FACING THE FEAR
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.