Finding Your Edge
My leg won’t stop shaking. Even my belayer, ever the patient climbing partner, has started to notice. ‘Try and relax, honey, just breathe.’ Ya thanks, darling. I AM breathing, I mumble under my breath. Hyperventilating, actually. But I can’t seem to move from my position. And that leg…it just wont stop. My arms aren’t far behind. They’re swollen, burning and lobbying me for a two-hour nap. I need a nap. My belayer needs to stop talking to me. I need to stop talking to myself. I hate climbing. Why am I out here right now?
Climbing is one of the great equalizers for me. The only way to be proficient at it is to be calm, focused and relaxed, none of which I am particularly good at. Even when I climbed a lot, I was never a ninja. Sure, I climbed in jeans and drove an old Toyota and thought of myself as a real ‘climber’, but I never managed to make the jump to being a true dirtbag. You know the type: longish hair, rippled with muscle, using a van as a home and living life through first ascents. But even though I was never that proficient, climbing was something that helped me move beyond my comfort zone. My struggles climbing mirrored my struggles in the daily grind. Learning to overcome them on the rock helped me overcome them in my life.
These days, I hardly climb at all. In fact, it’s been six years since I’ve been on rope. A combination of injury, frustration and letting life get in the way have all kept me from being out there. Today, however, I decided to change that. Great decision. Really. I’m feeling how great that decision was right now, as I hang here, all four limbs immobile, ten feet above my last piece of protection. I wish I could say I was on something hard. Maybe a Squamish classic like the Grand Wall, moving through a crux that would earn silent nods of respect in the corridors of the Chief Campground. But that’s not the case. I’m on a relatively easy climb. At least, it was easy the last time I did it. But this time, I’m a little older, a little heavier and it feels more like a 5.14 than a 5.9.
Hanging there, having a minor meltdown, I take a moment and remember that all I need to do is relax and let my fear wash over me. The next move isn’t hard, I just need to commit to it. As I make that decision, my legs stop shaking and I move through my fear, getting to a spot where I protect myself. As soon as I clip in, everything slows down. My arms stop hating me, my breathing relaxes and everything comes into a sharp, crisp focus. I remember now why I enjoy climbing. It’s one of those activities that force me to calm down and concentrate solely on what’s in front of me. In those moments, whether you’re Tommy Caldwell on the Dawn Wall or me, Joe Schmo on a 5.9, climbing brings clarity and perspective to the world around us.
That’s why the hard to reach places of the world call so many of us. Every time I get on my bike, my skis, go climbing, paddling, surfing (I don’t really surf, I mainly just half drown), I embark on my own personal journey of emotional, physical, mental and spiritual self-discovery. Going on those journeys, be they a few hours or a few days, help us to challenge ourselves. That challenge doesn’t have to be a first free ascent in Yosemite. It just has to be a challenge for you.
And that’s what it comes down to. It’s great to see amazing feats of athleticism, but for many of us, they are difficult to relate to. But going beyond our own edge, be it hiking a new trail, skiing a new line, or like me, having a minor meltdown on a climb, moves us into the realm of greatness. So often our existence is steeped in comfortable mediocrity. Pushing beyond our boundaries is difficult, and often involves facing our greatest fears, stresses and worries in life. The payoff, however, is priceless. We learn stillness and humility; feel exhilaration, freedom and even enlightenment now and again. From the pro to the Joe, that payoff is what drives us to keep exploring our limits, pushing them a little as we wind our way through life. That’s why I’m out here today, learning to be calm and letting all of life’s stresses melt away in the face of the here and now. There are no bills to pay, jobs to apply for or dysfunctional people to deal with. There is only my next piece of gear and the climb in front of me.
The best part is that exploring beyond our comfort zone doesn’t take much. We don’t need sponsorship or a huge travel budget. We just need a little willingness to take a chance. Maybe that chance is trying a new sport, getting in shape or attempting a climbing route you’ve never tried before. Maybe it’s embarking on an adventure that scares you or asking that crush out for the first time. Whatever it is, it will always be worth it. So take a moment and find your edge, and make the effort to go a little past it.