By guest blogger, Bernadette Murphy
It’s 9 a.m. on a frigid January morning in the town of Ouray, Colorado, population 1,000. Located ten miles northeast of Telluride, Ouray is known as the ‘Switzerland of America’ because of its setting at the narrow head of a valley, enclosed on three sides by steep, granite peaks. Dramatic mountains lurch up all around me, rising so fast from the valley floor I feel dizzy looking at them. The vistas seem even more intense through the spectral air. The cottages, shops, and steepled church are postcard worthy, as are the people and dogs that briskly pass. Everyone has that burnished skin that comes from living in the cool clean air. I feel like I’m in a Patagonia catalog.
I should be soaking up its natural gorgeousness, breathing in the rugged magnificence of this planet, filled with gratitude to be alive today.
But I’m not.
I’m sitting in a Subaru, trying to talk myself off a ledge. I have come to join in the Ouray Ice Festival, where participants take clinics in the finer points of ice climbing, a sport that involves chopping and bashing up vertical frozen waterfalls. For the past half hour, a continuous stream of climbers has been walking past the car, anxious to get to the pitches to improve their skills. They’re all cinched into climbing harnesses, carabineers clanging from gear loops, helmets to protect precious brain matter. They carry their ice tools like gunslingers and clomp about in heavy boots fit with twelve-point crampons that sound like crushing pottery on the hard-pack snow. I signed up for a Novice Ice Climbing class that starts at 9:30 and am trying to rally the nerve to put on my gear and step out of the car.
But it’s warm inside the Subaru and cold and scary out there. I could spend the next few hours scouring the adorable little town, drinking hot chocolate, petting up the friendly dogs, and trying to stay warm. Who would know the difference? Or I can gear up and go see what’s what.
I’m terrified of heights and until a few months ago would have sworn I’d never embrace any sport that involves heights and massive gravity consequences. Summits of any kind make me vertiginous, producing enough sweat to penetrate even multiple layers of clothing. I’m a total chicken about a lot of things. Heights, loud noises, crowds, traffic, and earthquakes make me woozy. I fret about aging, career impasses, my young adult children, global warming, my 401K, and the possibility of dementia. This list of what makes me clammy with terror is never-ending — and growing.
And that’s why I’m here, learning to ice climb: I want to learn to negotiate with the fear rather than run from it. For most of my life, fear of one kind or another has ruled me. What will happen if I lose my job? How will I manage as a single woman now that my 25-year marriage has ended? When I listen to the fear, it multiplies like germs in a petri dish, taking over everything until it eventually frightens me into a full-scale retreat from life. I have to fight back. So I try to cajole myself into taking contrary action.
This attitude goes against everything I thought I knew. We should avoid excess risk as we age, I was told. After all, in our 40s it takes longer to heal a knee damaged learning to snowboard than in our 20s. Pursuing a new educational direction in later life to change careers or for the simple joy of learning something we’re hungering to know squanders our time and resources. If we’re too ambitious with our investments in our 50s, we might not be able to recoup the loss before retirement. And those who leave long-term marriages in the hopes of living a more authentic experience are simply crazy. There’s too much to lose.
It’s a new way of being in the world.
Two months ago, Edmond, the man I’ve been seeing, lured me into the world of rock climbing. We went to Point Dume in Malibu where a ninety-foot cliff rises vertically from the beach. The air was barely warm and the ocean breeze took a bite, but the day was gorgeous. A wedding party was setting up on the beach. A photographer snapped pictures of the bride against the rugged rocks and ocean as I pulled on a climbing harness for the first time in my life. Fear nagged at me, but I kept taking the next step, feeling the rock’s face for crevices and tiny ledges that might hold me, reaching. When I’d climbed to our agree-upon spot, I was spent. “That’s it for today. I’m ready to come down.”
Edmond told me to sit back in the harness so he could lower me, something I’d never done and had never even seen someone else do. “Keep your feet wide and out in front of you,” he called. I tried to do as instructed, but clearly I didn’t understand. Because I’d climbed diagonally to the right, when I sat back, I had no idea the rope would pull me to the left. I tried to get my feet out in front of me, but failed. I got a harsh introduction to a new climbing term: “pendulum.”
Basically, I tumbled and swung across the face of the rock. Edmond immediately arrested my fall, but I was free-swinging across the rock, slamming into its face (thank goodness for my helmet!), flipping nearly upside down, dangling. Edmond directed me to right myself and spread my feet against the rock as he slowly lowered me to the sand.
Other climbers came over to see if I was okay and when it was clear that I was only a bit shaken, the timbre of the conversation shifted.
“Wow. That was spectacular!”
“Are you trying out for Peter Pan?”
“The whole wedding stopped to watch,” someone mentioned, gesturing to where the nuptials had since resumed. Someone high-fived me.
In the months that followed, I climbed Red Rocks outside of Las Vegas, moving more fluidly and topping out at a 100-foot wall on the first attempt, fighting the fear throughout, but persevering. A group of hikers passed below, stopping to watch and comment. The feeling of accomplishment was starting to overtake the emotion of fear.
