This was my first winter living in a town with a good, indoor climbing gym with a lead climbing wall.
In the dark afternoons of winter and early spring, Casey and I would meet at the gym, unroll a rope, slide into our harnesses, and work out the stress of the work day. It was my first opportunity to really practice clipping, managing my rope, and pushing myself beyond my casual-at-best relationship with climbing.
There’s this climb set marked with purple tape. It starts with deep holds, then quickly ramps up till its 5.11 rating. My forearms start screaming at me midway up the wall and I haven’t been able to clip past the seventh bolt. So I’ve been climbing it until I fall.
“Big deal, taking a lead fall in a gym,” all the climbing experts roll their eyes and say. The Bozeman climbing gym is full of youth-team kids, so I know that this is not a special, heroic thing to do. The eight-year-old climbing the harder route next to me lead falls, too. But it IS a big deal for me because of one of my strongest personality traits: I hate being out of control.
I mountain-bike with a hand on the brakes. I memorize my lines through rapids to avoid swimming. I meticulously plan out road trips and backpacking food rations. I know, I know, I’ve read the articles — letting go of control is good, too. I try. Since childhood I’ve put myself in sports, from gymnastics to skiing, where sometimes control is yanked out of the situation and I have to react immediately. I crave it. I’ve just never been good at it.
I trust Casey’s knowledge of climbing. When he said, “Em, you need to fall more,” I knew he was right. So I decided that once in every climbing session, I would push myself until I fell. I’d get to where my legs are shaking and my teeth are gritted, then I give an extra push and reach for the next move. Usually I fall, grabbing the rope and squeaking exactly like you’re not supposed to do. But sometimes I catch the plastic in my knuckles, hold my body into the wall, and inch upwards towards the next opportunity to put my weight on the rope.
Last week, Casey and I were climbing outside (spring! SPRING!), and I was near the top of a slabby, pocketed route. The sound of the creek was in my ears and sunshine hit my shoulders. I felt great. I pushed my weight onto my right foot… and it slipped.
“FAAAALLLLINNNGGG,” I yelled like a crazy woman as Casey laughed. When the rope caught me, I was laughing too. The spike of adrenaline helped me try again and finish the climb.
The actual fall isn’t the scary part. It’s sport climbing, for chrissakes, and Casey is a good belayer. It’s the moment before the fall, where I have to tell my brain to shut up and go for it that gets me. It’s the same moment as the last glassy wave in the green tongue leading into a rapid. It’s looking down onto a steep, bumpy ski run. I’ve been slowly, meticulously, and I admit, controlling-ly, willing myself to push past these moments, knowing that once I’m reacting instead of thinking my body will do what I’ve trained it to.
It’s making me a better outdoorswoman.
There’s the obvious life-affirming metaphor here, too. Life is made in the moments where you grit your teeth and push further, knowing very well you have a greater chance of falling than of catching the gritty blue hunk of plastic. I see this in my writing, when I try to take on controversial topics like environmental issues or women’s representation. The potential to fail is so much greater but on the occasions when I succeed, the reward is greater, too. I see it in my relationships, from friends to family to boyfriends to community. I see it in my career and in my future projects. But it stems from my constant flailing in the outdoors.
The metaphor continues. I try to calculate risk and I don’t free-solo climb. I always have my “ropes” and “belayer” there to help lower me down to the ground after a failure. But I realize that the people we celebrate as being most successful are also the biggest failures. Maybe everyone fails and succeeds in the same percentages, and successful people just try more. We can stay within our comfort zone in our sports, careers, and relationships, but it’s the equivalent of my belayer taking in the rope before I’ve even tried the hard move. I want to fail more, to fall more, and occasionally, grunting and squeaking, to make a successful and scrappy move towards the top of the wall.
I’m a sucker for inspirational quotes said by badass women. So I’ll leave you with this one from a woman who, were she to give up pantsuits for rubber shoes, would probably be a fierce climber:
“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” – Sheryl Sandberg
Emerald LaFortune is an Idaho and Montana based outdoor writer and adventure guide (whitewater boating with OARS — Idaho) with an Environmental Studies and Non-Profit Administration background. You can see her portfolio here and her blog here. Most of her writing experience involves river sports and environmental issues.