey the reward?
“You are a natural. Twice a week for a couple of months, you’ll be a superstar.” It does not feel like it. After all, I have a day job, and what’s up with the bruises and scratches. I will continue climbing though even if it does not come easy. The physical/mental combo is what gets me. Try it. Or anything else you always wanted to do and never did. You never know before you try, right. A star may be waiting to be born.
Have a great weekend.