My heart races, my fingers ache, and a doubt like poison creeps through my veins. There is absolutely no way out of this – my own ability is the last link in the chain between reaching the top and slipping off the rock, between success and failure.
On the ground, it seemed so simple – after executing my first-ever lead climb on a tricky but short 5.5 (which included only one panic attack that fueled my ascent rather than ending it), my boyfriend, Joseph, led this particular unmarked route and gave me the opportunity to top-rope it prior to making a lead attempt. It was longer than my first lead, but the route was clear, with few hang-ups or time spent leaning on a tiny finger hold, gazing hopefully at the rock as if it would give me a hint about the next move. After climbing the rock with Joseph’s belay as protection, and then with a little bit of his encouragement, I decided to lead it.
After so many years of top-roping, of braiding that knot securely through two redundant loops in my harness and feeling the tug as my belayer removed all slack from the system, watching the rope that had been my safety net drop to the ground like a limp snake made my stomach turn. As I pulled myself off the ground and onto the wall, hovering just a foot above the nearest horizontal surface, I couldn’t shake the feeling that one slip, one misplaced finger, one tiny miscalculation would send me plummeting to earth. From the mere height of a foot, maybe this was irrelevant; but what about as I climbed higher, before I clipped my first bolt, or worse, as I reached to clip my second, with enough free rope below me to allow my body to smack the ground if I fell (known as “decking” in climbing vernacular). The confidence I felt on solid footing, when I wasn’t hanging from my fingertips and carefully placing each toe in a position that would hold my weight, leaked from my body as if the nervousness that caused the sweat to seep from my pores also allowed this purge of self-assurance.
I wanted that first step to be the hardest, to feel as though I had conquered something simply by coaxing my muscles into making that first move against gravity. I wanted to clip my first bolt and feel a surge of accomplishment and a conviction that I could do it, that I could make it up the rest of this route. I wanted the process to come easily to me, as had so many other things in my life, wanted my feet and hands to glide smoothly up the rock face, see clearly my next move, and however complicated or difficult it appeared, execute it with grace and precision until I reached the top. There would be no question of my skill, or the wisdom of my decision to begin the climb in the first place. It would be simple, controlled, steeped in evidence that this place, this climb, was the only logical path.
Instead, with every inch I gained against gravity, my pulse quickened and my breath shallowed. That whisper of doubt grew to an echo in my ears as my hands tired, as I tested and retested every foothold. I could feel the fear begin to paralyze me despite my hatred of it, despite my desire to overcome it and conquer parts of my brain that insisted on my eventual failure. I forced myself upward, clipped the second bolt and stood on a small ledge, pressing my chest against the wall and simply listening to my own breath.
Inhale . . . You can do this . . . Exhale . . . You can do this . . . Inhale . . . Here we go . . .
A slight step up and I could reach the third bolt; only one more stood between me and the anchors at the top. This was the section that had slowed my ascent while on top-rope, a semi-sheer section with some small finger holds and only slightly angled pockets to rest my feet that had to hold my entire body weight. I inched upward, drew parallel with the bolt, and began once again to climb above my available protection. It was like a dance, the moves from my first climb returning to me like an old song, and I slid past the section that had so frightened me before. I was above it. I had won. All that remained was to clip the rope into the anchors at the top, clean the route, and rappel to the bottom. Simple.
And now, here I hang, just a few feet above my victory, like a soldier who has firmly planted her nation’s flag in virgin soil and then charged onward, eagerly anticipating her next fruitful conquest. Clipping the rope into the anchors is not, as I had originally thought, simple, and despite the high that had come from my earlier success, the doubt is returning. Instead of its slow creep from the bottoms of my toes and up through my veins to the very center of my heart, this time it hits me like a flood, like a crashing, white-capped wave that slams into my body with such force it knocks the breath from my chest. Fear overrides my brain and my fingers grip a small hold until my knuckles glow white. My feet are unsteady, and I lean on my quickly fading hand, unable to move higher, unable to trust my failing muscles to hold myself against the rock in order to free my other hand and bring the rope above my head and to the anchors. I am shaking from fatigue and terror, terror like a thick wool blanket that covers me, suffocates me, scratches my arms and face as I try to claw my way to the surface but only find more fabric, more terror, more dark spaces and more dead ends. I can’t hold on. With my closest anchor six feet below me, the thought of a twelve-foot fall spurs my body into action. I am racing the clock as my forearms seize in protest, down-climbing to a point on the rock that will allow me to rest, or at least closer to the bolt to minimize my fall. Expletives spill in quick succession from my mouth as the inevitability of falling implants itself in my brain. I’m not going to make it. I’m going to fall, crash my way down this rock; all of the safety precautions I took on the ground no longer matter. It is irrelevant whether I double-backed the buckles on my harness, whether the rope is in good condition, whether my quick draws are properly clipped to the bolts, whether my belayer’s carabiner is locked. All that matters is that I have stepped beyond my ability, and gravity is going to win.
One last curse word, one last mediocre handhold, and my fingers slip from the rock. Despite Joseph’s warning against it, I was climbing with the rope trailing from my harness in between my legs to the quick draw below me, and my comfortable feet-first body position lasts less than a second as the rope whips my left leg above my head, rotating my body ninety degrees and slamming it into the rock as the rope pulls taught against my last bolt. I blink, breathe. Breathe again. Look down.
