An Irresponsible, Yet Edifying, Adventure

A couple of weekends ago, my family and I set out to hike Breakneck Ridge in the Hudson Highlands just outside New York City. I’d hiked the Ridge for the first time the day before we went and judged the route–sometimes exaggeratedly described as “the hardest hike around New York City”–to be doable by my almost-five-year old daughter. It was; the scramble up to the top is indeed steep and rocky at points, but nothing that a little hand-holding would not ameliorate. The greatest environmental hazards and barriers were the large weekend crowds from the city; hundreds of folks accompanied us on our hike, making us feel, more often than not, that we were concert goers heading up for a recital on the ridge’s exposed ledges. Enroute, on a flatter portion of the ridge, we stopped to watch a few youngsters doing some bouldering on a large rock structure with a crack running down the middle. One young man had already scaled the feature; another one was attempting to scale it. After a few tries, he gave up, joining in the laughing and general merriment that seemed to be characteristic of this young, adventurous group. My curiosity was piqued; I decided to give the route a try.

There was a minor problem with this decision. The bouldering underway was proceeding without a protective pad, the kind used to cushion falls when boulderers slip or dismount. The ground beneath was not rocky but the route was long and exposed enough to ensure that a fall could hurt badly. Nevertheless, I began my ‘ascent,’ wedging my fingers into the crack for my starting hold and moving on from there. I had lost sight of my wife and daughter; they had moved on ahead and up to the top of the rock. After a couple of false starts, and one partial retreat, I began inching my way up the face. As I did so, I realized with some alarm that the time for safe descents was past; I had to climb this rock in order to be safe. There was no way but up. All around me, my spectators had gone quiet. They had perhaps realized this fact too.

At that moment, a curious crystallization of my thoughts took place; I was gripped with a terror of sorts, but also a tremendous clarity. I had no choice; I had to make it. Every point of contact with the rock became measured; every movement became precise. I did not make any tentative moves; there was no attempt to use a hold that did not seem like it would work. I could see the ‘promised land’ just a few feet away, and sensed out of the corner of my eyes, the young man who had climbed the rock move toward me to extend a helping hand in case I needed it. But he would not be able to help me if I slipped, and certainly no one below me would be able to cushion my fall. I was simultaneously terrified and determined; I had to make this. Or else. That clarity made me climb on. Successfully.

A few seconds later, I was up on top, high-fiving folks. My wife fixed me with a stony glare, and told me to never try that again. She was right; had I fallen, I could have suffered a broken bone or two, a painful and inconvenient injury up at the top of Breakneck Ridge. We were hiking with our daughter, and we had to get her off the ridge as well. It was an irresponsible move on my part. And yet, for hours, I could not stop smiling. Those few moments of absolutely crystalline concentration of mind and body, of utter absorption in the task, of experiencing such acute sensitivity of touch and hold–all mingled with a peculiar terror–were indescribable. Yet again, climbing had delivered; I had been transported.

A Momentary, But Edifying, Lapse Of Focus

This past Friday, I went climbing in the Shawangunks with my wife and daughter; we were guided by Carolyn Riccardi of Eastern Mountain Sports and received some wonderful instruction throughout the day. My daughter attempted some elementary routes as did my wife and I. I also attempted and succeeded in climbing a slightly harder route–for me: the 5.7 rated Nice Crack Climb, whose most tricky part is a bouldering move to get off the ground. It took me six attempts to get past that; a very satisfying if exhausting accomplishment. A little higher up, a crack needs a little work as well, and here, I spent a little time figuring out how to move up. Finally, I saw what had to be done; I would have to twist my body sideways bringing my left hand across to the right and then as I pulled myself across laterally, to reach up with my right hand to a very useful little hold that was now visible. I reached across and moved up–and then, in the very next instant, I had slipped and was dangling on the rope in mid-air, expertly and safely belayed by our guide below.

I had started my celebrations a little too early–and I had paid for it. Not for the first time, I was rudely reminded that it is best to wait till the finish line is reached before tooting one’s trumpet.

In that fraction of a second before I slipped, I had experienced a surge of elation. I had figured out how I was going to get out of this jam and move on to the top of the crag’s face. Till then, I had been tired, a little sweaty, my hands scraped and blistered in a couple of spots; I had started to experience some doubt about my ability–as a very inexperienced climber–to solve this face’s challenges. And then, when the ‘solution’ presented itself to me, I thought I had glimpsed the promised land, the end of the route. I had already started to imagine the backslapping and congratulations I would receive once I had rappelled down. And in that fraction of a second, my mind and body weren’t working together. And so I slipped.

