FAC­ING THE FEAR

Gripped - - OFF THE WALL - I came here for this. Dier­dre Wolown­ick is top climber Alex Hon­nold’s mother and a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to

top of the wall that we’ll rap­pel down. I know it’s no higher than the walls at the gym. I can see the bot­tom, even from way back where I stand. Mo­tion­less. Frozen. I can’t move any closer to them. I’m rooted to the spot by a wave of such fear that I haven’t known in…decades? My en­tire life? Not sure if I’ve ever felt any­thing as pow­er­ful as this. I try to force my­self to breathe deeply, slowly. I know that’s key to a lot of things. It doesn’t seem to help.

Mark shows her how to at­tach slings to the bolts, as they peer over the wall. I try to slither for­ward, fol­low­ing a small, shal­low crack filled with green­ery that winds its way down to where they’re crouched. I wedge one foot into it. Then the other. I stop. “I can’t do this, I shouldn’t do this,” I thought. I’ve par­ented two kids. I know when some­thing looks dan­ger­ous. The oth­ers are all hop­ping around, car­ry­ing ropes and gear back and forth as if they were on a side­walk. I push a foot for­ward a few more inches. Then I make the mis­take of look­ing at the edge, where they’re set­ting up the an­chor. Nope. That’s it for me. I’m done. I’ll just have to go home un-rap­pelled. But that’s un­ac­cept­able.

What a co­nun­drum. What a hor­ri­ble, frus­trat­ing, ex­as­per­at­ing co­nun­drum. I sit down, pre­tend I’m just non­cha­lantly tak­ing in the beau­ti­ful scenery. What a coward. How can I be a climber if I can’t even get close to the climb? I stand again, move one foot for­ward an­other step. And no­tice the damp­ness on my cheeks. This is real fear and I’m not even do­ing any­thing dan­ger­ous. Clearly that’s a rel­a­tive term. Mark says some­thing to me about get­ting closer so I can watch what they’re do­ing. I force a smile, shout back some­thing non­com­mit­tal and move one foot for­ward again. “No,” I say to my­self, “you don’t be­long here, go back.” I move the other foot. My stom­ach is clenched so tight I can hardly breathe. Why am I do­ing this? I don’t need to be here, perched atop this abyss. (Does 12 me­tres count as an abyss?) What the heck am I do­ing here? I’m clearly not cut out for this.

Even more fright­en­ing than all those thoughts is that I might not be able to get be­yond this fear. That it might con­trol me, for­ever. That scares me more than any­thing else. So I push a foot for­ward, fo­cus on the smooth rock, the weeds grow­ing out of the crack, the crisp, cool air that fills my nose (when I can force my­self to breathe). I force my­self to con­cen­trate only on my feet. One at a time. Wedge a foot firmly into the crack, bal­ance with the other one on the slab. Then change sides. I look up. I force a deep, slow breath through my tense body. My part­ners are closer. I can al­most see what they’re do­ing. The edge is closer, too. I try to ig­nore that. I came here for this. A climber has to be able to rap­pel.

Af­ter an eternity, I plant one foot down in the gully be­hind the re­tain­ing-wall-like edge of the cliff. Both hands grab the edge. I’m here! I look again, be­cause I can’t be­lieve it. I’m here. Mark is ex­plain­ing to Betty the physics of how to build the an­chor. The calm mur­mur of their voices has been my an­chor. The sky is still blue. The river rushes past, 10 me­tres below. Not so far, any­more. Only a lit­tle way to go un­til I reach the bot­tom. I made it.

This time, my smile is not forced and the tears are happy tears. I swipe them away, move closer to where they’re work­ing, and be­gin to learn how to rap­pel. No one here knows how close I came to giv­ing up. They as­sume – don’t we all – that ev­ery­one is in the same head space. I’ll never as­sume that again. Now that I know I can be more stub­born than fear­ful, I can do any­thing – even step off a cliff, turn around, lean back and un­clip my safety as I rap­pel down the wall.

Gripped.

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