"I was, in fact, homesick for wildness, and when I found it I knew how intimately - how resonantly - I belonged there. We are charged with this - all of us. For the human spirit has a primal allegiance to wildness, to really live, to snatch the fruit and suck it, to spill the juice." - Jay Griffiths, Wild: an Elemental Journey

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wild Falling

Last night, I took a class on lead climbing.  Thus far, I have only been top-roping.  The difference is that in top-roping, you climb attached to a rope that is attached to an anchor the top of the route (hence the name).  Your belayer takes in slack in the rope as you climb, safely pulling you up the wall.  If you fall, you simply sit into your harness and go nowhere.  There is really no danger - except the mental one we often create.

In lead climbing, the climber sets the route as they go.  There is no anchor at the top.  The belayer feeds rope to the climber as they climb up.  The climber clips the rope in to set points along the route, basically building mini-anchors as they go.  If you fall, you can potentially fall very far, even to the ground, depending on where you are on the route, and how skillfully your  belayer catches you.  Falling is even dangerous as a belayer in lead climbing, because when your climber falls, you are pulled off the ground and both of you dangle in mid-air.


As part of this exhaustive, three-hour class, we practiced falling.  Yikes.  We  climbed up to a certain point on the wall, at which point our instructor told us to stop, briefed our belayer on how to brake our fall as safely as possible with the rope, and then told us to fall.  Like, on purpose.

I volunteered to fall first so I could get it over with.  As I reached the point about 3/4 of the way up the 45' wall, I heard the instruction to stop and wait until it was time for me to fall.  As I clung to the plastic, chalked-up holds, I could hear the mumble of my instructor giving directions to my novice lead belayer down below, and I thought, this is crazy.  He has never done this before.  I'm about to let go of all four limbs on this wall and free fall for an unknown amount of time, hoping that some dude I just met will do the catching thing right and I won't end up on my head.

And then I yelled, "falling," and let go.

The fall was quite a bit longer than I expected.  I was told that I fell about six feet before coming to a stop.  Hanging from the wall, my heart still beating into my throat, my instructor told me to climb back up to where I was, and then a bit further.  I asked, "Why?  Shouldn't he just lower me from here?"

"No," the instructor laughed.  "Now you're going to take a real fall."  Oh god.

I climbed back up as directed, even past my last stopping point.  This time, I fell ten feet.  It was even scarier.  But I noticed that the fear was all in the anticipation and the free fall itself.  As soon as I felt my body catch and I knew I wasn't going to hit the ground, I felt instant relief.

I tried to explain this feeling to my instructor.  After the second fall, he asked, "How was it?"

I said, "It was really scary while I was falling, because I had no sense of being held, like when I fall while top roping.  I had no idea how long I would fall.  But as soon as I came to a stop, I was like, oh, that wasn't so bad."

He laughed again and said, "Yeah, it's kind a like diving into a deep pool of unknowingness."

And that's when I was reminded of why I do stuff like this.  Diving into "unknowingness" on the climbing wall is like practice for doing it in life.  I am about to undertake one of the greatest times of unknowing in my life - when I leave my secure job, all my friends, and most of my belongings to head west.  I don't know where I'll live.  I don't know when I'll find another job, or if I'll find another job, or if I even want to find another job.  I don't know when I will run out of money.  I don't know if the truck will hold up through the journey.  I don't know whom we will meet along the way or what adventures we will have.  I don't even know what I don't know.

What I do know, is that in life, just like on the wall, my fall will eventually be caught.  I may fall into unknowing for seven feet, or ten feet, or even more, but at some point, I will stop.  And then I will say, "Oh, that wasn't so bad."  In fact, I will probably say, "That was awesome!  Let's do it again!"

I could choose to play it safe.  I could only do what is familiar and comfortable.  I could stick with top roping, so I won't have to worry about those scary lead climbing falls anymore.  I could stay here in Maryland, because I know my surroundings and my life is pretty routine and predictable.  But I would miss that thrill of the fall, and I would miss the satisfaction of knowing what I am capable of.

So sometimes in life, even when it seems like we have perfectly safe things to hold on to, we can practice letting go.  You never know where you will end up!


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