I got back on the route and finished it, this time making sure that I remained focused on completing the move. And I did indeed, celebrate with the rest of my climbing companions once I got back down. That glow was worth basking in; but the most important lesson hadn’t been the fact that I had completed my first challenging route in the ‘Gunks. Rather, I had gained insight into something I had read in many accounts of climbing: that it requires concentration and focus at all times, that the worst mistakes happen when you take your eyes off the prize. Many climbers write of how this intense focus can be intensely pleasurable, allowing them to feel a level of awareness of their body and mind that they do not experience elsewhere. I think I have the faintest glimmering of an idea of what they are getting at now. For this permanently distracted person, that focus seems especially alluring. It sends out a siren call of sorts, beckoning me away from my desk.

Learning To Live With The Fear Of Heights

I’m terrified of heights; vertigo, nausea, fear, and anxiety instantly make an appearance as I near an airy ledge of any kind. Cliffs in the wilderness, building balconies, these all induce these effects in me. My fear of heights bothers me; I like hiking, I like mountain views, and the best ones are always up among the regions where my fears are at their most insistent, clamoring for attention, demanding control of my body and brain. I gaze at photos of mountaineers on ridges and summits and ice walls, and I’m thrilled and nauseated alike. I want to be up there, but I know what I will feel: terror. During my boarding school years, in the tenth grade, I took up rock climbing in an effort to try to either master, or co-exist with, this fear. Those motivations were quite conscious; I hoped to move on past the worst aspects of those sensations so I could enjoy the mountains. My rock climbing was elementary but I did achieve a moment of acute insight once while abseiling down a training cliff: my feet slipped momentarily, I swung back hard into the rock face, and panicked. Around me, mists swirled, and below me lurked a seemingly bottomless chasm. As I called for help, my instructor yelled at me to push away from the cliff and continue moving down. I was not going to be rescued. A few seconds later, I came to an overhang, pushed out, and smoothly swung down to the floor to come to rest; I was exhilarated. I had encountered trouble in a scary place, and somehow, I had moved on–despite my fears. I had seen a glimmer of a better place; perhaps by controlled exposure to heights, I could learn to live with my fears well enough to be able to travel to places I wanted to see.

Over the years, this insight faded; I left my boarding school in the hills, returned to the plains, graduated from school and college, migrated; I’d gone back to my old ways. I continued to hike in the mountains, but I never took up any kind of climbing again. I remained scared of the heights.

Sometime last year, I began resolving to push myself back to the heights, to train, formally and informally, to get back to trying to ‘master’ those old fears of mine. I took a climbing course in New Hampshire, and an ice climbing course in the Catskills; neither of those classes involved exposure to great heights, but I hoped to start learning those skills and techniques which would let me make a foray to places where I would encounter them. I also hoped to start pushing myself to, er, ‘expose’ myself to, exposure.

This past week’s hike to Mt. Yamnuska–while ostensibly an elementary recreational jaunt, one that thousands of local teenagers pull off every year–thus constituted an integral part of this strategy; the tiny cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section on its approach had filled me with much trepidation when I had first read about it, and so it made eminent sense to attempt it. Online guides said it was not for the ‘faint of heart’; I thought I recognized myself, the very faint of heart. The evening before the hike, I was suddenly struck with fear and doubt; What if I slipped? What if I fell? What if I looked down?

On the day of the hike, the cabled section finally made its appearance; one hiking partner went first, and I followed next. Because the cable is strung tight, it affords a comfortably secure grip as the ledge is traversed; there was one tricky section where the slack in the cable sent me alarmingly into open air. I hung on, slid my hands across, as I hung on tight and moved on. There was some genuine fear in there for a second, but it subsided. A second later, I was done. The summit was a short scramble away. (Interestingly enough, because you have to concentrate on your grip and the placement of your feet, there is little time to think about the exposure behind and below; a very useful lesson.)

I feel faintly ridiculous as I write these words; all I had done was walk across a short section of a cliff ledge, all the while hanging on to a cable. But these sorts of things add up, I suppose, and I can only hope they continue to. I don’t think I’ll ever ‘master’ my fear of heights, but perhaps I’ll learn to live with them in a way that will allow me access to those regions up among the clouds that do so much to lift my spirits.