What I learned at 12,000 Feet
We left the parking lot in the near-dark of 6 a.m. Our packs were light; just a small rack of gear, a 30 meter rope, our harnesses, jackets, and some food and water between the two of us.
The trail, wide and open, climbed gradually through the sand and sagebrush. We passed pines, aspens and my favorite —wild onions.
After five and half miles we were on the beach of glacier-fed, turquoise Second Lake, where we dumped our packs out on the ground, and ate some snacks.
We put on our harnesses, hung our bags in the trees then took the climbers’ trail cross-country to the base of Temple Crag. Four hours and 3500 feet of elevation gain later we began climbing the route Venusian Blind.
Last year marked my first alpine style climb in the High Sierras. But the story starts over twenty years ago.
In 1992 I fell in love with something I’d come to realize only once I had a yoga practice, four years later. I fell in love with the moment.
In my twenties I didn’t know what “the moment” was, just that when I was climbing, I was in it. All my other problems and stresses went away. The consequence of falling kept me present in a way that nothing else ever could.
But a strange thing happened, over time I became more and more afraid of the exposure and heights inherent in my sport. So I backed away from the edge, both literally and metaphorically. I stopped climbing on a rope and turned to bouldering. And the lower the boulder, the better.
A decade went by where my only goal was to do the single hardest move I could. Little by little—and totally unaware that it was happening—I transitioned away from the moment and into the need to prove myself.
This “proof” of climbing hard boulder problems was my attempt at making myself feel worthy. It was my attempt to gain a sense of belonging. It was protection at letting the little, vulnerable and hurt parts of myself be seen.
What it wasn’t, was true trust in myself. It wasn’t a deep-held and embodied belief that I actually was strong enough and supported enough to push into my fear. Any time it would rise up, I’d just turn away, push it down and hope no one saw.
Injury, and several difficult life circumstances, took me away from climbing in 2005. During my hiatus I spent nearly a year healing a slipped disc in my neck without surgery (the information in my Healthy Shoulders book came from this work). In the process, I had to face my fears: What if I couldn’t practice anymore? How can I teach if my body doesn’t recover? I felt trapped by this injury, trapped in my relationship, frozen, stuck, paralyzed.
I witnessed the last three years of my mom’s life as she experienced cancer for the fifth time. Priorities became clear and through deep reflection and thousands of hours of yoga, I knew that I had to do anything to find happiness and freedom. I left my relationship, spent a couple years single simply with the goal of finding my own inner strength and healing what pulled me out of it.
After five years, I returned to the rock armed with the dedication to really show up for my own happiness. Armed with self-awareness and a willingness to at least try to face the exposure I’d so protected against for almost 15 years.
This time I was conscious of the moment and my tendency to hide from it. I was aware of how my tough-girl front and love for low boulders had been a serious avoidance tactic used to escape any part of the moment that made me feel vulnerable or afraid.
My inability to face mental and emotional stress permeated everything in my climbing, but now I chose to face the fear. It was baby steps at first, then slowly graduating to more challenging situations and difficult climbs. And despite all that, I often still ended up in tears.
But on Temple Crag, I had a revelation about my willingness to face exposure; I was still trying to escape the stress!
In the past, when things got exposed, I would try to be really present by focusing on the detail of the rock or on the sound and feel of my breath. But by diverting my attention, I was actually trying to ignore that huge drop to the ground. I wasn’t accepting the stress and fear at all! I was still trying to control it, tamp it down and shut out an unavoidable part of the moment.
I thought my willingness to put myself in scary situations was toughening me to the intensity. Like somehow if I just exposed myself enough —poof, I’d stop feeling vulnerable. But that fear? It’s not going away. Thinking it will is a total set up for failure, and another way to ignore or hide from the things that challenge and scare me.
And we do this in life, don’t we? We try to avoid stress. Not that we shouldn’t minimize it, but it will always be there, and the more we push it away, the worse it gets. Swept under the rug, that dirt is still there…
In my yoga practice I often scan my body looking for where I’m holding stress. Or I feel something out of alignment and go to that. Once I face what feels tense, I consciously relax around it. Then I re-align. It always leads to a more present experience, a deeper, more solid and easeful yoga pose. And most importantly, a renewed sense of peace with whatever’s happening in my life.
So why couldn’t these skills translate to climbing?, I thought.
Well, they do.
I found that as I relaxed and allowed the exposure to enter my awareness—even while stepping across a four foot gap way at the top—I had more ability to focus on the climbing, not my fear.
In the moment, I allowed the whole of the experience to penetrate my awareness. I noticed my eyes were softer, as if to see more, rather than hard, unblinking and afraid of danger. I stepped across more relaxed than I could have ever expected, welcoming the fear as part of myself and part of the moment. Still afraid, but able to focus and move forward.
It’s a great paradox that to be focused and feel at ease, we actually need to face what’s causing stress and pulling us out of focus.
On Temple Crag, I learned that being in the moment isn’t a loss of time or even of self, but a loss of anticipation, a letting go of what could be and the presence to face what is.
The acceptance of stress and everything that’s happening in the moment leads to a deep inner trust. Facing fear, both of exposure in climbing and exposure in life, is actually a way to be free.