“I can’t do it!” she cries.
Who is she talking to? To us? To herself? To the hollow space between distant huecos? Another check on my belay device: locked.
“I’m with ya!” I yell, trying to send my focused breath through the taught rope extending from my belay device. Her legs quake and she sends a shiver back down to me. I steady it in my hands. I’m holding her fear, her doubt, her life’s worth of hesitation.
“Breathe,” a grounding voice exhales into the October air, and the wall absorbs all echo.
An hour previous, fifteen ladies, mostly strangers, approach the dusty crag and circle between sage and juniper. The agenda is to climb some tacky Smith Rock tuff with the guided assistance from She Moves Mountains. Finally! A day at the crag with just the girls! I am especially excited for the day because the organization Wild and Weightless is co-hosting, and there will undoubtedly be some juicy discussion on body image and how the outdoors can be a healing space, particularly from our perspective as women.
I sit on the dry earth with my elbows propped against my bent knees. I find comfort in the warmth of my down jacket and how it conceals the rolls of belly fat that come together underneath it all. I don’t like this part of my body: don’t like it to be seen, or touched, or thought about. As our guides set up top ropes we share around the circle. I express these painful insecurities. When it all comes cascading out, I have nothing else to say… the silence that lingers behind it is painfully raw.
“Me too,” she says. Relief. I am not alone.
Too big, too small, too tall, too much! Our insecurities pour out like ankle deep scree down the mountainside. The collective heart opens so wide that each woman has more to share about their bodies than we have time to explore. I take a moment to look around at all of these ladies: vulnerable—but confident, brave, and humble. Are these not the qualities that we should take with us on the wall every time we climb?
Feeling powerfully exposed, I slip into my harness. A high wind moves the clouds around until the sun burns through and I confidently remove my puffy. I tie my eight, follow through, and go over the safety checks that our guides have just demonstrated for us. Ready to rock climb! Almost.
I close my eyes. When I step onto the wall I am choosing to expose myself to the unpredictable and undiscriminating playground that Mother Nature provides. Taking a deep inhale, I remind myself of the risk I am subjecting myself to both physically and emotionally. A flush of fear pumps hot blood into my fingertips. I may fall, or worse, be too scared to fall. Everyone will be watching me struggle. I’m afraid my weakness will be a circus show of desperation.
While fear is a powerful presence, I break a smile, remembering that love has brought me here. A crest of gratitude overwhelms all my doubts, and with a style refined by grace and patience, I climb.
I climb like I am weightless: like a vine to the sunshine. My movements are motivated by curiosity to explore the obstacles of the rock specific to my own body. There are no comparisons of body size or appearance, just opportunity to create a unique bond between myself and the wall. That bond grows as the ground gets further away. When I look down at the hollowing space between myself and the ladies below I find myself as naked as ever. It’s a shameless kind of naked.
Sweat leaking through the chalk on my fingertips, I become aware of what real physical insecurity feels like. All of my weight is intricately balancing on the tips of my toes and fingers. Any slip of the foot or lack of judgment could eject me off this rock. Or the rock itself could pop off. My mind’s eye skips to a scene where my foothold tears off its conglomerate to rage into the uncertain arms of gravity alongside all the weight of my blood, muscle, skin, and bone.
I snap back to reality. My anxiety shifts from how my body looks to how it can provide me the strength I need to move up this wall.
A high foot would do here, I think to myself – I may have even said it out loud. At 5’2” I am always looking for the convenience of small crimps and high feet. But I see nothing. I begin a desperate exploration of previously chalked holds. Squeezing a sharp, thin pinch in my left hand, I paw for relief on my right. My elbows chicken wing, I’m losing my grip. Searching helplessly for a way out, I’m losing control.
I look down at my last bolt—it’s a safe fall but still not a comfortable one. I start weighing my options, of which there are only two: I can fall, or I can take an insecure stab at the jug rail just out of reach. One thing I can’t do is stay here, paralyzed by fear, taken by the terror of my own making. I want so badly to have control over my body and every move I make on the wall, but climbing is far more cryptic than that.
I am going to have to trust – that no matter what I look like I will be loved, that if I gain ten pounds I will still be invited and respected. I can only have so much control over my appearance, my diet, what my friends think about me, who I will fall in love with. The magic is in the mystery. I am going to have to go for it and trust the hold is good.
“C’mon!” she calls out, and I punch through the pollution of panic inside me, driving up and out toward the unknown.
This is the moment when a woman comes out of her comfort zone: out of her house, out of her family, out of her mascara, her jewelry, her impossible spanx… There is no confinement for the wild and nasty woman who gives herself openly to the wonder of the mountain. The wall becomes the public sphere for the naked shape to form movement through curious and intimate adventure: the kind of adventure that reestablishes our bodies as a part of the whole, not one that is peeled away to be refined, disguised, and judged.
“Hell yeah, Sarah!” I hear them celebrating, “Stuck it, girl!”
“Yeeeeehaw!” I explode with laughter and liberation and assess the situation. At this point I’m well above my last bolt—a scary distance, actually. But all the fear has rinsed out of me and I climb the rest of the route liberated from anxiety. I reach the anchors bursting with love. Relaxing into the secure seat of my harness, I know that I am so much more – so much more than a little sister, somebody’s ex girlfriend, or a number on the scale. These are the moments that make everything worthwhile. I have power and purpose and they can be realized through all my doubt and insecurities.
As I hold the belay for a woman I only met this morning, I feel as though I have known her my whole life. She is my sister, my mother, my teacher, my child. I know the greener pastures she dreams of and the walls she’s built in front of them.
“I can’t do it!” she calls out again. I sense she is giving up but the ladies beside me won’t have it. I watch as the steady flow of emotional support restores her power, “You can do this! Keep climbing!” they resound.
Resituating her feet ever so slightly, she’s able to reach just a little bit higher, taking just a little more for herself on her journey to be the woman the universe wants her to become. The woman who she wants to become. From fear, through support, she finds the ability to trust the uncertain and move bravely upward and outward.
I am reminded that I am not alone in my fear. The wall I have built to protect the fear in me has only closed me off from opportunities of growth, and today I am tearing that wall down. I want to be vulnerable. I want to challenge fear, climb higher, and feel my body shiver for the thrill of life.