Why I climb.

I climb because it gets me out of my element. I have to completely give up control, and put my life in the hands of someone whom I must totally trust.

In order to climb, I also need to accept that I must assume responsibility for myself and my body. I have to keep moving, and must continue to direct my feet, hands and body no matter how scared, nervous, tired, thirsty and/or hungry I may be. Climbing is not a jolly ride through the meadows. When you climb, you do the work and make it happen for yourself; you become alive with the beautiful nature around you.

On Feb. 20, I did my very first alpine climb. I started to climb with Stephen Kochwith whom I have learned from how to tie a figure 8 knot and rock climb, to how to self arrest and negotiate different kinds of ice. How to pack a bag, what to bring, how to train and mentally prepare for it. I felt confident that I could handle whatever came my way, since I had already a few rock and ice climbs under my belt, and knew more or less what to expect. Or so I thought.

We hiked for 2 hours to reach a frozen lake, which we crossed, and then went through a snowy boulder field to approach the gully which we were going to climb. It was cold, but I was comfortable. I had done all of those types of hiking before, so it did not seem like a big deal. The ice field (lake) was a first, but it was so beautiful, I was excited to be on it.
Finally we reached the gully. We put on our crampons, harnesses and helmets on, roped up, and started our accent. It was cold, so we were both climbing with our down jackets.

I felt comfortable with the ice, but was not prepared for the cold, wind and snow that constantly blew on my face. I hurt, and it went on for so long that later that night, and even today, when I'd close my eyes I'd see and feel the snow coming at my face. My hands became cold, my feet became cold. I wasn't so comfortable anymore. I had to stop to swing my feet to warm them up so my toes would not get frost bite, and had to swing my hands constantly. I had to swing hands and feet during other ice climbs, so it felt familiar to me. But the incessant snow and wind was definitely a new challenge, and really started to get to my spirit. 

I guess when people talk about exposure to the elements, that is what they are referring to. Climbing in itself, yes, challenge, workout, some risk of banging yourself here and there, but safe and fun. The elements, on the other hand, added a whole new dimension to the challenge. I kept on looking up and thinking "that is it, that is the end, there is beautiful clear ice at the top, there is sun at the top". But the higher I went, the colder it got, and the wind would just not let up. It came from under me, and blew up into my face and made it difficult to lift my head to look where I was going. I had to keep hiding my face from the blows of snowy wind I kept getting. All of a sudden, even a task as easy as unscrewing an ice screw that Stephen had put in to hold us in the ledge of a pitch became so difficult that I just started to cry. My fingers were cold, I had a hard time clipping the biners to my harness, I was by myself. Well, I think the crying lasted about 5 seconds. It let out desperation and frustration yes, but it did not do much else. It didn't get me warmer, or out of there either upwards or downwards. So I made the decision to stop crying, leave the damn biner there with my fear, and continue upwards with the rest of the biners and guts I did have. Call it getting angry, or guts, or determination, I was just happy to have made the decision to keep going. And finish.

So I did get to the top, and was exhilarated. But I quickly realized that the top was not what I expected it would be. I had painted this whole picture in my head, full of details and colors; I had this idea that I'd finally see a little warm sun at the top, and that we would just hike (waltz) down the mountain. Well, the reality was that the wind was only stronger at the top, there was no sun, and I was cold.

My mind then became tired, and I just wanted it to be over. I did not feel like eating, the food was freezing, and I had to force myself to eat it. Even the mini Snicker bars, my little consolation prize, were frozen solid, or at least they felt like it- I guess my face was cold enough that my jaws weren't working too well. My knees were shaking, and for the first time my whole body felt cold, which is not a good feeling. But at least, I told myself, we will now start descending, walking and getting warmer. I can walk, I am ok.

We start walking, and the snow is waist deep. It took so much energy to take a step, I started to lose my spirit. The interesting thing is, Stephen only became more alive, and in the moment. He quickly decided that walking in waist-deep snow wasn't going to cut it, got the ropes out, and got us ready to rappel down. I remembered a good friend of mine telling me how terrified she was of rappelling, and could only smile inside as I realized why. I was rappelling either on icy and slippery rock, or on deep snow where I kept sinking. I had a hard time controlling where I was going. My heart was thumping, I felt nauseous and cold. I thought "forget about rappelling on my feet, I am tired and I'm just going to slide on my side". Quickly realized I was just going to get banged up on the rock. I just had to tell myself: "stand up in your feet, keep going".

I was afraid of being stuck in the mountain overnight. I don't know why that was the only thought crossing my mind (maybe I've watched too many movies), but I had to negotiate it by telling myself "ok, we are half the way down; ok I see the boulder field now; ok we see the lake now". One step at a time, focusing on one goal at a time. That helped.

But not for long. Every time I thought we were done, I was still just as cold, facing yet another new challenge. We had to slide down on our butts, following the paths that the mounds of snow formed when pushed down by our weigh, but having to control the fall to be able to stop and not go over and land my face on a rock or branch. Then a bit of down climbing on icy rock. Then snow-covered boulders, which scared me with the big black holes in between them. Every time I'd groan, only to instantly realize it was just a waste of breath, because after every groan I still had to figure out where to put my hands and feet, and keep moving. I guess it was always the result of thinking and expecting: "I'm done", instead of just watching for the next step, and changing my head conversation to "what now?" Keeping my head clear.

We finally got to the lake. There I slipped and fell. I felt incredibly nauseous, and that I was going to collapse. But again, that did nothing good for me, so I just had to acknowledge the thought, and keep putting one foot over the other until I finished crossing the damn lake.

It was now dark. But we were on land! And finally hiking! I needed to pee, I was tired, I was hungry. But I had hiked in the dark before, so I felt confident again in something familiar.

That is when you realize how much is just in your head; how you choose to see a situation, and what your mantra is. When I thought I'd be done, I had the energy to walk in the dark for another 2 hours."This is ok", and it was ok. "I will do it, one step at a time" and I did it.

I feel now so incredibly happy and empowered about what I accomplished. All the thoughts, realizations, actions. They made me stronger in my head, and more confident and at peace with myself. It's a great state of mind to be in. Let go, and be in the moment. That is why I climb.

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