I was only a few moves up the cliff, but I was already shaking. I could feel the darkness of the night growing deeper and closing in around me. My headlamp seemed like such a feeble little beam, barely able to slice a path through the darkness more than a few inches thick.
My trusted friend Chris was standing close enough for me to touch. We were in a forest in Wapsipinicon State Park, situated in the middle of nowhere, Iowa. In Chris’ hands was the other end of the rope, looped through the device locked on his harness that would save my life if I fell. I knew I would be okay.
But my god was this wall rising up above me tall and intimidating! And the night’s advances certainly weren’t helping. Chris had led the route just a short time before, taking the rope up to string it through the anchor around a tree growing at the top of the wall. The sun had been on its way down then, and there was plenty of light. It hadn’t really occurred to either of us that by the time I got on the wall, the sun would be gone.
There was no looking back, though. Chris was exhausted from a day of climbing, and I needed to go and clean the gear off the wall. Chris had led the climb, clipping the rope into quick draws as he went up the wall. I was top roping — the belay system was looped through the anchor now — so I needed to remove all of Chris’ quick draws as I went up.
If I couldn’t do this climb, Chris would have to go up again and get them. If he was too tired, we would have to leave some of his expensive gear on the wall and come back tomorrow, hopefully before someone else had hauled off with the freebies. And I didn’t want that.
Pushing through my nervousness, I continued up another few feet, taking deep breaths and trying not to think about how hard it was to see the features in the rock even within a foot of my face.
And then, just as I was gaining momentum, climbing over a hump in the wall and out of Chris’ sight, I was stuck, maybe fifteen feet up. I had a solid grip with my right hand, but I couldn’t figure out where my left had was supposed to go next. All of the little flakes of rock I found with my fingertips didn’t feel substantial enough to put my weight on. I pawed around on the rock, looking for something bigger.
The seconds dragged into minutes, and I still couldn’t find anything. My headlamp was becoming more annoying than useful. Its artificial yellow light made the rock look strange, and what I thought I saw didn’t match what I felt with my hands. I kept scraping it against the rock as I swiveled my head back and forth, looking for holes. The loud grating noise threw off my concentration and made me more nervous.
The strength in my arms and legs started to drain, and I knew my time was limited. If I couldn’t get past this, I would spend all of my energy. Once this little internal clock started ticking, I felt panic swelling in my chest.
Rationally, I knew I was safe. If I fell, the rope and Chris’ weight would catch me. But all of a sudden, my mind didn’t seem interested in rationality. Today was my first time climbing outside, and everything felt so different from what I was used to in a gym environment, with plastic holds and paths clearly marked with colored tape. There was no tape out here in the woods to tell me what I should do next. It wasn’t even clear to me what was a hold and what wasn’t — the rock was all the same color and texture, all the same entity. It was a matter of trial and error.
That said, I also knew my muscles were holding out longer than usual. If I had been in a gym in that moment, I probably would have let go already and descended down to the mat to sit back and gaze thoughtfully at the spot that had stumped me. But I was still clinging to the wall, still trying to find a way out of this jam. I think it was the adrenaline.
My frustration grew, and my eyes were stinging with tears now. As they started to flow, my panic was joined by embarrassment. Chris had made this look so easy. I must seem like a silly child to him.
I started to sniffle, and then sob, and as my energy continued to leak out and I started scrabbling desperately, blindly, for a hold, my mouth betrayed me and released pitiful, animal-like whimpers. Chris had stopped calling suggestions up to me. He seemed to recognize that I had reached a point beyond reason.
Why was I so scared? Why was I trembling like a leaf in a hurricane? Why couldn’t I think straight? I was not going to fall and get injured or die. This made no sense! Neither did my random pawing at the unyielding rock while I was too hysterical to even understand what I was trying to accomplish. I slapped the wall with my open hand in fit of anger, a puff of climbing chalk clouding around my fingers.
Breathe, Faith. Just breathe, I told myself. I closed my eyes. Inhale, exhale. You have a choice. If you panic, you’re done. Or, you can keep going up. Clear your head and actually feel around for a hold. There is one there, you just need to find it.
This strange, clear voice in my head almost didn’t sound like mine. Maybe it came from a much more evolved, mature me from the distant future. But just the sound of the voice brought a calmness washing over me. Despite my fatigued muscles, I was able to slowly and deliberately reach up with my left hand. Lightly grasping the rock, I slid my hand to the left, out of sight, and then back right. Nothing. Okay, where haven’t you tried yet? I shifted my weight on my foot so I could reach farther to the left.
The voice in my head was right. I had a choice. And I chose to continue up.
From there, it was pretty smooth sailing to the top, at least seventy-five feet off the ground. There were a couple of places where I had to pause and try some different things before I unlocked the puzzle. But no moments of panic or feeling stumped. The higher up I went, the more elated I felt. I had gone from a crying, snotty, sniveling mess to wearing a wide grin and barely being able to contain my laughter as I neared the anchor. Each of Chris’ quick draws came off the bolts in my capable hands and attached to my harness loops with a satisfying “click.”
At the top, I pulled myself over and went to work disassembling the anchor. I hiked down the other side, meeting Chris halfway down, who laughed when he saw me and slapped me five.
Never in my life had I been faced with such an imminent, nerve-wracking challenge and so deliberately overcome it. All on my own.
That moment I heeded the voice in my head and found the next hold was the moment I became hooked on rock climbing. It was the moment that rock climbing transcended its status as a pastime and rooted itself in my heart. It was the moment I realized that the plastic gyms were for practice, and the outdoors was the real deal. Plastic would make me strong. Real rocks would break me into little bits and rebuild me.
I went sky diving just a week or so after this day in Iowa, back in 2014. If you asked me to quantify the two experiences, I would say that skydiving was more of a rush than outdoor climbing. But it was an entirely different category of rush, and I don’t see those two experiences as being comparable. I am more addicted to that feeling I had on the rock wall than I am to the feeling of falling thousands of feet.
I climb for self-improvement, to unite my body and mind and be closer to myself.