"What am I doing up here?" I ask myself. I peek over the edge timidly, not wanting to take in the full exposure. In a brief moment, I spot the front desk, a couple of people climbing and notice that no one is looking this way. My hands are sweating. Everything is sweating. Devin and I had just climbed up the back side of our steepest, tallest wall. We're in the gym and he had agreed to show me some basics of route setting. I shakily attach myself to the anchor on the other side, worried my feet will slip. I was safe, but it didn't feel that way. "Don't over think it. Just get moving," I tell myself. All I had to do was climb over the top, relax in my harness and hang from the anchor. I peek over the edge one more time. "Why do I even climb? This is too scary."
Rewind ten years and I'm on a four story roof in Milwaukee, Wisconsin removing shingles. It's steep. I never did well on anything over a couple stories. I'm glued to the roof on my "jack", a two by four platform to keep me from sliding off and I'm mildly panicking. My boss is casually standing on the edge next to a ladder, eating an apple. All I want is to get back on the ground. "I'm freaking out," I tell my boss. He shrugs and gestures downwards.. Getting on the ladder to go down is hard for me. Doubting it will stay still. Worrying i might kick the thing over and dangle from a gutter before plummeting down. I get myself on and the joy I feel at the bottom is awesome. That wasn't the first or last time I would freak out on a roof. For years after I would dream about being on unstable structures high off the ground. Overwhelmed with fear. Only able to lay flat.
I've been climbing for a year and am very much a novice. My first gym had twenty foot walls and that scared me. The next forty and then sixty. The higher I got the more comfortable I became. Growth comes quickly early on and my ego grew with it. I regularly gauged myself against other climbers; how old they were, how long they had been climbing, what kind of shape they appeared to be in. I started leading early and let that go to my head too. If you didn't lead or take whippers you weren't on my level. I mean, I didn't really think like that, but humility hadn't found it's way in yet. I wrote off harder climbs as something I would eventually crush. Over confident climbing 5.10 in a gym, but super psyched to climb. Big deal right?
Back to the present. Devin is smiling at me. "Let me know if you start freaking out," he says brightly. I'm an up and coming gumby scared stiff. There's an interesting thing that happens when I'm this scared. Once committed something inside starts to bubble up. A mix of excitement and adrenaline. I feel giddy. I check my knots for the eighth time and clamber over the wall. Shaking and stubborn, hoping no one is watching. I have the impression that I'll be able to relax now. I look down. Bad idea. My nerves are shot. I can see a hint of concern in Devin's eye. I realize I'm covered in sweat. He passes me a drill. My hands are shaking as I strip a hold off the wall. Any delusions of having a future as a setter vanish. I soldier up and stick with it for another ten feet downwards eventually putting myself in a position where my only option is to keep lowering. I appreciate the opportunity. Route setting is extremely hard work. Something I could get used to but am not cut out for. I feel super small.
I continue to ponder why I even climb. Especially being so afraid of heights. Is it the adrenaline rush? Conquering fears? Maybe a bit of both? I really think it has more to do with the humbling nature of climbing. It's a polite sort of humbling. The wall doesn't say you suck when we fail, although we may think it. The wall just sits there. It welcomes our excitement, fear, anxiety and excuses. The wall doesn't retreat but we do. I keep asking myself why I climb. Is that enough? To be humbled? Not quite. I think of the camaraderie. The relationships. The encouraging nature of climbing with friends and strangers.
I work behind the desk and I see the same faces come in; happy, sad, excited, maybe frustrated. Beat up after a long day. I watch as people crush it. I watch people struggle. I love seeing people succeed and even more-so love to see a climber's response to failure. It's so satisfying to see a person repeatedly fail and keep at it. To see them stay psyched and focused, smiling or maybe angry. Determined. When they finally stick a troublesome move everyone watching feels that satisfaction. It's rare to see anyone leave in a bad mood. I think that's it. It's not really about being a better climber, and definitely not about being better than anybody else. It's being part of an encouraging community. I realize that all my ego in climbing is a total waste. Just climb and have fun. Don't worry about the grades. You're in a spot to try hard and have a good time. Let the community lift you up the wall.