The first day I walked into the Philadelphia Rock Gym for my Introduction to Climbing lesson, I walked in to a place where I knew no one, alone. I took a lesson, by myself, that is best shared with a partner. I was shy and nervous and scared. I looked at my feet because avoiding eye contact is my thing. I spoke quietly when my instructor asked questions, unsure of what I was doing, not fully understanding the things he was saying. I felt stupid. That stupid you feel the first time you do anything. That stupid you feel when you think this is awful and you will never get it and it will never makes sense and you will always feel this stupid so you are never doing this again.
Then the instructor tied me to a rope and told me to climb the wall. It was the hardest climb I have ever seen in my life. The wall was a million feet high, the things (*rocks*) I was to use to get up there were the smallest things I had ever seen, and the only assistance I had to get me from the bottom to the top was ME. My feet. My hands. My eyes.
Now, I had been introduced to myself some time back, at the very least I would consider us friends. I knew myself better than she did. And this friend that I knew so very well was about to fail miserably. There was no way she was strong enough or brave enough or courageous enough or smart enough to find her way to the top of that climb. Ten minutes later, she was reaching that last hold with her fingers and turning to stare down at the ground merely 35 feet beneath her. She did it. I did it. I had no idea.
That first time up was scary. Not because I was climbing ever farther from the solid earth I had grown to love so dearly but because tied to that rope, climbing ever farther from the person holding my life in his hands, I was forced to put absolute trust in one thing: ME. At that time in my life, I wasn’t sure if I was worth it or if I wouldn’t just be a horrible disappointment. I had to trust my eyes and feet and hands and it was hard (harder than my Organic Chemistry 2 final examination). The instructor did an amazing (terrifying) thing then; he handed me a blindfold. I had been climbing for a total of 70 minutes of my life and now I was supposed to do it blindfolded?
Do you know what happens when you remove your brains’ ability to make judgements? It’s like trial by fire, only it is trust by fire. Without judgments about the shapes, texture, and sizes of the hand and footholds and my ability to use them properly, I had only to feel with my fingers and toes, choose to trust, and move forward. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when you aren’t telling yourself why you can’t accomplish it before you even try.
That was over 4 years ago.
Before I walked into that gym I doubted my strength, my courage, my beauty. Climbing has taught me about being a woman. A strong, powerful, sexy, beautiful woman.
For a while, I helped run a women’s climbing program at that gym. When I was first asked to step in and help out I thought that I was too new and didn’t have expertise to offer to new women coming in to try out our sport. After the first few weeks it became something I felt really passionate about as I saw more and more evidence that I was not the only woman who walked into that gym doubting strength, courage, and beauty.
During a child’s birthday party one Saturday morning a mother and her sister decided to put on harnesses and climb with the group of women standing around gabbing. Sandyah was very quiet and soft-spoken and as she put on her harness began the self-depracating jokes about her size and her weight and how she, of course, would barely make it off the ground. But I tied her in anyway and said, “Just keep moving your feet and your hands up.” After she reached the top and came back down she was grinning from ear to ear, tears were filling her eyes, and she said astonishedly, “I had no idea that I could do that.” I smiled and we hugged. She never knew that I had uttered the same exact words to myself two years before. Initially, I thought that this was great and obviously she would love climbing and join the gym and I would see her all the time but that didn’t happen. What I learned to hope for instead, for Sandyah and all women who find their “Aha! moment” is that no matter what she does in her life or struggles she encounters or happinesses she receives, I hope she always remembers that she did that thing that time that she had no reason to believe she ever could do and knows that she is stronger than she ever dreamed she could be.
What it means to me to be a woman who climbs is that I am a woman who knows what I am strong enough to accomplish: anything.
I wanted to write this post because Friday:Climbing and also because I will never be able to thank enough the sport of climbing or the people with whom I climb for what it has given me and I can only ever try to share my love with anyone and everyone who will listen and/or read.
And also, also I have a BBF (best blog friend), or only blog friend, in the Philippines that I call Addie. It is exciting that I have a regular reader but more importantly, this blog of mine…this bit of fluff and nonsense has touched her in such a way that she, herself, will be venturing into a climbing gym near her home in the *possibly* near future to try this thing that I love so much. I dearly wish that I could go with her and that we could experience her first time together and possibly calm her fears or explain whatever I can so she doesn’t find herself exhausted and frustrated with the exercise. But I can’t. And maybe that’s a good thing because her experience will be all her own. All I can do instead is share my personal experience, fears, excitement, and pride…and wait to hear what she thinks when she gets back. Climb on, Addie!