The mountains began to glow a reddish hue as the sun made its slow farewell over the Red River Gorge. The day, our weekend camping trip in Kentucky, was coming to a gradual end, but I needed to keep climbing.
It wasn’t that I was scared I’d hit darkness by the time I made it to the top, it was more a pressing urge to prove to myself that I could complete at least one sport climb that day, that I could overcome my pounding heart and the little, cautious voice inside my head saying, “It’s okay to quit now, Anna.”
I made my first attempt outdoor rock climbing the day prior, and although I managed to make it up a 5.7 and a 5.8 route and flounder around on a 5.9 several times – 5.7 on the Yosemite Decimal System is considered beginner or relatively entry level – my biceps, my grip strength, and especially my forearms weren’t conditioned enough to endure a second, long day of climbing.
So instead, I opted for the role of cheerleader that Sunday, the hammock lounging, beer sipping, affirmation shouting, happy go lucky girl, who was just excited to be outside on an unseasonably warm day in February, watching other, more skilled climbers ascend sandstone faces in one of the most pristine climbing locations in the country. For being brand new to the sport, I couldn’t have picked a more beautiful and welcoming place to try outdoor climbing. But I can’t even take credit for that.
You see, as much I would like to think that I’m adventurous and spontaneous, I can’t tell you the last time I tried picking up a new sport or jumping in my car to go explore a new place or just taking a hike into the woods. Even at 25, I’ve allowed myself to fall into a day-to-day rhythm of crossing tasks off my list, of seeking experiences that I know will bring me comfort and of avoiding the unfamiliar, the activities that I would have raised my hand for as a kid, but now shy away from for fear of … well, for fear of a lot of things.
So naturally, the climbing trip wasn’t my idea, but rather the brainchild of an attractive, adventure-driven man I’d recently started seeing. Gary’s spent the last 10 years of his life rock climbing. He’s traveled all over the country to do it. And when he’s not outdoors or ascending giant climbs, he’s brainstorming new things to try or outdoor adventures to take.
Gary throws out little adventure ideas like he’s contemplating what to make for dinner. “If we get in the car now, we’ll have at least two hours of daylight to boulder at the New” or “Let’s grab the chess board and go find a pretty place to play a game and watch the sun go down.”
I love that about him.
And as the sun was setting on our Sunday in Kentucky, I started to regret my day of hammock swinging. I knew that if I got back into the car that night without any climbs to report, it was going to make the exhausting, two-and-a-half-hour drive home with Gary a little less satisfying.
So I put on the climbing shoes I borrowed, stepped into a harness, and went over safety, double checking knots with the person who would be belaying me.
It was a relatively easy start. Climbers would consider the route to be a “slab climb” as most of the rock face is angled less than vertical and allows you to lean your body into the rock. I cruised up the 5.8 route at a decent pace.
But then things started getting tricky. Hand holds were growing further apart, a section of the rock jutted out above my head, and my arms were getting tired.
That “oh crap” moment didn’t arrive until I took a break, leaned back into my harness, and looked down. I was about 60 feet off the ground.
Crap. That’s high.
And although I was strapped into a secure harness that was attached to a rope that was hooked into a safe belaying system, there was a part of my brain screaming at me: “This isn’t normal. This isn’t like you. Get DOWN!”
Any comfort I had when starting the climb had completely disappeared. And from the side of a rock face 60 feet up in the air, I was duking it out with the anxiety-driven part of my brain, the part of me that I normally handed control over to in situations like this, the part of me who was content with my 25-year-old life revolving around safe and orderly activities, like cleaning my house or reading a book.
My rule-following, risk-averse self wanted me to quit. But that’s not why I started the climb – to let fear takeover so close to the top – and it certainly wasn’t why I was so attracted to a man who is constantly seeking new experiences and adventure.
The higher I climbed, the more the saying “There’s no growth in comfort,” made sense. This wasn’t comfortable, but I knew I could do it, so I kept climbing.
The final move to reach the top looked like the hardest. I was tired and there was a giant gap between where my hands were and where they needed to reach. If I wanted to touch the anchor, I’d have to press down into feet with all my might, trusting that they wouldn’t slip, and push my body up, like a giant leaping motion, to grab the hold.
I took a few deep breaths, making sure my feet were secure. And then I pushed.
Anna Patrick is a proud member of the UpThink team. A journalist by trade, she is currently based in Charleston writing for a handful of magazines and helping nonprofits, like Generation WV, tell their stories. When she isn’t hunched over a keyboard pecking away, she’s probably hunched over her puzzle table trying to find that next piece.
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