by EMILY ORTON
Dropping two daughters at college this fall is a thin excuse for what is really a three-month rock-climbing trip. Karina is already set up at BYU-Provo. Classes start Tuesday. Today, Alison is set up on hanging belay halfway up a 450-foot slab of granite route called Skywalker with Erik lead climbing five pitches. It’s their last climb together before BYU-Idaho orientation next week. While other moms are buying back to school supplies, I'm buying propane canisters, but I'm learning a lot.
Now I know a place as beautiful as Squamish, BC, Canada, exists. I’ve never seen the water meet forested mountains like this.
Now I know that even when it seems like I’ll never make it out of the parking lot, continued patience will see me through to the summit. [First blood - Alison fell on the trail. Then, I locked the keys in the car and we had to wait, in the rain, for a local tow-trucker to bail us out.]
Now I know a good mom will encourage her children to run across four lanes of highway traffic, with a good dad leading the way, to climb a gorgeous slab of granite shooting straight up out of the water.
Now I know that tension between Erik and I can sometimes be the best thing in the world.
Erik picked a route called Slot Machine close to our campsite for a couple’s climb. I like climbing, but I'm scared of heights. I don't even like pictures of people in high places. I decided not to psyche myself out by asking too many questions about difficulty ratings. Erik believed I could do it so I relied on his confidence. The first move was reportedly the hardest. Fortunately, another couple was waiting behind us. They offered suggestions. After several slips and silent prayers, I found a place to grip my toes and lift past the crux (crux = hardest section of a route).
I jammed toes, fingers, and elbows all the way up the fissure in the rock to the end of the first pitch expecting to find Erik on a comfortable ledge. I’d never heard the term hanging belay, but that’s what it was. There was a down-slanting hollow just wide enough to hold two pairs of shoes. I held my body flat against the rock keeping one hand jammed into the slot.
“I know it’s counterintuitive, but lean back in your harness,” Erik said. “Take the weight off your feet. Put your foot up on the face of the rock. Get comfortable.”
I tried to mimic his relaxed posture. The bolts and chains looked solid. I’d never looked closely at the anchors Erik built, but this one was stunningly reassuring. I looked down at how far we’d come. I looked out at the water shimmering with the last fragments of sunlight. This view is one of the pay-offs.
“Belay on,” I said.
“Climbing,” Erik said.
I told myself I was feeling pretty comfortable there, but this selfie revealed the truth.
The second pitch was less difficult than the first and my confidence was up, but I was still highly motivated by the fact that it would soon be over and we could walk down. Just when I thought I’d made it, I got stuck cleaning out the last stopper nut that Erik had placed. Again, he advised me to lean into the harness. I told my body to let go of the granite and sit into nothingness. I was essentially in child’s pose, but vertical and hanging over the side of a cliff. I used a little tool to beat and tug and that stubborn chunk of metal stuck in the rock. It finally popped out and I clipped it to my harness, but it was dragging. It snagged in the crack three more times before I got my knees to the final ledge. Then it stuck firm again. Erik attached me to the anchor and then reached down with the cleaning tool to grab that pesky stopper.
The end. We had done it. I hope the summit selfie shows how proud I felt completing that challenge despite the scary moments. I hope it shows how grateful I am for a patient, competent partner. I hope it shows how happy I am to be with Erik in times of joy and sorrow. I like to say that the summit is the halfway point, but the uncertainty ended there. Once I’d climbed up the cliff, I knew I could walk back down again.
I remember when I was scared of deep water and then I discovered snorkeling. I loved it. This felt like that. I took a gamble on Slot Machine. I faced some fears. I didn’t conquer them, but I learned that I can walk with them. I think that’s how confidence starts. I’m looking forward to slippery holds, silent prayers and more stunning views in the weeks ahead.
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