I’ve talked a little about turning forty (Coming of Age) and learning to face my fears (Cutting a New Path). Most of those fears were intangible: fear of public speaking, fear of failure, fear of the unknown. But one fear was pure animal instinct: don’t put your life at risk!
I always thought I was afraid of heights. But then I met people with a genuine phobia, unable to even stand next to a high window, and I realized what I really had was a healthy respect for heights. I could function, I was just a little wary.
When I started plotting a book called Taking the Heat, I wanted my librarian hero to have an outdoorsy hobby and I chose rock climbing. I started researching rock climbing terms and practices, just as I would any activity or profession I was unfamiliar with. Then I looked up from my computer and out my window and realized, “Hey, I live in the mountains. People travel here to go rock climbing. I could just DO IT.”
Now, I’m no athlete. (Please see my jogging story in Coming of Age.) And I have no upper body strength. My arms get tired just drying my hair sometimes. But I was high on newfound confidence and general badassery, so I planned for about a month, made an appointment with an expert guide, and started doing a few strength exercises for my upper body.
When the big day arrived, I thought my guide would take me up about twenty feet, so I could learn the process and equipment well enough to write it. I was wrong. The picture to the right was our first stop on the climb. I was resting on a two-foot ledge. The bushes you see below are actually full-grown cottonwood trees. I can’t repeat the caption that originally accompanied this picture, but be assured there was an F-bomb included.
At this point in the climb, I was regretting everything and vowing to never be brave again in my life. The first thirty feet were not bad. I was concentrating so hard on each foothold and just staring at the rock right in front of my face. But when we cleared the trees, it got real. This was not a rock wall in a gym. This was life and death and violently shaking muscles.
Just after this resting point, we got to an area of smooth rock (click on this pic for a larger view). My guide waited patiently, telling me I would figure out the way to work around it. He called down instructions and told me to take as much time as I needed. I think I just held on and quietly panicked for about fifteen minutes before my mind cleared enough to help me through it. I vividly remember the exact same feeling I get when I near the top of a hill on a roller coaster. Why did I do this, I don’t want to be here, I DON’T WANT TO BE HERE!
At some point I decided I either had to climb up or live there forever, and I eased over to the side of this smooth face and found a few cracks I could grasp.
My guide did not explain until later that he could lower me down at any point if I froze up. But I didn’t freeze up. “You seemed like a natural,” he said. I was not a natural. But I finished the climb.
We climbed a little over one hundred feet. I finished it. I was so happy to get to the top and be done that I willingly leaned my body over the side of that cliff and let it fall, just so I could get back down to solid ground. This last pic captures my overwhelming joy to be rappelling down to safety.
And it was joy. Pure joy and relief and pride.
Once the adrenaline wore off, I felt like I’d been in a car accident. I was shaking and bruised, my legs were beat to hell by sharp rocks, but I have never been more proud of anything in my life. I did it. I really effing did it.
My first stop on the way home was to buy a bottle of vodka. My second stop was for an ice cream cone. Both were absolutely necessary.
You can see the results of my research in the rock climbing scenes in Taking the Heat. But you can also see the results of this research in Evelyn, After and Half Past. During this climb, I realized I was strong. I learned I could be resilient in the face of true fear. And that knowledge helped me take on a new writing challenge in a new genre as Victoria Helen Stone.
It was a transformative, amazing day. And no, I have never, ever climbed up the side of a mountain again.