By EMILY ORTON
About a year ago we took Eli climbing in the Shawangunk mountains. He was happy to scramble the low boulders, but took a tremendous amount of coaxing to persuade him to put on a climbing harness and go vertical. He burned through his courage about 15 feet up and wanted to come down. But he’d never repelled from any height before. He didn’t trust the rope. He didn’t trust his belayer especially when told to let go of the rock and lean back into nothingness held up by a 10 mm rope to repel what he considered to be a treacherous rock face.
The event was so impactful that Eli decided he did not like rock climbing. He was not a rock climber. He was a victim of fate, born to parents who thought scaling rocks was a good time. We even took him on a 105 day road trip seeking out some of the greatest rock climbing in the U.S. and Canada. He preferred to sit at the base and wait for it to be over. I only got him in the harness once when I guaranteed he would not have to climb. I wanted him to stay low to the ground and swing on the rope. When introducing new foods, I only expect my kids to take a taste not eat the whole plate. I wanted Eli to get a taste of trusting the rope. He didn’t love it, but he didn’t panic.
Back home, Erik, SJ and I joined a rock climbing gym so we progress through the winter months. Eli agreed to sit and watch one night, but declined all of my subsequent invitations.
I don’t know why, but three months later, when rejecting my offer he offered this consolation, “Next time you go, I’ll come with you.”
“And you’ll climb?” I asked.
“Oh. Okay,” he muttered.
He wasn’t excited, so I kept my enthusiasm under wraps. The following week it was time to make good on that promise. Check out this not-happy-but-keeping-my-word face. I didn’t let it dissuade me. Just having him there was a big win.
“So, this is what you guys like to do in your spare time?” he mused.
“This is what we say No to other things and carve out time to make happen,” I said.
I passed the rope through his harness and tied the double figure eight knot. I offered him a chalk bag to powder his hands. They were already sweating. I asked him to climb 2-3 feet and then hang on the rope until he felt comfortable. Once he felt secure, I invited him to aim for the top of the wall using any color hold he wanted.
“Later, for a challenge, you may want to pick a route and only use holds in that color,” I said. Once he got to the top of the wall, that trust in the rope only went so far. I was still asking him to let go of the holds and lean back into nothing. A veteran climber was trouble shooting a difficult route next to Eli and stopped to show him how to put his feet in front of him on the wall. Still, it’s an instinct to grab hold of something when you’re falling, so I encouraged Eli to hold onto the rope if it made him feel better.
He made it down. There was a measure of satisfaction in his face having successfully completed his first route from top to bottom. Then he did it again. Then he did a new route using only the colors designated. By then, he had already set a goal.
“I want to climb every 5.6 route twice,” he said. Then he went about tackling it. By the end of the night he was goofing off while he repelled, pretending to be Spiderman shooting webs or smiling and giving us the double shaka which I think is teen for ‘Look Ma, no hands!’
On the way home he confided, “I thought there was a chance I might actually like it, but my plan was to pretend like I didn’t.”
“It’s hard to pretend you don’t like it when you’re swinging around on the rope like that,” I said.
I’m proud of Eli for facing down some of his fears about rock climbing, but even more impressive to me was that he overcame the label he gave himself. He stepped outside of his personal pride to see himself differently and to allow the rest of us to see it as well. It’s great to take small bites, baby steps and lots of breaks when we’re trying something new. It’s great to have lots of encouragement. But perhaps the most important element is something only we can give ourselves and that’s a willingness to cast a different vision for who we are and what we are capable of.
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