Friday, June 3, 2016

On Rocks and Being Brave

                        Joshua Tree ~ Sunset ablaze on a late September day.

There isn't a rock climber on the planet who can deny the deep-seated fear of falling. What scares the hell out of climbers is often more challenging than the physical realities of the climb. But while accounts of unfortunate accidents and climber deaths are sobering reminders of the sport's inherent dangers, ascending a route is nothing less than exhilarating. If the precipitous granite wall is the knife, then fear is the blade. A climber's ability to focus beyond its razor's-edge demands intense mental fortitude and resolve. It's the number one reason why, in spite of myself, I continue to return to the rock.

My climbing debut ended almost as soon as it began. Thirty years ago, while attempting a route on Idyllwild's Suicide Rock, my belayer called down: “Don't move! I need to unclip you for a minute.” There I was: clinging to a two-foot wide ledge, a hundred feet up, on the side of a mountain. One minute I was content to gaze over the sweeping pine-forested valley below, and the next minute those trees swooned and swirled. Panic, as cold and palpable as the morning breeze, paralyzed me. “Hey,” I shouted up to my friend, “I need to get off this ledge!” When he gave me the word I scrambled to the top, hoisted myself over the edge, untied my belay rope, and declared I'd never go climbing again.

Not long afterward, when marriage vows, careers, and child-rearing dominated our lives, my husband, Tom, stopped climbing, too.

But life's twists and turns sometimes lead us to revisit places we imagine we'll never see again. Two years ago, Tom and I and our former climbing partner Marcus, a friend we never lost touch with, started working out at a climbing gym. Soon the unmistakable lure of Joshua Tree summoned us back to the rock. Renowned for its jumbled outcroppings and hundreds of climbable crags, Joshua Tree's routes bear quirky names like Poodles are People Too, Cryptic, and Walk on the Wild Side. Happy to watch the guys reclaim their “glory days,” I went along for the ride, inventing all sorts of excuses as to why I could have cared less about climbing.

“I prefer to enjoy the scenery,” I said.

“The view's better from the top,” Marcus replied.

“I don't want to get scraped up.”

“Those are badges of honor,” Tom said.

I don't. I can't. I . . . I—

I continued to work out at our climbing gym; the more I practiced, the stronger I became until one spring day, while camping at Joshua Tree, the guys pointed to a climb. “There's your project,” they insisted, referring to an angled flake topped by a narrowed vertical crack imparting this route with its name: Toe Jam. In order to ascend the sixty foot route, I would have to execute a lay back move on the flake, then jam my toe into the crack and rely upon the strength in my legs to propel myself to the top.

I spent the whole evening and a good portion of the next morning surveying the features of the climb. With my stomach in knots, palms sweaty, I agreed to give it a go. I chalked up my hands—a meditative precursor to the opening move—then toed the first knobby edge. Searching for a handhold I balanced, and progressed a notch on the rock. And then another notch after that. And then another. Until—

No one could have been more surprised than I was when I levitated to the top.

Toe Jam was just the beginning. Today I'm stronger than ever, more confident and brave, and learning how to cope with my fear. Rather than letting it shut me down, I've discovered a place where I can shelve it. Over the last year and a half, we've made a dozen or more sojourns to the land of the twisted tree, not only in search of the challenge, but to gape at full moons on the rise; to swap stories with like-minded climbers; and to bathe in the fire-orange splendor of sunsets ablaze across the amphitheater of wide desert sky.

I originally wrote this piece in May 2014. Two years later, I've logged over 50 outdoor climbs and have succeeded up three multi-pitch, my highest topping out at over 650 feet. The best is yet to come!

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