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Politically Incorrect

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Politically Incorrect

Climbing into life

“Belay on?”

Even I could hear my voice tremble when I asked Ray that question and, as he carefully checked the buckles on my climbing harness and the strength of the figure eight knot that tied the rope to it, the coward that lives deep in my heart was talking a mile a minute.

“What the hell were you thinking? You’re not really gonna do this, are you? You’re gonna fall and crash to your death. You can’t do this. I’m afraid.”

I followed my part of the ritual, examining Ray’s knots and buckles as closely as he had mine. “On belay,” Ray said, and smiled.

I was somewhere on Schweitzer Mountain on a cold but sunny morning, and I was going rock climbing for the very first time. Ray Matz is an avid climber and I don’t know what crazy impulse made me ask him to take me out and teach me how, but he said he would. I’ve been afraid of heights ever since the day I stood at the top of the now missing World Trade Center, Misty’s four-year-old hand in mine. No, afraid is not the word. Terrified of heights. Petrified.

Just as I’d decided there was no way I was going to try to climb the 65 foot granite face in front of me, my toe found its first niche in the rock and up I went.

“Slide your left hand under that crack,” Ray called. “You can get a grip there. Now, feel around with your right foot, about eight inches directly above where you are. There’s a little ledge there.” Little was the word, as the holds my feet were finding were often no more than a half or quarter inch in size. Slowly, I climbed about a third of the way up the rock, and straight into calamity.

The rock bulged just above my head and my questing hands could find no holds – just smooth stone. My arms and legs were visibly trembling with stress and fear and I could find no place for my hands, no place for my feet to go. “You’re in the toughest spot now,” Ray’s brother Bob called up to me. “But you can do this. Just keep looking.”

My hands were frantically searching the face of the rock in front of me like a blind man with a new lover. My weight rested entirely on the ball of my right foot, which was planted in a gap in the stone no bigger than a quarter. My left foot was pressed into smooth rock, desperately trying to meld molecules with it. My hamstrings were shouting that I’d not done nearly enough of the downward facing dog yoga position to get them in shape for what I was asking them to do and the assurance of failure filled my mind.

“I hate this!” I shouted down to Ray and made the mistake of looking at him when I did. My head swam with instant vertigo and I quickly drug my eyes up – another mistake, as I found myself gazing at one of those fabled, Schweitzer vistas with the lake and the valley spread far out below me. Terror gripped me with an iron hand as I planted my face into the rock in front of me. “I can’t do this,” I thought. “I just can’t do this. I am going to die.”

I think I hung for an eon or so on that rock, drenched in my fear, almost drowning in it, and then another little voice spoke up in my head. “I am so sick and tired,” it said, “of not doing things because I’m afraid.” And with that, a tear squeezed out of the corner of my eye, my hands flattened on the rock in front of me, my foot moved just an inch higher, bore down on nothing, and I began to climb.

“Yeah, that’s the way!” Ray and Bob shouted in encouragement. “Remember,” Ray yelled, “you don’t have to make big moves; sometimes it only takes an inch.”

Life is a little tougher than rock climbing, I think, though I seem to often find myself in much the same place as I was a third of the way up that rock – scared to death, not knowing how to move forward, wanting more than anything to run scared in the opposite direction of where I’m headed. Sheryl Crow sings it well, belting out “run baby, run baby, run.” I can make such good excuses for running, that tune should be my theme song.

Every now and then, though, like that day on the rock, I find a tiny place of pure stubborn where I can place my foot and push myself forward. And the fear stays with me every step of the way. I cried the entire way up that rock face, shook and trembled and fought the little voice in my head that shouted to “get down off of this rock right now, you crazy fool!”

When I finally reached the bottom again, I wanted nothing more than a shot of straight tequila and to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in a flat minute. I wanted to lay supine on the earth and let my muscles cease their trembling. I wanted to thank every god that ever existed for not punishing my ascent into the heavens with a blind fall back to land. I wanted to call everyone I cared about and tell them what I did - tell them that I did. And I wanted to climb back to the top again – which is exactly what I did.

The feeling was incredible... because when I moved that extra inch, I was choosing to live and not just exist. Had I fallen (and somehow lived through it) the feeling would have been just the same. Because it isn’t in the accomplishment that I win – it’s in the trying. You were right, Ray - that’s the way to do it. And sometimes it only takes an inch.


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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

rock climbing, fear

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