by Daisy Jasmine, Staff Writer
One of the oddest, most counter-intuitive things about humanity is our compulsion to climb. We aren’t particularly built to survive a drop—and last I checked, we’ve got no wings to speak of, at least in the literal sense—but for as long as humanity has been around, we’ve been loath to stay away from the oddly enticing trees and mountains. George Mallory, one of the first people to attempt to summit Mt. Everest, is known for a deceptively simple quote that ties the whole bizarre temptation up with a neat little bow: “Because it’s there.”
Now, I spent my childhood wholesale refusing to have anything to do with this particular slice of the human experience. Only when I discovered a love for roller-coasters did this sentiment graduate into what I, to this day, refer to as my “love-hate relationship with heights.” Thanks to this complicated sentiment, no one was more surprised than me when I agreed to join a friend of mine in trying rock climbing.
The first time I joined my friend at the rock climbing gym, I had no idea what to expect—of the sport or of my ability. I took comfort in the cartoonishly minimalistic goal I had set for myself. If I could get both feet any distance off of the floor for any length of time, I would consider the entire endeavor fruitful and permit myself to leave the facility without the dishonor of failure written on my face.
My stomach turned with nerves as I filled out the liability waiver, and I feebly attempted to distract myself through grim humor, loudly declaring my intention to haunt anyone who was directly or indirectly responsible for any harm which might befall me. My friend and I were then put through a dizzying orientation, memorizing the reassuringly redundant safety features and perfecting a sturdy knot like we were trying to earn merit badges. I obsessed over making sure my harness was as tight as it would go and repeatedly applied chalk to my hands as quickly as I could sweat it off. Finally, my friend was secured to her post as belayer, anchored to the floor as an added layer of reassurance in the highly unlikely event of a practical demonstration of Newton’s Third Law. All of my methods of stalling were spent, and I gingerly made my first attempt at the dreaded Baby Wall. What followed was an exponential progression fitting of a children’s book, which went approximately as follows:
On my first try, my limbs tremored in protest of my act of defiance against nature. I made it up about five feet before losing my nerve, running out of miraculous, grip-augmenting chalk, and hugging the wall with an alarmed expression until I was belayed down by my friend and the patient trainer.
On my second try, I absconded up the wall with the chalk bag—much to my friend’s chagrin—and was surprised immediately at the marked decrease in my shivering. Having survived the previous attempt, I climbed with slightly more confidence in the process. I cleared another five feet before maneuvering my way into a dead-end, my arms and legs sprawled too far outward to continue up. After a confusing back-and-forth with my friend (“Are you ready?” “Are YOU ready?” “Are YOU ready?!”) I descended again, beginning to feel my fear being replaced by eager anticipation.
On my third try, I climbed to my previous milestone by rote, tentatively testing the most perilously small grip holds which opened up several new paths to me. I took inspiration in the mantra of a certain persevering locomotive. And then I looked down, and my resolve left me. I returned to earth and reasoned that I had far surpassed my self-set goal, and could feel proud of myself—or proud enough, anyway. My friend and I then made a half-hearted attempt at the auto-belay wall, where I cursed my 5’2” frame as I leapt at the frustratingly low overhang and bounced off ineffectually to drift slowly to the floor.
As my friend and I made our way to the front of the gym to return our harnesses, we crossed paths with the Baby Wall once more. My attempts to rationalize leaving it incomplete were fruitless. I couldn’t go, not yet. I had unfinished business. I exchanged a look with my friend and swiftly prepared to make one more attempt. As I stood stoically at the base of the wall, bracing myself, my friend encouraged me to climb out of spite, as a mighty and enthusiastic one-finger salute to authority figures who have questioned my ability to overcome challenges.
I took a moment to let this sentiment sink in, and asked my friend for an estimate of the wall’s height. The number surprised me and took me back in time to this past summer, when a braver me had launched off of a cliff and into Saguaro Lake as a crowd of benevolent frat-guy types cheered. I had literally jumped from higher.
With the smirk of an action hero, I told my friend exactly that, and took to the wall—allowing Summertime Daisy to lead the way. No trembling, no obsessive re-chalking, no looking down. As I passed my previous record, a mad grin worked its way to my face. And before I knew it, I had made contact with the highest rock on the wall. I sailed down again, crowing with joy at having surmounted this trial.
The next time I returned to the climbing gym, I promptly flew up that first wall within moments of putting on the harness—just to prove I could—before moving on to try higher and more difficult walls. I have many more challenges to overcome, but I know that with patience for my limits and a good blend of stubborn spite and cheery optimism, I will continue to reach new heights—an apt metaphor for many other facets of life, if there ever was one. I believe I understand now why humanity loves to climb. Not just because it’s there, but because we can.