The hot spring air bristles through my hair, the sun peering over the sky cloudless. I listen to the windy tumult surrounding me as I’m wedged between sandstone rock walls on each side. I am hundreds of feet above the desert canyon ground. I haven’t placed any protective gear in what seems at least 20 feet. If I fall, I will likely be severely injured or die. The immutable grounds of the Earth will swallow my soul with naught a hiccup.
I know this, of course, and I push aside the ever-present sense of fear. Moving again, I ascend through the mud chimney for what seems like infinity. My mind reasons: Hand…foot…hand…foot…keep the core engaged…pull smoothly…lock your fingers on that edge. Soon the wind picks up cooling the beading sweat on my neck; I know I’m close to the end of the pitch. The belay ledge should be just a few feet up ahead.
I pull my body out of the crack and spot the anchors, right past a wide but jump-able chasm. If I clip in to the anchors, I will be safe; my climbing partner below me will be safe when he ascends. But the chasm grows wider, filling with my uncertainty. The howling wind rips uncontrolled as I hesitate to jump across.
I haven’t placed gear in over 30 feet. If the piece below me was placed properly, I will fall 30 feet to the gear and then another 30 feet before the rope catches my fall. I’ll probably be dead from impact to surrounding rock before the rope ever feels my weight.
Still, I jump. No prayer for my fate. My feet touch the landing in sequence and I exhaustedly saunter to the anchors. I clip in, I’m safe. Five seconds pass, the wind still howling, the sun still beaming. I tug a section of rope into my hands and begin to form a knot so I can belay my partner during his ascent.
The adrenaline coursing through my body has subsided. Taking its place is dread. My hands weave and unweave rope, fumbling to create the right knot. My mind races: how do I tie this damn knot? How can I forget the one knot I am supposed to know? How am I supposed to finish this route if he can never climb up safely?
I peer over the ledge looking to lock eyes with my partner, and fail. I scream for help but the wind swallows my calls. Returning to the anchors, I realize I am the only one I can count on. I control my fate. Focusing keenly, my hands clasp the rope once again. I breathe deeply.
To my bliss, I loop the right knot. I give the rope a tug and signal to my climber: I’m ready.
With another two pitches remaining, I climb with an aware confidence. I control the challenge and its attached risk and consequence. Each move I make chisels away a bit of my fear. Yes, I will likely die if I fall, but I am also the one who made the choice.
Only after descending the route do I realize how close I was to death. The best protection was my ability to not fall. Even better protection would have been to not climb that route at all. Sometime after I climbed that day, my life’s dogma changed dramatically.
Immortality succumbed to a conscious awareness. Reckless decisions became carefully considered choices. I’m still learning to caution the over-eager adrenaline-junkie. But now, I willingly control rather than naively encourage. Fear is not inherently good or bad. It should be sensed acutely and moderated sensibly.
But an ant in the presence of Earth’s wonders.