Today my husband, Ben, and I went climbing in southern New Hampshire with a few of his friends. This is a normal thing. But today I got a bit more than I bargained for.
Much like our little dog, when I get bored, I wander.
After my first climb I started exploring the cliffs. I hadn’t intended to go far, so I was barefoot, which made almost stepping on a 4’ snake more terrifying.
First thought: “I’m not afraid of snakes.”
Second thought: “That is not a garter snake. That is not a garter snake. I have no idea what kind of snake that is. I am far away from everyone now and that is a huge snake that I almost stepped on.”
We watched each other for a while. The snake stayed coiled up, not moving. I assume it was cold.
After a while I went around it and back down. I later identified it as a milk snake. Harmless. Still not something I would have wanted to step on barefoot.
I was a little on edge after that. All the coils of rope kind of looked like snakes to me. So perhaps this encounter is partially responsible for what happened next, but I know better than to follow Eve’s example and blame the snake.
A route around the corner from where my husband was climbing with a friend looked easy enough. It had already been established that it might make a fun free solo climb. By our estimates it was only a 5.4 route. A sloped crack on a slab. No big deal.
I told the guys I was going to “run” up it. Solo climbing. No rope. Just me and the rock.
I started up. Not having done much free climbing before it was exhilarating. I felt brave. New horizons of challenge rose up before me. It was a good, easy climb. Just a little jaunt.
About half way up I started to realize that I was getting a bit high off the ground and the rock was a bit wetter than I had anticipated. I had a moment of chanting “Oh fuck. Oh fuck. Oh fuck,” to myself. But then I reminded myself that climbing is a mental game. “Don’t think,” I told myself. “Just climb. You can do this.”
About three-quarters of the way up there was so much water in the “easy” crack that I had to abandon it and make a few moves on the face of the slab, which was steeper than I had thought from below.
I made three more moves during which the reality of my situation started to slowly seep in. Not as an irrational voice, but as a calm, calculated voice of reason.
The voice helped me see that I was very high at this point. Higher than I realized the climb was. High enough to kill me if I fell. And the rock was much wetter than I had thought. It was slippery and I was exposed. I envisioned my body splayed out on the boulders below and it was a wake up call.
I only had two moves to go to the top. Just two.
But the rock was wet and one slip would mean my death.
As soon as I realized this truth the fear instantly materialized. And then I had no choice. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was paralyzed.
So I called out to my husband. I took the route of humility and admitted that I was paralyzed and in a dangerous situation.
And as soon as I did the floodgates of irrational thoughts burst into my mind like disgruntled peasants breaking down the palace gates.
I am so stupid.
Why can’t I do this?
This was stupid.
This is insanely embarrassing.
No one here is ever going to want to climb with me again.
(note: this last statement now seems extremely bizarre to me, but there it is.)
And the tears came. A physical manifestation of the flowing thoughts and fears.
I heard the clinking of gear being exchanged. Ropes being pulled. Voices of Ben and his friends. He was coming to get me. All I had to do was hold on.
With my foot in a medium-sized hold and cramping up by the minute I held my position.
My fear ebbed and my shame increased.
“I should just keep climbing.” I yelled to Ben. “I’m two moves away. This is stupid. I can do this.”
I looked down and saw he was halfway to me.
“Don’t move.” He said.
He got to where I was. I could see the panic in his face when he realized how slippery the rock was next to me and I still wasn’t tied in.
I was still trying to save face and finish the climb, but he wouldn’t let me move until three anchors were tying me in. Then I was good. I made the move.
As soon as I was tied in and out of my cramped position my panic vanished. I turned a corner. “I actually planned this so Ben could practice his rescue skills,” I yelled down to Ben’s friends in an attempt to shine humor on my foolish choice to make the climb. They smiled. One of them acknowledged that it had seemed like an easy solo climb. This made me feel better.
Ben built more anchors. He climbed up and over. He built another anchor and belayed me up.
It was an easy finish. Totally within my comfort zone when on rope or bouldering. Totally not okay with wet rock 35’ off the ground.
In another scenario I could have finished the climb, then cried when I realized how dangerous it had been.
In another scenario I could have finished the climb confident, then brushed away compliments when others repeated the difficult route after me.
In another scenario I could be dead.
The curious thing about this story is that I’m not sure what to take away from it. (Besides the obvious: don’t climb high without a rope.)
To say “I almost died today” is an over exaggeration. I probably would have finished fine.
To say “I could have died today” isn’t specific. Everytime I get in my car I put myself in harm’s way. I love adventure. Risk is always a part of my life. It makes life worth living.
But one thing I realized is how legitimate a threat needs to be in order for me to fear it. I don’t normally feel a lot of fear. I have some general fears, but I tend to be fearless about a lot of things that the general public fears – like quitting my job, exposing myself to heights, teaching middle schoolers, and traveling alone. So when I feel fear with a physical sensation in my body and have the common sense to be vulnerable about my fear it is a pretty legitimate danger.
(Or there is a sea monster with tentacles and razor-sharp teeth, but that’s another story.)
There is one thing this underscores in my mind:
I am an adventurer. I live for the possibility of reaching another horizon. This is who I am.
Today was just a bit more than I bargained for. A little higher and a little wetter than I thought.
But I’m here! I’m good! I live to see another adventure. And the next won’t be so life-threatening (at least I hope not).
P.S. Don’t give me any of your “Jeeesssssss!!! What were you thinking!??!” bullshit. If you know me at all you should have been expecting this post.
I know that my rock climbing always freaked you out and made you worry. And I know I always told you that I never climbed without a rope. And I know you worried anyway.
I’m sorry I climbed without a rope today. I won’t do it again.
Thanks for caring and for watching over me today. I know you were there.