“Well, congratulations, you just had your first whipper,” Joseph calls nonchalantly from the bottom, where he holds the free end of the rope tight against his belay device. As someone who has spent much of his adult life exploding up sport crags and slogging for hours through alpine climbs, he has been where I am now, at the point of physical failure and mentally drained, twelve feet below where he started and wondering if he even has the capacity to continue. What he knows in this moment, and what he indicates with his playful tone as I hang limply from the rock, is that he did have the capacity to continue – and so do I. I look up to the bolt above me, to the place at the top from which I fell, and a smile spreads across my face.
“It wasn’t as bad as you thought, was it?” he asks.
I think for a moment before answering. Those seconds before the fall were incapacitating, that feeling of imminent death so potent I could smell it; it had wafted from the slippery rock and into my nostrils and intoxicated me, convincing me that to fall would be devastating, but also that to fall was inevitable. It made me desperate, and yet my desperation had not saved me.
The fall had lasted less than an instant, a fraction of the time I had spent at the top grasping for the perfect handhold, swearing and panicking and growing more and more powerless against gravity and fatigue. The build-up culminated in the moment I slipped from the rock, and suddenly found myself hanging sideways in my harness with nothing more than a skinned elbow as punishment. I become instantly calm, instantly resolved to finish this climb. I would fall again, if that’s what it took.
“No. No, it really wasn’t.” I laugh. Look up. Finish the route. It isn’t pretty, or graceful, or even worth bragging rights at the bar later. But one hand reaches above the other and my feet propel me onward; I am stretched to my full height and pushing with my fingertips to slide the rope into the quick draw; “Take!” I yell and the rope pulls tight against my harness. I lean back. With shaking hands and a pounding heart I clean the anchors at the top and rappel to the bottom. I’m here, truly alive. I haven’t proved my strength, or skill, or revealed any semblance of a natural gift for rock climbing. But I have won. I am a conqueror, more than a conqueror as I face a fear that overcomes me, as I suffer the worst it has to offer, and still, I survive.
When I first started hating the Air Force, I felt trapped. I had a Bachelor of Science in Political Science from a military academy, a degree that offered exactly one option: attend graduate school. This, in turn, had only one option of its own: to teach, a profession that held no allure for my twenty-three-year-old self with my go-getter, do-something attitude. I was an unmarketable pilot with a meager handful of hours, a fact quickly made irrelevant by the sinking pit that developed in my stomach every time the possibility of flying for the rest of my life crossed my mind. On top of it all, I was stuck anyway. The Air Force held me in its quicksand of commitment contracts for the next ten years; contemplating early release would only lead to disappointment and an inability to glean contentment from my situation.
And then, suddenly, the physics that had once defined my Air Force world shattered; gravity was no longer valid and separating no longer an impossibility. My career field faced cutbacks, an unprecedented event amongst pilots. Though I missed eligibility for voluntary separation by six months, a light shone in the darkness as I began to dream about a life outside of the Air Force without having to temper my enthusiasm with the reality that I would be thirty-four before I could live that dream. I stood by and encouraged friends a year ahead in their Air Force careers to apply for separation, practically dancing on the balls of my feet at the prospect of having the same opportunity the following year.
Sometimes when I contemplate this possibility, fear starts to chase me. I imagine the life I would lead, a life that would feel stolen from the jaws of this military existence that has held me in its grip for so long, sometimes crunching my ribs underneath its vicious bite, sometimes simply squeezing me until my lungs can no longer expand. I can taste that freedom, like the moisture hanging in the air before a spring downpour. But there are so many questions, so many unknowns and so many steps to take before I can finally feel that rain. It is when I sit idly, grounded at the foot of the rock wall, that I feel that fear creeping up behind me, tapping me on the shoulder and whispering in my ear that I can’t, that I need that rope attached to the top, that I need this little bubble of safety to which I have become so accustomed after all these years. When I am spurred to action, when I am moving slowly but smoothly up that wall, there is no fear; there is only eager anticipation, the knowledge that what I am doing means something, that I am climbing under my own steam and facing my own consequences for both success and failure. If I stop to think for a moment about the insanity of standing six feet above my protection, of stepping outside of what I have always known and always trusted and into a world where I must rely on my own skill, nothing more and nothing less . . . that is when the fear climbs up beside me. The longer I wait, the longer it courses unhindered through my veins. The doubt that freezes me will eventually destroy me. My arms will tire and my feet will slip and my mind will become convinced that this world without a rope is just too dangerous to pursue.
I can’t let that fear catch me. I can’t hang from one hand, hoping for the perfect hold, slowly wasting away in the same place and without ever reaching those anchors at the top. I have to outrun it, keep moving forward, upward, towards that life that calls me, that terrifying and exhilarating and completely uncharted life. I can’t stay here. I can’t freeze, can’t climb back to the bottom, can’t lower myself and return to the life I once had.
Falling is inevitable. I have to know that before I begin, before I feel my muscles fail and before I refuse to reach for that hold above my head for fear I might miss. I have to know that the fear of the fall is worse than the fall itself, that I am smart enough and strong enough to survive it, to hang sideways in my harness for only a few seconds before looking up, breathing in, and pressing onwards. I might lose twelve feet, years of work, the security of a steady salary. It might leave me with a skinned knee, a broken heart. There will be frustration, sadness, nights of utter silence because tears cannot contain such utter loss. But fear will not survive the fall.