Fear is a funny thing. Run from it and it is always at your back, embrace it and its capacity to overwhelm you evaporates. Like darkness each morning, it can be pushed aside by the light. But as the sun rises in one place, darkness falls somewhere else. Face fear once, twice, a thousand times, and it inevitably crops up. We have a choice: keep facing our fears again and again forever, or try to run and hide from them for just as long.
This morning I got up before sunrise. My bag was already packed, tools strapped to the outside. I pulled on my Capilene, ate a small breakfast and jumped in the car. The road was coated in snow as I pulled onto Route 302.
About a month ago I soloed Standard Route at Frankenstein for the first time. It was an amazing experience, a moment where I embraced the fear of being ropeless and kept going. My brain screamed “NO” the whole way, and yet I continued upward, rejecting logic and letting trust and faith guide me.
Now, weeks later, the fear of being ropeless on Standard has dissipated. A week or two ago I ran up it again, this time before work. That time the tether anchoring me to the ground tugged but never grew taught. I was able to climb in control the entire time. The fear was gone, at least on Standard.
But there is always a bigger monster around the corner. As I drove to Frankenstein this morning I knew Standard was just the warm up. My fear, my test, was named Dracula.
The idea of soloing Dracula, the classic grade 4 at Frankenstein, first popped into my head on the descent from that first Standard solo. It wasn’t in yet, but as I walked past I knew in my heart it would go. This morning I went to Frankenstein determined to embrace that knowledge.
I got to the parking lot before the plows. It was still dark when I started walking down the railroad tracks. It was warm, above freezing, but I was dressed light enough I had to walk fast to stay warm. I followed deer prints in the fresh snow to the ice.
I got to the base of Standard and dropped my pack. The snow and ice above me glowed an eerie blue. I pulled on my harness, racked up and tethered into my tools in the pre-dawn light. I sighted the straightest, bluest line and started climbing. Standard flowed beneath my picks, an old friend accustomed to sitting together in silence. The first oranges and reds of morning sparked to the south. I snapped a few pictures as I climbed, but mostly I just cleared my head and concentrated on floating. “Breathe,” I thought time and time again. “Breathe.” In less than 10 minutes I reached the top and was walking back down.
The descent from Standard makes it easy to consider a second act. Most days I don’t have time to consider such things before work, but this morning I’d started early. Dracula looked soft, forgiving and beautiful. I walked to the base and stared up at it. I knew it would go. I took a sip of water, ate a snack, pulled on a dry pair of gloves from inside my jacket and swung a pick into the column. The ice was wet, pliable, perfect. I swung in the other tool. “This will go,” I thought, and I began climbing.
The first steep section went quick, a handful of moves up to a ramp. From there I kept going, swinging and kicking into dryer conditions. The ice was an open book as it flowed down a corner, so I stemmed my way skyward.
About halfway up, though, doubt crept in. My feet felt too wide. I was off balance, and the ice cracked more than I liked. I glanced down. A fall would break my legs and maybe my back. I’d bounce off the ramp, shoot out over the first column, hit the base and then tumble down the approach gully. I could see myself dying. “Shit,” I thought, “I don’t want that. Why am I here? This is stupid.” The terrestrial tether suddenly felt stretched to the limit. I prepared to climb down.
But I knew — KNEW — I could climb it. I’ve climbed Dracula countless times and never fallen. That doesn’t mean I never will, but I knew at that moment the thing holding me back wasn’t my strength or my skill, it was my head. The thing holding me back was me. I worked my way down, out of the corner and back to the ramp. I found a stance and buried my tools in the ice. I pulled off my gloves and tightened the laces on my right boot, took a deep breath, then another. “OK,” I thought, “you know the consequences. There is no logic to going upwards. None.” I switched feet and tightened the laces on the left boot. “Keep going and you could die.” I thought. “Just go down. The ground is safe.” I looked at my tools, drops of water glazing the orange paint, and then raised my eyes up. There were miles of steep ice above me. I looked at the sky, then down at the ground, and I felt a wall inside me crumble.
“That is wrong,” I thought, knowing in that instant I would continue climbing. “The ground isn’t safe. You think it is, but you may die there too. I might crash my car on the drive to work, or die of a heart attack at my desk, or get cancer. In fact, if I spend my entire life on the ground, it is inevitably where I’ll die. Going up isn’t about dying, going up is about living.” I swung my pick into the corner and started for the trees.
Every day we arrive at work on time, or make it to school, or meet a partner at the crag, we are fooling ourselves. We think because we made plans we were in control, that things worked out the way they did because we decided they would work that way. We’re wrong. We trick ourselves into believing we live in control, into believing that tomorrow will come just as today did, particularly if we avoid risk, never realizing the world can blow our plans off course at any moment. In a second we could die of a blood clot, or wind up shot dead in a movie theater. When it doesn’t happen each day we start thinking it won’t. We forget life is random, fleeting and final. We make plans for the future — a week, a month, a year, 30 years — thinking, KNOWING, we’ll be here to enjoy it. We walk through the world sure our lives will work out, wrapped in our own ignorance.
And we are wrong. I may die today. I may die as I write this, or tomorrow, or the next day. Life doesn’t wait and it isn’t guaranteed. It shows up wherever we make it, however we make it, whether on the ground or in the air. We will die someplace, that is the only guarantee. Darkness, fear may keep us from embracing LIFE, but it does nothing to stave off death. It rolls towards us nonetheless. The ground is not safety, and the route is not danger. They are simply the ground, and the route. There is risk in both, in all.
So I embraced the risk before me. “Breathe,” I thought as I moved up the final headwall. “Breathe.” It was the same thought I’d let fill my mind for the last 40 feet, the same thought I kept to the summit. It was my mantra, the thought that kept me in the moment, that pushed the fear of falling out, the fear of death out, the fear of failure and everything else out. I let the thought wash over me, let it carry me over the ice. It filled my mind, leaving my hands and feet to do the climbing they are so accustomed to. “Breathe,” I thought as I crested the ice and swung into turf. “Breathe,” I thought when I reached the trees.
I stood in the snow and let out a long, slow breath. “Today I lived,” I thought, rather than just survived. I smiled, clipped my tools to my harness and started the walk down.
Light is always looking for darkness. Allow it into one more place. And one more place. And one more place.