What I talk about when I talk about rock climbing (a nod to Murakami)

“Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life – and for me, for writing as well.”

– Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

fear |noun| an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous or likely to cause pain

In my mind, I’m climbing again today. I’m actually going to the Curve Theatre for a performance of “Obama the Mamba”, followed by a creative writing seminar with the author and then a documentary at the Phoenix Cinema (culture binge!), but in my mind I’m on that wall again and I’m scared.

In my last post, I’d already lifted the veil a bit on my climbing flirt, but I wasn’t entirely forthcoming. I’m actually naked underneath.

Paul was my climbing partner and belayer this last time. He taught me new tricks about palming, flagging and smearing – elements of the physicality with the wall that, like dance steps, challenge your balance with each move. Like other discreetly powerful men I’ve known, he had large wise hands and was as steadfast as an anchor.

All holds look accessible when you first start going up jauntily. You stretch and pull and push with little effort. Not having achieved very much yet, there isn’t very much to lose. For a moment, I’d almost forgotten and then 12 meters up it gripped me and pinned me to the wall with crippling force. My eyesight began to zoom in and out, uncontrollably gravitating back to the shifting deck around Paul. My hands began to sweat. My arms began to ache. My body turned into the wall at an unbearable, uncooperative angle, weighing down my movements terribly. Sounds suddenly loud and muffled, the perceived drop in air temperature causing me to sweat and shiver at the same time.

It was upon me again – my fear of heights had caught up with me with only 6 meters left to go.

I am small and light. Up on that wall, this is both a blessing and a curse. Up on that wall, suspended at a height of 12 meters with a harness, rope and the strength of my limbs keeping me from breaking my back, I’m vulnerable, exposed, dependent. But if I do not humbly accept this, I will not achieve. There is no other way to get up that wall, except to justifiably trust and to act upon that trust.

I have to admit I’d been here before. Crossing a metal bridge in front of Victoria Falls in Zambia and coming down an old church tower in Croatia, there had been similar tragi-comedies. I remember people backing away so I could pass. I remember reading on their faces that I must look terrified and I remember my husband calmly coaxing me down, while through my mind words such as “rust”, “maintenance” and “eek!” twirled vertiginously.

In my mind I reviewed putting on my harness and tightening all the straps, I reviewed slowly sliding the rope through my harness, doing a threaded figure of eight knot and then a parallel back-up knot. I remembered Paul putting the other end of the rope through the belay and threading it through. I felt the subtle pull in the harnessed rope from the attentive anchoring of the belayer. I let the feeling of trust seep through me and dissipate the fear a bit. I tried to let rational thought strike the final blow in fear’s bloated gluttonous stomach. “This is not a race,” I told myself. “I can pace myself.” It’s easy to feed fear with our fatigue.

I made myself look-up and focus only on the next hold. “Climbers look up,” I thought. I stretched myself as much as I could reach and grabbed the bright yellow hold, while pulling myself up. Looking up at the next hold and trying to ignore my aching limbs, I realized I’d have to swap feet. Smothering my persistent jitters, I breathed in, did it and pushed myself up once more. One more hold and I’d be at the top of that 18 meter wall.

Reach, pull, push – and then, with relieved joy, I tapped the top. My celebratory abseil was glorious – looking over every step I had just conquered and allowing all of the shifting surfaces to slowly settle into place. My feet touched the ground light and empowered.

Rock-climbing, when you have a fear of heights, isn’t (just) a sadistic exercise. It’s about the joy of overcoming fear – a precious exercise for life’s challenges.

In my life, my holds aren’t usually color-coded according to a scale of difficulty. I often don’t know what to expect. Unlike that controlled indoor environment, in my life my holds are actually shifted around on me mid-wall. What to do? Shall I be the one wailing on the ground in passive desire or the one that bellows out mid-climb reaching out for that shifted hold? This is my choice. I say, if the hold is taken away, give more – God is better than I am about filling in the details.

Up on that wall, there is no room for superfluous ruminations. I need to focus on the task at hand and this provides a healthy distance from spiraling thought when I am overly preoccupied with something. I am also reminded that predicaments are only resolved up there by doing and not by paying lip service. And just as in climbing, if I look back too much, fear may make it difficult to move forward.

So if I want to make it in my new life as a nomadic writer who is still gaining her sea-legs and is married to a sport [](Luís to fill in the blank at his leisure), it sounds like that wall is pretty good training.

Climbing, like life, is not meant to be experienced alone. In life, my husband Luís is my climbing partner. The rope that secures us is our love and trust in each other and if anyone accuses me of being sappy, I’ll promptly counter that this is a radical sport and not for the faint hearted. If you have any uncertainties about that, just try putting your dreams, glories and short-comings in someone else’s hands, while holding theirs in your own. You are again – vulnerable, exposed, dependent and it can be the most profound and liberating of experiences.


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