This past weekend, Anthony and I got the chance to take part in an activity that has been calling to us for quite some time. After a couple years of sporadic visits to the indoor climbing gym, we finally found the time to meet up with some experienced climbers (namely, my cousin Alex and her husband Tim) to get our hands and climbing shoes on some real, outdoor rock.

Alex and me — I swear we didn’t plan our outfits!

We had been wanting to join Tim and Alex on a rock climbing outing for awhile, mostly because they go pretty frequently, have all the equipment, and most importantly — know how to lead-climb, which is the brave position of going first and attaching the rope to the top for the rest of us. This part is obviously key! It was fun to watch Tim deftly make his way up the rock wall, making it all seem so easy. I was not fooled, however, and had a healthy dose of trepidation for this all-natural, non-padded ascent. The elements certainly provide a different perspective versus the man-made climbing walls in the gym, but I was excited to give it a try, at long last.

After Tim had secured the rope, Anthony went first. Although he struggled more than Tim (understandably, for his first time up), he eventually made it all the way to the top. He rappelled down giddily, completely stoked at his first conquered climbing route.

Anthony makes his way up.

And then, it was my turn.

I strapped in, feeling somewhat confident but also nervous, and approached the rock. Immediately, I felt my confidence all but disintegrate. The smooth wall of rock was nothing like the brightly colored, protruding hand-holds I was used to from the gym. Where was I supposed to grab on? Where would my feet go? The tiny ledges that I could find, dusted with chalk marks from previous climbers, looked precarious and I couldn’t imagine the tips of my fingers holding my body weight as I climbed. Barely using my arms, I managed to shimmy about halfway up the route, and then proclaimed myself “stuck” and asked to be lowered down.

Alex belaying me.

Not to be defeated, I took note as I watched my cousin quickly make her way up the rock like a spider monkey. Her arms were definitely getting a workout, and she easily made her way over areas that I balked at, deeming them impossible. Watching her nimble movements gave me some insight into what I had been doing wrong, and I grew anxious to give it another go.

Again, Anthony went first, and confirmed Tim’s analysis of the new route he had set up: challenging and fun. So, once again, I buckled into my harness to see how far I could go. This time, I was armed with a determination to make it further, to push myself, and to use my arms and legs more to move me up the rock.

I started off slowly, assessing the route and asking Tim for advice as he belayed me, holding the rope from the ground. He gave me some tips, and recommended some places for my hands and feet.

“Get your right foot high up on that chalk mark, and push yourself up to the ledge!” he called from below.

“Yeah right!” I yelled back down. “That thing is not going to hold me!”

He and Anthony both yelled back that I should give it a shot. Knowing that it was my only option, I hoisted my leg up, planted my hands firmly against the rock, and before I knew it, I was about 3 feet higher than I had been seconds before.

Looks and feels impossible – but, amazingly, it worked!

This small push was enough to give me the confidence to try other seemingly risky maneuvers. I would find a small spot that I considered my best option as a foot or hand-hold, but wasn’t fully convinced I’d make it. I’d yell down to Tim, “Do you have me?” knowing full well that he had a tight grip on my rope and would not let me fall, but also wanting him to prepare for what I assumed would be an inevitable slip. “I have you!” he yelled back up at me, time and time again, only to once again hoist myself up and find out that I had me.

After what seemed like hours (but was probably only a few minutes), I found myself twice as high as I had been on my last route, and feeling quite satisfied with myself, took a look around. I had been slightly unnerved by some distant thunder and a darkening sky, and received a view from my perch of the mountainous landscape quickly turning as dark as night, with lightning striking across the distant horizon.

Storms arriving over Red Rocks Park

Significantly jarred by the combination of realizing how high I was (I am usually able to suppress my slight fear of heights by not looking down — or around), along with the oncoming storm, I considered my options. Glancing up at the last 15 or so feet to the top of the rope, I knew that I had given this route a solid effort, and was sufficiently pleased with the amount I had climbed. I rappelled down to high fives and satisfaction, and once again watched Alex quickly make her way up to the top, arriving back down just as the rain drops began.

Typical Colorado — you can see the sunshine behind that wall of rain.

Now, forgive me for getting a little overly metaphorical for a moment, but after some reflection, I realize why this first outing was such an important learning experience for me. In just a couple hours, I was able to learn a large amount about climbing, much of which can be translated to the larger picture of life. Climbing is all about trust — you take calculated risks, trusting that your body and equipment are going to perform the way you need them to in order to get you to the top. Just like in life, however, you can’t take these risks without knowing that you have a support system — in this case, the person holding the other end of the rope — that will catch you if you fall. If the risk doesn’t pan out the way you envision it, you lean back, take a look around, and try and decide the next best course of action. If all else fails, you let yourself come down and vow to conquer it next time, having considered your strengths and weaknesses and learned from others’ successes and failures.

Fear of heights be damned, I am more than anxious to give outdoor rock climbing another shot, and hope to be able to do it sooner rather than later. I know what I need to do to improve, and I know that I possess the confidence and courage to overcome my misgivings. I will make it to the top.

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