Of course, knowing I have been safe in the past and able to do something scary doesn’t mean that I am ready to do what’s next. That’s what I’m thinking as I now put on my harness and crampons in the cold Ouray air, and adjust my helmet to go meet my ice climbing class.
Ouray is the winter ice-climbing capital of the U.S., home to the world’s first dedicated ice-climbing park. Dozens of frozen waterfalls, refreshed nightly by sprinkler nozzles, create 80 to 200-foot high climbing tests, winding through more than a mile of the Uncompahgre Gorge. The annual Ice Festival is a weekend extravaganza of competitions, exhibitions, and instruction with many of the world’s top ice climbers. It’s basically a geeky Mardi Gras — just with frost bite.
I am obviously not among the elite climbers. Still, I know a few things. I know, for example, that vertical ice climbing is accomplished with the use of ‘crampons,’ pointy bear traps that clamp to the bottom of your boots, and ice axes, also known as ‘ice tools.’ To ascend, climbers kick the front points of their crampons to create a platform on the vertical ice. They swing ice axes overhead to establish an anchor to step higher on the crampons. The strength of the ice is often surprising. Even if the axe pierces only a centimeter or so, that’s enough to support a climber’s weight. It seems impossible that my ice tool, barely embedded, is enough to hold me — but it does. I’m learning to believe. And to trust.
A young climbing pro, Anna Pfaff, teaches my class. Like most instructors, Anna has established a reputation as an ice, rock, and alpine climber who spends months each year trekking and climbing in Nepal, Patagonia, and throughout the Rockies. My fellow students include another middle-aged woman who recently moved to the Ouray area to work on her ice climbing skills, and three men.
Anna is patient and gentle as she explains the ‘syllabus.’ First, we’ll climb just a small way using only our crampons without the benefit of ice tools at all. She demonstrates how, when the points of her crampons are securely planted, she can stand and rest comfortably along the face of a frozen waterfall. No hands necessary. She wants us to learn to trust our legs, to see how vital their strength is.
The next exercise is to climb with only one ice tool, to learn how to securely place the pick and to realize we can get by with less security than we think.
She notes that men tend to over-rely on brute arm strength. “Women, on the other hand, learn early on to trust their legs because they know they’re never going to have the same kind of upper-body strength.” Women tend to excel at ice climbing because many have studied dance, or possess excellent balance, poise, and flexibility. They can do moves that men will never be able to do.
We pair off and belay each other. I work on my tripod position: two legs firmly planted, supporting me, one ice tool reaching up. Two feet, one arm. Two feet, next arm. When I sustain this rhythm, I move smoothly. The ice routes surrounding us are filled with other classes; about 40 percent of the students are women. This is one sport where men do not have much of an advantage. I am getting higher and higher. Punching the points of the crampons, it feels as if my feet have super powers, holding me in place on the vertical ice wall. Little spurts of exhilaration keep me company as I climb.
Though I was not thrilled about falling on the beach at Point Dume, as I climb now on the ice in Ouray and find my rhythm, I discover reasons to be grateful for that experience. I know that if I fall, my belay partner will catch me. I learned that lesson through hardscrabble experience, just like I’ve learned all the other lessons of my recent risk-taking life. I learned that if I ride my motorcycle 5,000 miles across the country and back as I did a year ago, the road will bring me home. If I paddle an outrigger canoe across The Sea of the Moon in French Polynesia, or SCUBA-dive off a remote Pacific atoll, or leave the security of a long-term marriage, I will land on my feet.
As a result of these passages, I have come to envision the entire universe as a benevolent system that has me in a kind of climbing harness and continues to tether me on a safety line. I can make poor choices, reaching too far, not getting my crampon in deep enough, misjudging the ice’s stability. Yet I know that the harness is there and the rope will catch me.
I consider all the tough emotional experiences that have made this fact evident to me. I add them up. The recently completed divorce, the death of my father, the suicide of my friend’s teenage son just days before another friend’s infant son died from Tay-Sachs, the tears I’ve shared with my children as we’ve navigated a new family structure.
The list goes on. Because this is life. We’re here to learn and expand and grow. The only way that happens is when life challenges us. Life isn’t about finding a safe place, getting all the details nailed down and then holding it all, like a tableau stuck in time.
It’s about chance and risk and failing better.
And yet, for the first time, I finally feel the tug of the rope that keeps me anchored, the sense that some kind of higher power, some divine presence, the universe, whatever you want to call it, some compassionate and generous force is belaying me, keeping an eye, and is there to catch me when – not if – I fall. And that allows me to fly.
Bernadette Murphy is the author of, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life (Counterpoint Press, May 2016). She has published three previous books of narrative nonfiction including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting, is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles, and a former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Her website is Bernadette-Murphy.com.
Want to read more by Bernadette? Check out her book Harley and Me – now out on paperback. You can read a review of the book, or a similar piece of Bernadette’s at Bivy Tales. Check out the piece, “Dither Me This #6: Risk”, here.