Every time I climb, every time I start up, I begin by looking down. I check my harness and my knot, I make sure I’m threaded through both loops, I touch base with my belayer (“Locked and threaded correctly?”), the whole deal. Then I start climbing.
75 feet off the deck, however, when the holds get small and my last piece of protection sways with the rope below my feet, doubt creeps in. Did my diligence ebb this time? Is my system as solid as I think? The prospect of becoming airborne is tenuously close to being realized. It is the moment I need trust and faith the most, and that is the moment they abandon me.
Or is it me that abandons them?
Humans were not built for flight. Falling invokes a primal, eviscerating fear, something almost wholly unique these days. It’s a fear out of our forgotten past, something that comes from a million years of evolution and primordial instinct. The prospect of complete loss of control overwhelms our capacity to think. I look down, my rope slack below me, my gear swaying gently with every movement, and everything inside me screams: “NO!”
I’m in the Red River Gorge for the week, camping with friends, cooking over a Coleman, searching for the sun. But what I’m really doing, what this trip is really about, is screaming back into the darkness. It’s about that moment of doubt, the moment where the ground seems so much safer. It’s about opening my eyes, breathing into my faith and trust, finding focus and saying “FUCK IT.” UP is the only direction. There is no option but to LAUNCH.
I have not done a ton of sport climbing. I only found it five years ago. Before that, my fingers knew how to jam far better than they knew how to crimp (Maybe they still do?). But I waded into the bolted world, learning more and more about projecting, redpointing, stick clipping and heel hooking. I’m by no means a rock star, but I have fun and can hold my own.
I do not, however, have a history of onsighting well. I can work a project, figure out all the moves and send, but when the holds get small and the whip looks likely I start to doubt. The fear starts rising. “What’s the fall like?” I think. “Will I swing into that corner? Will I flip over? I better take, I don’t want to risk it.” Eventually I work out all the moves and send, but the first go does not have a history of being my finest.
History, however, is not the future, and fear marks opportunity.
I came on this trip determined to check my knot, check my harness, confirm my belay and LAUNCH. I came determined not to think, but instead to find trust, to live within faith, to climb even when climbing seems like a mistake, until I reach the top or set sail trying.
It started on Tuesday, the first warm day. Super Best Friends looked good. The rest of the group was taking turns on it. Aaron sent it second go. Pat took it to the roof. Alexa did as well. I’d warmed up slow and was feeling good. I checked my knot and my system — all good. “Breathe,” I thought, “then shut your mind off.” I started up.
The urge to scream, the overwhelming fear, is also the chance to scream back, to eviscerate eviscerating fear. It is that moment where life happens, and all the moments around that one. Hiding is always an option, a choice, but not one to take in this moment. Not today.
I swung my heal up onto a ledge and found two holds big enough to rest on. “Breathe,” I thought, blowing out hard. “Breathe” took the place of all thought, of all fear, of all doubt. “Breathe.” I was six or seven bolts up maybe, looking at a handful more moves to clear the roof. I reached up to an undercling, swung my feet around and reeled the holds in. Clip. One more draw. Feet up. Move hands. Feet up. Reel in. I popped out the roof, but I never saw the headwall above. My eyes were focused three feet above me and four feet below my shoulders. Feet up. Move hands. The rope snaked below me under the roof and out of sight. Feet up. Move hands. The holds kept coming, not good enough to slow down but good enough to keep pushing up. Feet up. Feet up. Breathe. Thoughts were my enemy — they would only bring doubt. Move hands. Feet up. Breathe. Move hands. Feet up. Clip. Feet up. Move hands. Clip. Clip. Chains. The rope came tight, pulling my waist into the rock. I looked down, and my thinking brain clicked on. What had I just done? My hands were useless, but I was at the chains.
Faith and trust are not thoughts. They are emptiness. They are implicit, embedded, part of us. To find them, I had to stop thinking and start listening. They were there the whole time, but I hid them from myself. With them uncovered, however, screaming back at the fear ceases to be a choice. It instead becomes the path, the way, the only road. The decision is before the fear arrives. The decision is whether you are willing to listen, whether you are willing to find faith within yourself. Everything after is the moment unfolding. Even now. Even now. Even now.