4 Things Rock Climbing Taught Me About Life
I’m terrified of heights. Well actually, I’m terrified of falling from heights. Towering mountains don’t fret me much, but stepping out onto the edge gives me accordion vertigo and a plunging stomach. So, in honor of this I hired a rock climbing guide to take me and some friends out and scale cliffs in Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin.
Our guides led us up a steep rocky trail to the bottom of some bluffs, conveniently named “Beginner’s Delight.” It’s one of the easiest climbs in the park and coincidentally one of the highest climbs too. I didn’t expect to be climbing up a 200 foot wall, especially on a route with a name that sounds like an ice cream sundae. I stood at the bottom looking up the vertical face with nice 1 inch cracks to bare my life onto and thought, “There is no way in hell I’m making it to the top of this thing.” And I was okay with that.
1. Take your time
Once I took my first few strides up Beginner’s Delight, I wanted to scurry like a mouse to the top and just get it over with. I stopped at a shoe sized ledge with a jagged rock for a hand hold to rest. My jackhammering heart slammed against my chest between breaths of heavy fire. My foot trembled on it’s humble platform. Not a single part of me wanted to continue upwards, but rather shout, “okay, let me down now.” Instead I gripped the wall as gravity tried to pry me off like a crowbar. My front side pressed against the cold rock and my back felt nothing but air behind me. I looked down at the fuzzy red dots that were my friend’s helmets.
“Breathe in, breathe out,” I repeated like a buddhist mantra. Our guide Nick had told me before I headed up that he needs to stop sometimes and tell his heart to slow down, and it actually listens. So I did that too. For 10 minutes I collected myself, completely forget my belayer was at the bottom, looking up with a kinked neck waiting for my next move(Sorry Benji). The only element of danger was a panicking mind that needed to be cooled and centered. I was capable of surmounting the rock face, I just needed a mind that could back it up. To be able to do that, I needed to slow it down.
2. Find another route
On every climb there is a part called the Crux; the important part, the hard part, the part where I have to do the Kung Fu splits, reach my arm beyond its capabilities, and hold onto a crack with my pinky. When I got to my first crux, it looked impossible. I had to wedge my leg and elbow in a crack and shimmy my way up over an outcropped, roof-like feature. I called down to my other guide Bridger and said, “I think I’m good to come down, man.” Bridger looked up and yelled, “I think you can put your right foot just above that black smear.” I was not as excited about my right foot at that moment as he was.
I had myself wedged pretty good in the crux and was able to look around and scope out possible hand and foot placements. It was like a giant puzzle, except on the side of a cliff. I used the slow down principle and tried a few different positions to pull myself through the technical spot. I was ready to give up moments before and all the sudden I’m through the crux. It took several attempts and rerouting to find the path that would allow me through. Rather than calling it quits, I just needed to find another route.
3. Getting to the top is not the most important thing (usually)
For top rope climbing you can come down at any time. When traditional climbing, that’s a whole different ball of Wisconsin Cheese. There was a sense of accomplishment when I reached the top, but the deeper satisfaction came from slowing myself down and working out the problems along the route.
It was inspiring to reach those points where I felt stuck and find a way to dismantle the impossibility. Climbing has physical demands, but also requires a battle of fear and wits. I pushed the threshold of my believed capacity. The guides helped talk me back onto the ledge rather than talking me off it. There are times in my life where it’s easier to say let me down than to cat-claw in the dark for something to hang onto that I cannot yet see. This adventure was not as much about getting to the top as climbing above where I began.
4. Step onto the edge
Nobody has to climb a mountain or jump from an airplane to challenge what is believed to be possible. If we never step out onto the edge of what scares us, we will never know what could have been on the other side. The things that have built my self-esteem have been on the other side of “this is too scary,” or “I could never do that.” Amongst all the hardcore adventures I’ve embraced, none of them were absent of fear. My personal growth has stemmed from the willingness to climb through the fear. I’ve never regretted stepping out on the edge. I’ve only regretted those times I chose not to.
Big thanks to Nick and Bridger from Devils Lake Climbing Guides for teaching my friends and I the essentials of awesomeness.