“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
~ Nelson Mandela
I never went to Moore’s Wall when I was dating an experienced trad-climber. The elusive North Carolina trad-heaven became a storied destination in my head, whispered amongst my small circle of gym rat friends. I had only recently broken into the esoteric world of outdoor rock climbing and up to that point in my climbing career, I had only ever followed one partner up the wall. We were no longer romantically involved and I had stopped climbing with him months before my first trip to Moore’s, where I reflected on the pervasiveness of fear and anxiety within the sport of rock climbing.
Although I am grateful for all he taught me while we climbed together intermittently, indoors and out, I am even more grateful for the lessons I’ve learned since we parted ways. I cherish our experiences together at the crag and take to heart all he taught me about this sometimes terrifying, yet exhilarating sport. However, it didn’t occur to me until after our separation that relying on a single partner, especially one with whom you also have a complicated romantic relationship, can be an isolating and restrictive mode of learning the ropes.
For there is only so much a single person can teach you about anything, be it a new sport, a musical instrument, or how to love…at some point the lessons are bound to fall short as the beginner’s mind starts to expand and crave new opportunities for learning. In order for sustained growth, one must always make the painstaking choice to branch out and move on.
They can choose to accept the lessons learned from this one imperfect teacher, thank them for their time and company on this lonely journey, and part from them in search of greater knowledge. The separation need not be viewed as a failure on the part of the teacher, but as a mutual understanding of one’s own innate limitations and a celebration of the pupil’s growth and desire to further develop their education.
The lesson of acceptance and willingness to move on to different teachers has been a hard pill for me to swallow, especially in the sport of rock climbing which is so fraught with potential for danger and life-threatening mistakes. It has been particularly difficult for me to find partners whom I trust enough to quite literally place my one precious life in the palm of their chalky hands and begin ascending a wall that will show no mercy if I fall. However, that very trust and the willingness to lay down your life, quiet your ego, and begin climbing with a new person is one of the most beautiful and rewarding aspects of rock climbing.
I used to be turned off by the idea of climbing because I was terrified of the dangerous aspects of it. For years I couldn’t find a consistent partner. A person with the combination of knowledge and trust required to help me establish the foundations of the sport eluded me. There were so many aspects to learning how to climb, from choosing which size shoe to wear to tying myself in correctly every time, never mind the simple act of how to even get on the wall in the first place!
I used to take one vertical step and immediately, without fail, my palms would begin sweating. I started shaking with unharnessed nervous energy, inevitably causing a roller coaster of thoughts to tumble violently around my head like boots in a washing machine. They would thunk and clunk against every boundary, saturated with slippery fear and bubbly anxiety until eventually, after only 20 or 30 feet of cautiously pulling myself up the wall, I would reach a little crux point and the washing machine of my mind would suddenly become overloaded with suds as all the fear and nervous energy came pouring out of every pore.
I would wail, “Poor me! I can’t do this, I’m too afraid!” Until I could hold on no longer, one finger would slip, then two, and it was like watching a train wreck in slow motion — you know there is nothing you can do to stop it, but the anticipation of the fall is excruciatingly agonizing, like a slow and painful death. With each passing millisecond you’re preparing to say goodbye to the safety of the wall, but you’re just not ready to let go, you can’t, you don’t want to fall into the abyss, that vast void of air and rock and ground beneath you because you have no idea what to expect. You start questioning your belayer — are they going to catch me? Where am I going to fall? Will it hurt? How will I get back on the wall? Why am I doing this? I hate this sport, I hate this wall, I hate, I hate, I hate…
Oof! The last finger slips and you sit heavy in your harness, swinging like a pendulum in mid-air, your mind suddenly clear as the reflection of the moon on a still, blue pond. You look around and gather yourself, return to your senses and reorient your body in the void of space you have just plummeted so ungraciously into.
Looking around, you see the wall, zero in on the hold that failed you and curse one last time at the injustice of it all. You spin a bit in your harnessed reverie and now you are turned away from the rock, face-to-face with one of the most breathtaking views you have ever laid eyes on, and all because you pushed yourself to get on the wall, to conquer your natural fear of heights and climb, damn it! Climb anything and everything so you can have private access to a view rarely seen with the human eye. You smile. And now your pendulum has swung you around to face the wall yet again. This time your anger has dissipated and you thank the wall for being just the way it is, cracked and broken, rough and rocky, solid, supportive, and non-judging.
And then you look down and see your partner on the other end of the rope, far below, grounded and concerned, holding your entire weight suspended 50, 70, no, — 100 feet up in the air. They could drop you at any moment, but you trust you are safe, they have caught you once and they will do it again and again until you say you’ve had enough. Then, and only then, will they lower you, slowly so you can thank every inch of granite or sandstone or ice as you pass and rejoice in the astonishing beauty of the landscape that surrounds you and remember the ocean of reasons for why you choose to climb.
It used to be that way, and it still is today, at times. I learned to love the sport of climbing not through falling, but by pulling myself up the wall inch by inch, hold by hold, even when the going got rough and I wanted to give up. Remaining on the wall after a fall and continuing to climb despite my fear and trepidation has taught me an invaluable lesson that translates effortlessly into the realm of love and relationships: the reward is found not in the desperation of the fall, but in the challenge of the climb. Perseverance and dedication pay off not only on the wall, but also in the arena of love.
Name: Briana Halliwell
Location: North Carolina