— Local climber finds fear, passion, and perspective in an uppermost place.
They say when you’ve been climbing long enough, eventually you’ll know someone who has died in a climbing-related accident.
I’d been climbing for three years when a co-worker rappelled off the end of his rope. It was dark. The details are unclear, but something went wrong, and the entirety of the rope passed through his hands. The fall was fatal.
In the documentary Valley Uprising, a clip from the 1950s shows a group of climbers, including climbing legend Warren Harding, sitting on the ground outside of Yosemite Valley in California. An interviewer asks the group of grimy-looking climber trash, “Why on God’s green earth do you guys climb mountains?” Harding responds, “Because we’re insane!” and the group bursts into laughter. I wondered how much truth was in this statement. Warren Harding may have been a bit insane, but what about the rest of us?
I’ve been climbing now for eight years and instructing kids for five. I asked Chris Price, my friend and the lead guide at the climbing gym Climbing New Heights (54 General Access Rd., Martinsburg), where I am an instructor, if he ever doubts what we do is essentially good when there’s such a high risk of injury. “Never,” he said. Chris has used sports like climbing and boxing to work through PTSD and substance abuse. Chris told me: “We don’t push down our other emotions—we fight fear, we conquer fear—but,” he asked, “we don’t conquer happiness, do we? Why do we treat fear that way?”
Chris says, too, that with technology today, he has seen climbing take kids into an “otherworldly” state—a mindset that cannot be put into words. Climbing teaches us to embrace our fears. Climber and author John Long wrote in The Trad Climber’s Bible: when you’re climbing, “You can’t just change channels … you are forcibly present by the absence of distractions.”
I can recall being on one climb in particular, a six-pitch, 600-foot route on the South Early Winters Spire in the Northern Cascades (Washington state) with my old climbing partner, Jacob, when I experienced the meditation in focus that Chris and Long describe. After a two-hour hike in the snow to the base of the cliff, Jacob had me tie one end of the rope to my harness, and he tied the other end to his. Sixty meters coiled between us. “Blood pact,” he said. “If I go, you go.”
After about 400 feet of vertical climbing, delicately hanging from the cliff face on a few pieces Jacob placed in a crack, the exposure started to get to me, and I found the umbilical nature of our rope unsettling—there it lay draped across my lap like a dead dog.
Before he started the next pitch, Jacob stopped and pointed at the three-point anchor he had just built. He said, “These are good,” pointing to the two camming pieces in the crack that we were weighting. Then he pointed to the third, loose point: a hex. Hexes are considered passive pieces of protection, because they rely on the direction of pull rather than actively camming in the crack. This particular hex dangled listlessly in the back of a thin flake. He gave it a quick tug, it rattled around, he reset it, tugged again, and it moved less. He said, “I dunno about this one, but, better than nothing,” and shrugged.
When Jacob saw the concern on my face, he calmly pointed out that we didn’t have another option. I knew he was right. We were too high to bail: not enough rope to rappel from that spot. We had to reach the summit and rappel back down the other side. If we were lucky, we might make it back to camp before dark. There was a silence. “Climbing,” he said. I whimpered, “Climb on,” and he started up the unprotected slab pitch.
My heart raced as I watched Jacob’s every foot placement. He moved up. “If I go, you go,” I thought. He moved higher, and eventually, out of sight. Without Jacob’s every move to obsess over, I was alone with my thoughts. I stared at the anchor, but there was nothing to be done about it. I looked down at the valley floor some 700 feet below me. Then, inevitable, it happened: I started thinking about death. Hanging there, I felt like a piñata at Death’s birthday party. Death in the springs of the Camelot. Death in the valley floor. I think about death a lot; my dad has made a few suicide attempts, and my little sister once made an attempt that put her in a coma. I’ve always felt like I was running from death.
I was so afraid in that moment, I thought I would faint. Instead, I reached some sort of threshold. The moment is still so vivid in my head. I have never felt a worse defeat, and yet suddenly, I didn’t feel anything at all. My body relaxed. I breathed. I realized the only responsibility I had left was to climb. In a moment, I had completely embraced my fear, felt it, and accepted it. From then on, there was only one thing left to do, and I was not simply alive and climbing, I was grateful to be.
My friend and climbing partner, Lex Rodgers, having had several moments like the one I had on the Spire, says: “Climbing is the antithesis of apathy. It is the conscious choice to fight. After all is exhausted. You give yourself over to faith, or anything higher you might believe in.”
I see the girls I teach at Climbing New Heights become stronger every week. Not just physically, but mentally. They’ve started going outside to climb every Tuesday with Chris, and they come to the gym to train with me every Wednesday.
Here in the Eastern Panhandle, we are central to a ton of amazing climbing areas. Each week, I ask them where they climbed the night before. I can talk about specific climbs now and they recognize route names. They pantomime the movements of a particular climb; little arms reaching up as if for a hold, recreating the crux in front of me, like the cliff is really there, but clear, and I’m stuck watching from the inside.
My students have been to Balcony in Harpers Ferry, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Annapolis Rock. One week, they came to class and when I asked where they’d been, they said to Great Falls. Another week, to Carderock. “Katie, have you been there?” they ask, and I say, “No, not yet.”
In a few years, they’ll be driving, and eventually they’ll be talking about areas I haven’t heard of, and maybe even developing new places to climb. I resist discouraging them from climbing where the danger is higher, because the truth is, the risk is everywhere. I know it’s only a matter of time before their fears are tangible and they can no longer “change the channel.” I hope they find it not just with climbing, but in everything. Climbing isn’t about conquering fears, adrenaline rushes, or being insane. To climb is to celebrate life and death, to embrace fear, and to be grateful.
— — — — —By Katie Quinnelly