Lessons Learned While off the Ground
Wind whips across my cheek making my delicate position seem more precarious. It feels like a maelstrom compared to the enjoyable breeze I experienced on the hike to the base of this sea of granite. I glance over to spot a weakness in the rock. My hip cramps as I hike my left leg up and stab desperately towards a small edge.
A few hours prior, this edge was of no importance to me. I was not even aware of the existence of this small grey seam. Now, in the present moment, nothing else matters. A few miles of hiking and scanning over the topo maps of the wall did not promote any conversation about this fold. Even studying the pitch by pitch breakdown did not leave me thinking twice about it. The duality of present moment focus neighboring a huge amount of awareness creates a fire and ice reaction that I find incredibly addicting. Weeks of planning, watching the weather, reading trip reports, and the expectations created during the approach all clear like a heavy fog as soon as your feet leave the ground. Nothing else in my experience brings life's duality so close to the surface. However, this partnership provides a glimpse to the dualism I find in the rest of the world. Loneliness and companionship. Rich and poor. Depression and elation. Good and evil.
The left foot opens up a realm of possibilities. It provides access to a myriad of handholds. A calming assurance flows through me as I drive off the foothold up to a large shelf in the rock. In a moment, the the importance of the foot will have disappeared from my consciousness. This progression and flow of time reflect the movement that happens in our life. Movement is inescapable. We may drag our nails and stamp our feet, but movement happens nonetheless. The sages among us have learned not to fight it, but to harness it like a skilled sailor does with the wind.
The next handhold looks promising. I twist my hips and hug close to the wall to maximize my reach. My fingers find greasy polished rock. My stomach turns and I am airborne. The indifference of the rock actual comes as a comfort to me, once again a parallel to the rest of life. The mountain does not decide when to unleash an avalanche. A storm cell does not wait until you reach the crux pitch to erupt in a thunderstorm. The hold did not shrink in size and become greasy during my moment of need. The only force that I can pilot is my own
I pull my weary body to a small ledge. I spend a brief moment locating several cracks and then dig through my gear to find the appropriate piece of protection. The rope feels heavy as I pull up slack to the belay. Normally, belays feels like a safe haven. The difficulty of the pitch below has been conquered. The ledge and equalized anchor mean protection until the next push into the unknown. My mind and body take a brief rest as I belay my partner up. However, despite the rest and safety there is always one belay where I feel so lost. I want nothing more than solid ground. I want my harness to be hanging in my gear closet instead of chafing my waist. I want a cheeseburger.
As more and more slack piles across my lap, the impending certainty of the next pitch grows. In that moment, I want escape. There is so much work ahead, so much work that has already been done. I want to quit. My partner reaches the ledge, jarring about the quality of movement in the last pitch and his elation to have arrived at the station. I gaze at the next pitch, check my knot, sigh heavily, and begin moving upwards yet again. This feeling is one that comes all too often in life. The things we love and that make us come alive can easily be viewed as a chore minutes later. The wear and tear of life can corrode our greatest treasures, but, only if we let it
Everything just flows. My head and emotions have re-centered themselves. Instinct takes over and moving up this sheer rock face has become as easy as floating downstream a gentle river. The original difficulty I felt in leaving the belay ledge has become completely unfounded. Such is the case in the rest of my life. Shedding off the wear and tear and hindrances is one of the things at the core of the human element. Often this does not resemble an act of hero, rather, it looks more like someone rolling out of bed. However, before you can blink we are off the floor and wide awake. Taking this "first step" becomes easier after repeatedly going through this process.
The sun is barely starting to touch the pines on the ridge to the west of the summit. I stare out. Both the awareness and focus can rest. Movement keeps going despite my accomplishment, and despite my feeling of rest. The mountain does not feel conquered, nor does it applaud my labors. Everything is done, and it was done for it's own sake. This is perhaps my favorite thing about climbing and perhaps something that draws me towards writing. There is no prize, fame, or any other form of rewards. There are lessons learned and memories made. These are the reasons I climb. These are the reasons that I write. These are the reasons that I love. These are the things worth living for.
---Keith Erps is one of our ambassadors on loan to the Pacific Northwest for an undetermined amount of time. While there he likes to ride bikes, climb mountains, and drink really good coffee.