Okay, sometimes you do need to look down after all.
Remember that one accidental 800 foot climb when I discovered the key to rock climbing was to not look down?
Since then, Dan and I have gone out climbing almost every weekend. I come home with sore fingertips (who knew that was a thing) and aching triceps and feel like I’m redefining my entire personality every time I summit successfully.
A few weeks ago, Dan gave me his usual congratulatory make-out session when I joined him at the top of a short climb before saying “Okay, honey. Now we’re going to downclimb. Turn around and look down for a foothold.”
“What? No no no. I can only climb by refusing to look down. You know this. We’ve talked about this.”
Dan just smiles his gentle smile. “Oh, you can do this, Wife. No problem. You’re on belay,” he adds, prompting me to get started.
I fight vertigo to eye the crack I just came up, which at least is a comforting corner instead of a sheer face.
“Why is this necessary again?” I ask, stalling.
“Downclimbing is a good skill to have,” he says. “Helps you see where you’ve come from and understand the position you’re in right now. Gives you a new perspective on climbing. Sometimes when you get stuck, the only way to finish a route is by downclimbing a little before you can climb up again. Plus it’s important to look down so you can get comfortable with being up high. Looking down is part of climbing.”
I can’t argue with any of that. I mean, I could. But I don’t. Because every word is so sensible and solid. Much like this rope keeping me tied in, the rock we’re standing on, and Dan himself.
So, I lower myself off the cliff edge, poking around to find holds for my feet without, you know, actually looking down. Eventually, though, I have to swallow my nerves and commit to using my eyes as well as my hands and feet to downclimb, finally landing back on the wonderful, wonderful ground where I started.
“Nice. I knew you could do it,” says Dan. “Go again?”
“Sure,” I say. “Let’s go again.”
Because he’s right. Downclimbing changes the way you look at your route. Sometimes when I summit, I think it’s a fluke; downclimbing removes the mystery, introduces a methodical element that makes my next time back up feel proven and true. I learn the rock up one direction and down another. I discover new nuances to appreciate. I find mental comfort despite the height.
Avoiding fear through denial– through refusing to look down– isn’t helpful. At least, not full-time. Sometimes, looking down is necessary to help you move forward. Sometimes you need to see where you’ve come from to understand where you’re going, and feel at peace with the height you’ve reached.