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Life lessons 300 metres up

Updated: Mar 11, 2018

Emily Herbert finds out life begins at the edge of your comfort zone - and really heats up when you step outside of it.

First published in Summit Magazine, UK

My first foray into rock climbing, by no means extensive, was three years ago and in that time I have climbed in some sumptuous locations. In Thailand, with the monkeys scurrying up the neighboring trees laughing in disdain at my slow and clumsy moves. In Pembrokeshire, Wales, with the sea crashing below me as if its foamy fingers longed to drag me into its green caress. I’ve climbed indoors, where the wall junkies and the gymnasts come to dance under the harsh florescent lights like poetry on the artificial faces. I’ve hardly scraped over the amateur line, but still, I have climbed and been around climbers enough to know the lingo and casually spout bits of jargon. And most importantly I thought myself relatively brave, reasonably strong and mentally resilient; stiff of resolve I felt more than a little proud of my ability to get involved and amongst, in a world where tough is glorified.

A week spent in the breathtaking Italian Dolomites, with two climbing fanatics and a sister who has never climbed before, was enough to spin my self-beliefs upside down and splinter them unceremoniously.

On our third day in the Dolomiti, utterly overwhelmed with the total gorgeousness of our surroundings, we gathered at the foot of Saas di Stria, also known as Hexenstein, just to the west of the Passo Falzerego, to climb our first multi-pitch, easy enough to take beginners on. I felt an uneasy, heavy thud in the pit of my stomach. I badly wanted to be able to follow my friends up this face, to feel the warm satisfaction that comes with a summit, knowing you had reached the end of your comfort zone and jumped, two feet first. But I was damn nervous and my mouth felt dry. Perhaps that is what gets you through anything, anticipating the rewarding feeling at the finish. I always did have difficulty with the bit in between.

My beautiful and composed sister had never climbed a multi-pitch before, having only started her climbing career two short climbs previously. I felt quite comfortable climbing shorter sport pitches of various difficulties, at my best, succeeding a 6a, pink faced with effort and pride. And our partners were seasoned climbers built like mountain goats, eager to be along for the ride.

The weather, notoriously volatile in the mountains, was shifty and unreasonable, droplets freckling my upturned face, the air heavy and expectant. I knew something was not quite right when an unexpected burst of weeping surprised me, after completing only the first pitch. There was six pitches to go, nigh on 300 meters left to be completed. If I were like this with the ground at relatively close proximity, how would I be half way up? But I couldn’t bear the thought of not being part of it, of being left behind. I savagely scrubbed the tears from my cheek and carried on, breathing through my nose, trying to bring to mind every hard thing I had done in the past. I had succeeded there. I was perfectly physically capable, a young, healthy, athletic woman. Get on with it.

Get on with it I did, until the third pitch. The others had climbed around an exposed corner and I was left alone. I rationally knew they were just there, in calling distance, hardly 60 meters ahead, but the loneliness was crushing and I thought I would drown. The wind had picked up, and even though I had said I wouldn’t, I looked behind me, at the cloud seeping over the mountains, metal grey and pregnant with malady. Far below me the road snaked like a thin ribbon through the valley and nausea licked my belly. I wasn’t particularly frightened of heights; normally I relished the opportunity of a challenge. But my head swam and my vision blurred.

I stood there, star-fished, clinging to the rock face with rigid force. I would never be able to move! I couldn’t go up or down! I would have to live there forever, become a barnacle and grow lichen for hair. How long could I be dead and still be an organ donor? I’m sure, for any onlooker, I would have been comical, a parody of fright, snot on my chin and a warbled, trill of a voice. But I felt deeply and totally rooted, unable to lift a hand or scrape a fingernail across the rock.

Above me I could hear my sisters laugh carried around in the wind like a bird. How could she be so brave, when she had hardly climbed, had never been so high? I felt bitterly jealous and let down by my own self.

Splayed across the rock, my forearms crying from the strain, the wind started to pick up again, whispering across my wet cheeks.  The cloud, moving like mercury, converged below me as a thick carpet, spread between me and the plunging view. Large white birds wheeled and called out only meters from where I clung, their sudden dives making my stomach contract. I fervently, deeply, absolutely hated where I was and what I was doing in that very moment, more then anything in my entire life.

“I can’t move!” I yelled to my climbing partner above me, not recognising the paper thin shrill that came from my constricted throat.

“Of course you can!” his familiar voice floated from above.

“Look for where your feet can go and move them, Em. Just keep moving your feet up. You are perfectly safe. If you really want, we can abseil down right now.”

I thought hard about that option. Is that what I wanted? To slowly abseil back towards the earth, my feet wobbily touching the blessed ground. But the thought of going down was worse than up. All that fear would have been a waste, the exhausting movements of before for nothing. That was not an option.

My feet moved and though my legs trembled with violent gusto, like a flag in a gale, they held. I kept hauling up, inelegant, with rough and ugly motions, panic fluttering at my chest like a hot summer wind, heart going like an open window banging in a breeze. But it was in the right direction.

We made it to the summit and gazed down from our 2,447-meter perch, the dimensions surreal. I felt neither elation nor pride but simply exhaustion, the last four hours a coloured jumble in my mind. I was glad to have finished and to have completed the climb. But mainly I was amazed at my own reaction, a revolution as to a part of me I hadn’t encountered in a while. I felt intense relief that the panic I felt was not something I met on a daily basis. I wondered at the strength and stamina of those that do; it’s bloody exhausting and absolutely debilitating.

My mate Duncan says there are four types of fun. Type one: you are having fun at the time and know it. Type two: you have fun a couple of hours later, down at the pub, talking about the experience you just had. Type three: you have fun a couple of weeks or months later, reminiscing over it and deciding it was a good time indeed. Type four: it is never fun. For me now, looking back, I would say my experience was type five. Not any sort of fun, but one of those imperative life experiences that might be deemed a good time in self-help books. I had discovered another facet of myself, which would never have been found within my wonderfully cosy and well-mapped comfort zone. My vulnerable self, mucky and grubby and weepy, is one I hope not to bring blinking into daylight very often, but is one that is important to know, at least. Know she exists, understand her place, and keep pushing her back into her cupboard, make it harder for her to emerge. Keep filling her mouth with fresh crusts of experience so she grows fat on memories and bold with understanding.

Up there, closer to the sky and God and the very truth of ourselves, it all gets a little more honest. The outdoors for me has always been about relief. Relief to get outside and moving, my body electrified by oxygen and endorphins, my mind free, refreshed and restored. Whether riding or running or yoga or climbing or skiing or simply walking; it is a philosophy and religion. But this was a different relief, a scratching, tearing open of something hidden and restless beneath the surface, which took a little fear to open up. Life is about leverage; enough leverage of something and the reaction will fly up, bidden. What you do with it is the important thing. It took me 300 meters of leverage to get a bit of honesty, but it gave me some food for thought, and that is always worthwhile.

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