The first time I ever went rock climbing, I cried. It wasn't the last time I'd cry on a rock face, but it was the only time I'd ever do it with the intention of never climbing again.
Since my first rock climb in 1985 on an Outward Bound course in Maine—at a rock face where I would later teach hundreds of my own Outward Bound students to climb—I haven't exactly evolved to elite levels. I'm not a big wall climber, I don't free solo, I've never put up a first ascent. What I have done, though, is embrace an experience that made me whimper and reframe it into a passion: one that I now share with my teenage daughters.
Those who love to climb are almost universal in how we articulate its appeal. Unlocking the series of moves that allows you to ascend a route. The singular focus of mind and body a particularly scary sequence demands. Toes burning on tiny crystals, fingers crimping mere suggestions of handholds, calves vibrating. Topping out on a climb, hands gritty, heart pumping, the world spread below and beyond. This is why we do it.
Before we had kids—a period of our lives that we stretched out until nearly the last biologically feasible moment—my husband and I lived for weeks at a time out of our truck at climbing areas around the country: the Shawangunks, Seneca, Joshua Tree, Red Rocks, Squamish, Yosemite, Smith Rock. We weren't living the coveted life of full-time dirtbag climbers, but only because we couldn't afford that life; we had student loan payments due.
Each day at a rock face I'd cycle through predictable patterns of anticipation, dread, fear, and elation. Thumbing through the guidebook over morning coffee, I'd pick out an area with a range of routes: more difficult for Jon's leads, less so for mine. At the base of a climb, the excitement I'd felt when selecting a climb in the guidebook yielded to the dread of actually setting foot—and toe, palm, fingertip—on the rock. Unless the climb was easier than its rating, at some point on the climb I'd feel the familiar fear.
The fear felt on the sharp end of a climbing rope is unlike any other I've ever experienced. Dry mouth, staccato breath, sewing machine legs, waves of terror looming, and all the while, the conscious mind trying to suppress the primal voice of doubt. I’d force myself to concentrate. Reel it back in. You've got this. At the top of the climb my knees would buckle with relief. I was safe; I'd done it again. Half an hour later, I'd be right back there in the panic zone on another climb.
In some ways, climbing is so much a mental game that it's almost comical that most of us bother with ropes and all the other safety gear that Alex Honnold doesn't bother to weigh himself down with. If you're leading within your range and using adequate protection, chances are you're in very little real danger. But the perceived danger is irresistible to the mind, a ship changing course to steer doggedly in the direction of a distant iceberg.
In 1995, I attended a talk by the pioneer climber and apparel guru Royal Robbins. In addition to entertaining us with tales of jumping trains and hiking over mountain passes to kayak flood-stage creeks, Robbins extended a nugget of advice that I've applied to contexts ranging from climbing to promotions to childbirth. "Visualize yourself doing it," Robbins told us.
That's it. Not "build up your core strength," or "trust your rope"; just "visualize yourself doing it."
The next time we climbed, I found myself in a familiar place of alarm: no good handholds, my last protection seeming too far below me, crippling exposure, a dyno move. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and reminded myself of Robbins' words: visualize yourself doing it. I pictured the sloping handhold just inches out of my reach. I pictured my feet, the sticky edges of my climbing shoes poised on granite nubs, my quads coiled to spring. I pictured my fingers, chalk-caked and grimy, soaring up, grazing the handhold, and sticking it. I pictured my feet finding purchase on small pockets in the rock. And then I sprang. I didn't fall.
When I was in labor for 36 hours with my first child, Royal Robbins (or rather, his mantra) was right there in the birth center with me, along with my husband, the midwife, and an attendant that my husband and I have since referred to as "Nurse Ratchett"—a retired PE teacher who got her second professional wind in a career she had not the bedside manner to excel in. Tuning out Nurse Ratchett in the final moments (minutes, hours) leading up to the birth of my daughter, I visualized myself doing it.
I did it, the baby was born, and I hardly climbed again for nearly 10 years. This was partly circumstantial: a baby in the house, two years later another one, buying property and building our own house, working multiple jobs. But those are mostly excuses I used to mask my real reason for avoiding even top-roping; it just seemed too scary now that I had kids. It's the same reason I didn't resume whitewater kayaking: I just didn't feel like I should take risks.
But at some point, spurred by the idea that I wanted my daughters to see me leaning into both the challenge and the joy with which rock climbing had formerly supplied me, I took up leading again. I wanted to visualize myself doing it again. What's more, I wanted my kids to visualize me—and then, perhaps later, themselves—doing it.
I started leading again in a moderate range and....stayed there. It's enough. I'm just scared enough at times to double-triple-quadruple check with my belayer when I reach cruxes: You got me here? I'm just scared enough that I surrender to relief when I top out. I'm just scared enough to notice that when I get to places where I might once have felt like crying, I'm instead electrified, hyper-alert, my world temporarily distilled to just the rock and me, the path upward the only route I'll choose.