Don’t Look Down

By Sarah Vehrs

I take a deep breath and realize I am stuck.

My heart beats out of my chest as panic starts to set in and I desperately try to regain control of my thoughts.

What have I gotten myself into? My hands are slipping! Don’t look down, don’t look down… oh my gosh, why did I look down?

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My mental focus is nowhere to be found as I over grip a piece of metamorphic rock, my knuckles white and my palms sweating. This only causes my hands to feel even more strained and I realize I’m not going anywhere because my feet aren’t moving. I am hanging 60 feet off the ground doing a type of climbing called top-roping.

Don’t worry, I’m attached to a rope and, if I fall, there’s someone on the ground who will catch me. But I’m still pretty rattled─I’m no Alex Honnold.

Moments ago, I was laser-focused, climbing up the face of this bumpy rock surface until I got stuck in the crux—the hardest part of the climb. Now, I’m going nowhere, thinking about how the wind might just blow me right off the wall.

There I go again. FOCUS!

Sweat starts beading on my forehead, making my blonde hair stick to my face. I reach back slowly with my right hand and locate the chalk bag attached to my harness. I chalk up my right hand to help my grip. Then I slowly switch hands and chalk up my left hand.

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I begin to regain my confidence. I feel my body relax and my heart beat regain a normal pitter-patter in my chest.

Okay, I just need to get my feet higher.

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With a clear head, I realize what I need to do. I see a variation in the rock that I might be able to step onto and I go for it. I swing my right leg up so high, it’s almost above my head.

My heal catches a divot in the rock and I shift my weight into it so I can bump my right hand up.

Got it! Smooth sailing from here.

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Clearly, I’m in my “crushing” shoes. That’s what I call them anyway. My climbing shoes are one size too small, laced up as tight as they can go and they help me step onto the smallest of cracks in the wall. Not to mention, they make me feel invincible.

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I climb the last few feet, elated when I reach the top. I’m so proud of myself finally completing my first outdoor climb. I feel like a total badass.

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The wind blows and it takes my hair for a spin. I’m on top of the world.

Standing at the top of this mountain, I am able to see the landscape blooming with new life. I see wildflowers and plants that you only get at the beginning of Spring and it makes me smile. I’ve never felt this level of satisfaction before, and I’m proud of myself for pushing through the climb. I’m rewarded by the beauty of nature outstretching in front of me for miles.

A familiar feeling awakens in me, it starts with a light fluttering in my chest and makes me feel so alive. It’s the same feeling that keeps me coming back despite the torn-up hands, sore muscles and my inability to keep my nails painted for more than a couple days.

Years later, with much more experience under my harness, there are many things I’ve come to love about climbing. Each climb is like a puzzle. You have to figure out how to shift your body and what techniques you need to get up the wall. It’s a complicated dance that lies somewhere between physical and mental perfection.

And this process is different for everyone. No one climbs exactly the same.  

I love the way each climb pushes you past your fears and doubts. There’s nothing as satisfying as working on a route for days, or even weeks, before finally achieving it.

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