Don’t look down
I accidentally climbed 800 feet last weekend.
And when I say “accidentally,” I mean my pack had nothing in it but my notebook and my Kindle; I fully intended to write, read, and/or nap the day away at the base of whatever Dan was planning to climb.
I should also add here that the most I’ve ever climbed was maybe 150 feet, but more often I make it to 20 feet (on a good day) before I completely lose my shit and have to come down, even while safely tied into a rope and harness. I’ve had some moments of success with climbing, but I’ve never been able to make them stick. This sucks, because climbing is something I want to enjoy, and want to be good at. Or rather, I’m pretty sure I would be good at it, if I could just conquer my stupid fear of heights enough to actually, you know, climb the damned rock.
So last weekend, Dan and I were enjoying a nice easy hike when he stopped seemingly in the middle of the trail.
“This is the second Flatiron,” he said, with a nod toward the sheer rock wall next to us.
“Oh,” I answered, craning my head back. For reference, that’s the middle pointy rock in the image above. “This is where you’re climbing?”
“Where we’re climbing,” he said.
“Sure, okay,” I replied, looking around for a comfy napping spot, not taking his implication seriously for a second.
“Look,” he pointed. “You can see the trail almost the whole way up. You can get off the rock whenever you want. Let’s just scramble up to that tree right there; I’ll take your pack.”
And I think, this rock might be tall but it slopes backwards so it really is like scrambling more so than climbing. The tree he’s talking about is only maybe 20 feet from us, and the route to get there runs more sideways than upwards. But perhaps most importantly, the trail we’re leaving is well-traveled, so in order for any kind of napping to happen, I’ll have find a more hidden area. Maybe there’s one by that tree.
“I can probably do that,” I say, and he hands me my barely-worn climbing shoes as he takes my pack.
We make it to the tree, no problem, in about 5 minutes. And it’s so fun that when he suggests going up the next ledge, maybe 15 feet further up, I agree. After all, I can get right back to the path whenever I want.
“You’re doing great!” Dan says from below me, trying to sound encouraging but sounding equal parts surprised and impressed instead.
“Yeah. Well, it turns out that climbing isn’t that hard if you don’t look down,” I say without turning my head toward him and I hear a quiet but distinct snorty explosion of laughter from a random climber busy passing us on the right.
And so we keep going, with ledges so perfectly spaced apart that I swear the climbing gods deliberately designed the entire route to precisely align with my exact comfort level.
Without the crippling terror that normally holds me back while climbing, all the tips Dan always tells me finally clicked into context. Helpful hints like “That little edge will hold you up, no problem” or “That handhold is just right” never had a chance to sink in while my survival instincts were busy screaming at me to get out GET OUT. It’s way harder to convince my brain that clinging to a vertical rock face is a perfectly reasonable idea than you might imagine.
I never believed Dan’s instructions or his stupid reassurances because the fear was too much in the way for me to explore the truth in what he said and find it out for myself.
In the first 700 feet of our 800-foot accidental climb, I learned:
- Climbing is easy if you don’t look down.
- That early terror is just a membrane; if you push through, fear falls away.
- You can’t look back at where you’ve come from. You can only look ahead.
- When it seems like you’re stuck, you have to fight the instincts telling you to go backwards. That’s not an option. Instead, you need to propel yourself forward with blind faith that holds exist, even though you can’t see them.
- Holds that don’t seem like holds when you’re looking up at them from below end up supporting you just fine with enough upward momentum.
- When the big picture is overwhelming, don’t look up OR down. Just look for the next good move.
So when we hit the last 100 feet and I realized that somewhere along the way the path veered away from the rock and escape was no longer an option– that I’d have to angle away from the comparative safety of the rock’s edge back toward the ultra-scary center of the rock to move up further; that holy shit I was 700 FEET UP– I handled those realities with more grace than I expected.
I braced for panic, and instead found confidence– confidence learned over the preceding 700 feet of practice. Unlike the other climbs Dan’s taken me on, this time I was able to listen when he said “You can do this, there’s a hold to your left, just three moves and you’re up.” Listen, and believe.
And I summited.
They say that life can only be lived forwards, and yet we seem to spend most of our days looking behind and below us– at mistakes, at the terrifying drop-off regret leaves in its wake, or just trying to figure out if we’re making any headway.
What if we looked upward instead? What if we kept our eyes ahead, reaching for the next hold?
How far could you climb if you refused to look down?