For my first big rock-climbing trip I went with a friend to New Hampshire. We hired a guide from the International Mountain Climbing School in North Conway. My only climbing lesson had been top roping in a quarry. It was very different from what I would now be attempting. We’d be ascending much higher than the length of one rope and I certainly hadn’t lost my fear of heights. We hiked above the tree line. The climb was called “Thin Air” and we would be traversing across the sheer east-facing granite cliffs of Cathedral Ledge. I swallowed hard. The sheer cliffs loomed high above us, all exposed without another cliff or any trees in their vicinity, commanding a stunning view of the surrounding area. This was more of a challenge than I had anticipated.
My throat was dry, my heart galloped so hard in my chest it hurt, and my breath strangled in my throat. I knew on some level that I was capable of overcoming the intense fear after my success in the quarry, but my fear was off the charts. I was directly behind the guide, and my friend was third on the rope. She would be taking out the spring-loaded cramming devices (called friends by climbers) used to secure the rope to the cliff in the event of a fall. I gladly acceded to her for this challenge. Reaching out to remove the small devices secured into cracks wasn’t something I felt ready for.
As we climbed up, I felt pretty confident and was moving fairly easily up the rope (not looking down helped immensely). Soon we arrived at the section of the climb where we had to traverse directly across the cliff face. We were wearing special shoes with sticky soles that helped to decrease the chance of slipping. They were supposed to fit snugly, keeping the toes together to provide more stability in order to grip the small protuberances on the cliff with your toes.
The instructor floated effortlessly across. He anchored a rope to the rocks on the other side to hold him securely in place, and then held the climbing rope slightly taut, yelling for me to start across. Up close and personal, I took in the perilous slope of that cliff. Nothing in my peripheral vision but sky and we were above the tree line. My stomach did somersaults. I tried to swallow hoping to squelch the nausea, but my throat was so dry I couldn’t work up any saliva. With my hands grabbing at any prominences or cracks in the rock for hand holds, I started slowly, pointing my feet painfully into the rock as I struggled to find those damn small protrusions to grip with my toes. I had a chalk bag with me to keep my hands from sweating as my fingers gripped the rock to give me a steady hold. I used the chalk often. Would I have enough to make it across?
And then I slipped, losing my grip on the rock, and for one heart pounding moment I wondered if the rope would hold me if I fell. Riveted with fear, I grabbed the rope in a death grip. Firmly facing the cliff, I sat back in my harness. I was out a good distance on the route. Stopping may not have been such a good idea. Frozen in place, my breath coming in short little gasps, I couldn’t move.
The guide yelled to me, “Try to find a hold on the rock for your feet and stand up slowly. Use your legs not your arms. Stand up. Let go of the rope and stand up.”
Hyperventilating, I felt like I might pass out.
“Look at your friend, she’s waving to you.”
I wasn’t about to turn my head to look back at my friend because I couldn’t move my head. I didn’t give a crap that she was waving. I was going to die right here.
Staring straight ahead at the cliff, I tenuously released one hand. Finish this. I took a deep breath and stood up, releasing the rope, and continued on. My legs shook, but I kept going and didn’t stop until I reached him on the other side.