highballing


what's attracted me to this? it's not the purity of climbing without gear. it's not the adrenaline rush. it's not a sense of glory. it's almost not even the sense of accomplishment.

here's what i did: from the ground, i scrambled up a few moves until i suddenly found myself concerned about how to handle a fall. i've reached this point plenty at the climbing gym, but because i trust the human route-setters, i have a vague expectation for where hard moves are placed and how falls can be protected. on a natural rock, that expectation is gone. i never know how hard a sequence can get until i finish it.

i found myself fumbling across the wall whenever i got nervous. i'd plant both feet and one hand, and trace the other hand around my full range of motion, carefully inquiring with every notch for something that feels like home. if i found nothing, i'd shift my feet slightly to reach a different range, then try again. once one hand felt happy, i'd repeat the exercise with the other. once both hands clicked, i moved the rest of my body and started over.

there was one move my brain refused to let my body execute, and i realized i was sliding towards a dangerous emotional state because the giant jugs i had latched onto started getting warm and moist. i only realized this after i lifted one hand to search for a move, then returned to the safe spot, only to be surprised by how warm it suddenly felt against a palm that had aired out for five seconds. i knew from an earlier lock-up that dwelling on the fear could easily set off a feedback loop, and i had already climbed far past a safe bail. at the same time, i knew i couldn't fail to engage with the fear. acknowledge it and move on. make a plan. try something new.

when that lock happens close to the ground, i can just let go, plunge shin-deep into the soft sand, then walk back and sit down to catch my breath and look at what i couldn't yet do. at twenty feet, that has to happen in-place.

i remembered a lot of phrases that mentors and friends had fed to me when i've been stuck while they were holding the other end of my rope. 'if you need to rest, take a real rest.' 'don't flail.' 'your body knows how to do this, your brain just doesn't want to.' 'drop your heels.' 'bring your arms down.' 'put your hands on your chalk bag.' 'you're safe, i've got you.'

it's strange to do this when no one's got me. once or twice, i looked down and made eye contact with the other climber who was watching me go through this. he's been through this. he didn't say anything, he just nodded; i was trapped in a loop and i needed something to break me out of it. i needed some acknowledgement that i was real, that what i was doing was valid, that i had the ability to make good decisions and protect myself.

i hadn't yet learned to give that last nod to myself. i got one from him, then i turned back to the wall and breathed. i knew what it meant, and it wasn't yet the time for me to think about why i needed that. maybe in the future, i won't, because it'll be one more moment i can add to the script i play for myself when i need to remember to breathe.

i like to watch other people climb because i rarely climb like other people. my limbs are short and i'm not strong and i'm not flexible. i don't like proceeding with something unless i have a very high chance of success. i move in lurching, choppy little scoots, and i'm constantly twitching and adjusting my clothes and wiping my hands or face.

i like watching people who climb well and climb strong, because i don't perceive myself as one of them. i know that when i get to the same point on the wall, i am unlikely to find the same move. i enthusiastically scrape as much of my body against the wall as possible, and i frequently cross my feet because i'm bow-legged with out-turned toes.

i don't know what it's like to watch me climb. sometimes, people tell me if i looked solid, or if i looked shaky. today was the first time i had someone tell me he was terrified; i knew my father wouldn't take his eyes off me while i was thirty feet off the ground with no rope, and maybe a desire to show him this part of me reminded me to keep moving upwards.

i said later that i don't climb to perform for people, and i don't climb to show off, and i don't climb to prove anything. the more i climb, the more i know that's true. i climb because there's a part of my brain that i cannot reach unless i am clinging to the kneecaps of an old volcano, asking the spiders in the cracks to not bite the fingers i was feeding them, and questioning all the choices i made in the instant i left the ground.

usually, i do this while someone i love and trust is holding an object that i believe will save my life if i've made a mistake. today, i had to explain to my grandmother why what i did was objectively an extremely selfish and irresponsible thing, while she was in the middle of laying on praises i felt uncomfortable receiving.

i don't allow myself to make choices that i would later regret. i told my father, after he confessed to nearly puking with relief when i threw a shaka from the top, that i would not let myself make a move unless i could guarantee that i could either make the next move, or return safely to the ground. i reminded him that i'm a coward, and that this is something i have to do in order to come to grips with my cowardice (by the way, dad, i also nearly puked with relief at the top).

there are lots of things in the world that can kill or maim us. we are soft, weak bodies, with extremely limited abilities of perception. earlier this visit, i watched a couple of hikers scramble onto a concrete platform; i knew that the inside had rotted out, and that the platform balanced precariously on crumbling rock and rusted rebar. they couldn't see it from their approach. i shouted a suggestion that they climb down and look at it from my side.

sometimes we walk on ground that is a thin shell over a hollow cavern. this is not a metaphor. our city streets run over cavernous sewers; the floors of our buildings are propped up with supports we cannot see. once, i walked over what looked like rock near the road in the desert, but it made a sound like a knuckle against the side of a double-bass, and i knew what the inside of a karst looked like. i looked over at where we'd parked the car. i looked at where the road cut between the dunes. nothing felt safe. nothing is ever safe.

sometimes, i feel how three of my fingers notch perfectly into a chip in the rock, and the rock encourages me to press against it. it's easy to straighten out a leg and feel my body rising gently through the air. it's a powerful, intoxicating feeling to know that i have lifted myself off the ground, and that the rock is helping me. occasionally, the rock moves under my hand, and i remember that the sense of certainty and stability is all an illusion, and i have no more reason to be afraid when i can't reach the ground than when i think i'm standing firmly on it.

does that mean i should be afraid all the time, or does that mean i should never be afraid?

09 January 2017 21:33


valid?