I don’t have a bucket list. I really don’t. I’ve been fortunate to travel and fulfill many dreams, so when I tell kids that I want to jump out of an airplane before I’m fifty, I’m half-joking.
And half not.
I love trying new things. Seeing if I can do it. And before anyone screams that those are classic mid-life crisis symptoms, this isn't new. Learning to skate and joining a hockey team when you are 35? Not easy lol.
But this weekend’s exploits were BY FAR the hardest thing that I have pushed myself to do, both physically and mentally: rock climbing.
It’s a bit of a story, so here we go.
My daughter, Eliisa, has university finals and wasn’t able to come home for Thanksgiving, so I loaded up with podcast recommendations and drove to see her. Her boyfriend, Corbin, is a seasoned climber and Eliisa has taken up the sport too.
Mom, do you want to try?
The first night we did bouldering at a local climbing gym. Climbing paths are clearly marked out, as the hand and feet ‘rocks’ are brightly colored and the difficulty level labelled. The highest the walls go are 14 feet, and most people jump directly down onto the floor of giant mats from the top.
I was a little too timid for that, not trusting old joints to land in alignment, so I climbed my way back down too. It was fun, and aside from blisters forming on my hands, was a good introduction to climbing.
Next morning? Mountains.
-2C and cold!
We drove to Kananaskis and hiked 10 minutes up a rocky path into the wilderness. When we stopped, the grade was so steep that I had to place my backpack and shoes carefully so that they didn’t roll down into the crevasse.
Corbin went first, scaling the rock and setting up the top rope. That made me nervous to watch. Essentially the rope goes from the ground, through hooks at the top, and back down. The person on the ground belays, holding the rope for the climber and keeping them safe.
There are bolts (hooks) in the rock that he feeds the rope through, attaching them with carabiners, so that if you fall, you are only falling to the carabiner below. Once I got my head around the fact that I was safe, the nerves went away, replaced by the hard work of getting up the rock.
You look for a hole to grab or a little jutting rock to put your toe on. With climbing shoes, it’s amazing how the tiniest of surfaces can be useful.
Get my foot higher. Toe on a rock edge.
Push myself to standing.
Get my hand over that rock and grab.
Slow, hard work.
For the first time, I was feeling Brene Brown’s “there is no courage without vulnerability” on a literal level.
The most difficult sections were the smooth rock where there were no hand-holds at all, and there was one point in each of the climbs where I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think I could finish. Part of my brain telling me not to quit, that I’ll be forever mad at myself if I don’t do it! But another part of the brain is in survival mode, and the body is telling a different story. They call it ‘Elvis leg,’ an uncontrolled shaking and I can’t make my left leg stop doing it.
I don’t see any way up or left or right and as much as I lean my body into the wall like the two of them are encouraging me, I feel like an action movie character clinging to a cliff before they fall.
The first time it was unexpected, trying to get through a difficult section, my foot sideways on a rock (not the toe, my mistake) a small slip and…
…an andrenaline rush, for starters!
But then a wave of relief and the confirmation that I was perfectly safe.
The second time, I knew it was coming. Against the smooth wall, I had tried several different ways to move but couldn’t see the crack for my left foot that the kids could see, and the only other option was one at chest-height. I’m not flexible enough to do that standing on solid ground, let alone perched with one foot on an inch-wide ledge and the other on the tiniest of protrusions, so that wasn’t going to happen.
“I can’t hold this. I’m going to fall!”
And I did.
It was scary for a split second, but the rope went taut and I jerked to a stop. I slammed into the wall, likely where the ugly bruise on my leg is from. But it gave me a second to rest and breathe, and when I got my foot back onto the small rock, I could see the crack they had suggested and pushed my way up and through.
The benefit of having other eyes on the ground is that they coached me all the way. They saw spots that I couldn’t, encouraging me to reach juuuuust a bit farther when I said I couldn’t.
“Awesome! You’re through the hard section now!”
I swear to god, they said that for every section, but it was the encouragement I needed to make it through each one.
It seems to be a theme of my writing these past few weeks: that even though we know the end goal of our journey, you make it through by focusing on what is in front of you. One section at a time.
And then you’re at the top.
The view is amazing, of course, but you can stand anywhere in the mountains and have an amazing view.
What made this one special, was hanging in a harness off the edge of the mountain. Legs dangling. Hands not holding on.
I’m not afraid of heights, so looking down didn’t bother me. Although I did have a vice-grip on my phone as I took a few minutes to take some pictures!
The way down wasn’t nearly as challenging but was just as exciting. The first time, it was like an amusement park ride as the kids controlled my descent (I went quickly lol) but the second I rappelled down myself. It was like a weird horizontal walk, as you keep your feet flat against the wall, legs straight, your hands on the rope as the brake.
It was - hands down - one of the most exciting and challenging things that I’ve ever done. And I loved it.
Of course, there was ample time to think about how the adventure applies to our lives. Although my own takeaways on perseverance were obvious, I was mostly struck by the differences between the two days of climbing.
In the first, everything was laid out. Simple. Straightforward. Differentiated to your ability. Soft mats to catch you.
In the second, the path was barely clear. You had to find your own way through. The obstacles were plenty, and the rocks were very much real. They scratched and bruised. There was a rope and hooks for backup, but a fall was still abrupt and jarring.
At first, it reminded me of how some of our paths through life are paved with supports and safety; others with challenge after challenge after challenge to overcome. It made me think about the gradual release of responsibility model, as the two kids modelled and guided me the first day and then coached me on the second day as I did it myself.
As I thought about which day I enjoyed more, it was definitely the latter.
Why? I began to think of the lawnmowering approach to raising children, removing every hindrance and hardship to save them heartbreak and disappointment. Except that by doing that, we also remove their ability to struggle through challenges, to learn lessons about persevering, and to feel the pride in achieving a goal.
Robert Frost was right: “I shall be telling this with a sigh,
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood,
and I — I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
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