It’s been three days since I last awoke to crisp, cold air on my cheeks, raucous birdsong, and quiet early-morning laughter. It’s been four nights since I last sat around a campfire, pressed close to old and new members of our RTC family. But I can still, in odd moments, smell the sharpness of campfire smoke, and in unpredictable flashes, I return to last week.
The rock is rough against my fingertips, rubbing the pads raw as I search for some kind of handhold, however dubious. My right foot is wedged crookedly--almost stuck--within a two-inch wide crack, while my left foot wildly searches the rock, seeking a weight-bearing indentation.
It’s Thursday, and rock climbing is our group’s final activity of the weeklong RTC Adventure, spearheaded by our amazing author Mark Cripe. I always thought I would enjoy rock climbing; in the movies, after all, what you see is the exhilaration, the heroism of a body pushed to an extreme. Even when the climber feels fear, you, the movie-watcher, cannot feel it. You climb ahead of the actor, seeing clearly where he should reach his chalk-covered hands, how he should swivel his hips in order to best position the ball of his foot. You believe that summiting is possible, and you imagine that if it were you climbing, your body would instinctively recognize this task, would return to climbing pecan trees at Grandpa’s house and, with strong, graceful movements, bring you to the triumphant top.
Naturally, that was the goal I gave to our guide and my belayer, Matt: I wanted to reach the top.
“Belay,” I said, after he had checked my harness and rope knots and shown me his locked carabiner, attached to the other side of my rope.
“Belay on,” he replied.
“Ready to climb,” I said.
He smiled and nodded. “Climb on.”
That, Matt had explained, was shorthand for the tacit agreement between climber and belayer. Until the words “belay off” are spoken, the belayer is acknowledging and accepting his responsibility for the climber’s life, and the climber is conveying her trust in the belayer. Even then, though, this still seemed like a game. I tilted my head back, taking in the seemingly vertical seventy-foot rock in front of me and the bowl of cloudless blue sky above, and I was intimidated but excited.
I climbed the first few feet easily, enjoying the quick success of reaching the first large crack. It was about my height and a bit wider, offering the perfect space for me to catch my breath. Behind me, my groupmates called out, “Nice, Katie!” and “Look at you!” I turned back and waved, grinning. This was my sport!
Then the struggle began.
The crack narrowed, leaving only enough room in one spot for me to wedge my arm inside and twist my wrist, locking my fist in place and using that leverage to support my full body weight for the next step up. In most other spots, my hands were useless, palms flat and slippery against the rock. Everything about this was counter-intuitive: the rock and I were parallel, face to face, and I was supposed to trust that the grip on my climbing shoes would be enough to support my body as I pushed myself upwards. I could see only a sliver of sky between the boulders above me, and while my group shouted words of encouragement below, all I could hear was the discord of my exerted breathing.
About two thirds of the way up, my legs shook with exhaustion and a slow-blooming fear. The smart thing, I realized, would be to turn around. If the point of this exercise was to take three steps beyond our comfort level, I was about fifteen beyond that.
“Katie,” Mark called from the ground. “Can you hear me?”
“Yeah,” I managed. I was starting to hyperventilate, feeling my feet and hands slipping.
“I want you to listen to me. Take a deep breath. Okay? Take a deep breath.”
I wanted to laugh or call back something witty, but I was close to tears, so I hiccuped a breath and focused on my heartbeat: rabbit-like, it skittered against the walls of my chest. If I didn’t calm down, I would make a mistake. I would slip and hurt myself, despite Matt’s hands on the rope. I turned my attention to the rock, letting it fill my entire range of vision: sand-colored, with darker grooves, my hands shaking against it. I thought, You are NOT going to beat me.
“Get out of this one and the rest is casual!” someone, Mark or Matt, called out. “You’re almost there!”
I had seen Corey make this climb before me. I cheered for him when he was in my exact spot, struggling. I could see then how close he was, how it was true that if he could only call on a final spurt of strength or faith, the rock would provide a gentle slope, something to hold onto. But from this position, my memory seemed an unreliable witness.
“Katie? Can you hear me?”
“Okay,” I called back, my voice gilded with panic. I turned slightly, looked down at Matt. “You got me?”
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“I always got you,” he said, and the words gave me just enough comfort to trust my fingertips and feet, my shoulders and thighs, and climb beyond the spot where I’d been stuck and onto the next phase, where I didn’t let myself stop for fear that if I did, I wouldn’t have the strength to get myself the rest of the way. Joshua, our videographer, hung from another rope a couple of yards to my left, and while I wanted to grunt something like, “This is not fucking casual,” all I could do was give some combination of glare and smile as I finally pulled myself to the top.
Oddly, it’s not this moment to which I find myself returning, though I can cast my gaze back and feel that exhausted satisfaction, the shakiness of my body and the tears that came with laughter. I can look downward and see the proof of my efforts in the smallness of the people below, or lift my eyes and take in the otherworldly desert landscape, the towering rocks across the way and the curved, beseeching figures of Joshua trees dancing in place atop the sand. I can see all of this with some intention.
But in unawareness, I return to being pressed nose-to-rock, clinging and afraid. I thought of our clients then, many of whom were with us in Joshua Tree, and the myriad and overwhelming challenges they’ve overcome to reach this point in their lives. I thought of the many times fear and doubt enter their hearts throughout our process and how often we ask them--how often I ask them--to trust us, to forge beyond the uncertainty of today toward a summit they can’t yet see. I thought, in some way, I could honor them by not giving up. I could thank them for their trust and tenacity by showing my own. So I did. And when I catch myself back on that rock in my mind, it’s no longer fear that I feel. It’s courage.