this is pretty good. Its filled with lots of meaning.
Sometimes, I look up at a rock face and wonder if it’s the last thing I’ll ever see. Other times I’m too blind with adrenaline to see what could happen. I just want to go.
This was one of those times. I had been thinking about climbing this route for a long time, but it’s the type of route with such extreme consequences that everyone tries to turn you away. “Don’t do it, Sam,” they said. My parents brought up the rate of free soloing deaths per year. It’s insane. You’d be crazy to try that was something I heard many times, in many different forms. But they didn’t understand: I needed to do this. If that made me crazy in the minds of people who didn’t understand, I could live with it. But the mountains were calling, and I had to go.
Only my best friend supported me fully. “I’m not saying it won’t be hard,” Dakota said. “But my God, if you send this... It’ll be fucking legendary.”
‘Send’ is climber slang for finish. To send is to climb the route without falling, the ultimate goal for a climber. It’s what I’m aiming to do today.
She’s been saying that from the beginning right to the end. The end is now. It's the actual act of climbing it, something I am so filled to the brim with excitement for that I’ve made myself forget the risk that comes with it. I’m not going to say it isn’t dangerous. The desire to climb and the risk that comes with it are tied together with a pretty little bow.
Free soloing is the most deadly type of climbing. In other types of climbing, ropes and harnesses are used keep you from shattering against the ground. In free soloing, you climb with nothing. You climb high enough to tell your parents you love them every time you go out.
But I want this, and I know it, the pull to climb coursing through me as I glance up at the wall. I’ve free soloed easier climbs before, but sometimes it feels like they were all done in preparation for this one. Like I’ve been waiting for something, waiting for this. This route is fabled: climbers who send this aren’t people, they’re legends. I have always wanted to be one of them.
I don’t consider this route extremely difficult. It isn’t very long, and there while there are hard moves, they aren’t sustained throughout the whole route. The mental part is the challenging aspect. The crux, or hardest part of the route, is on a steep overhang, one that forces you to look down. It’s high. When I talked to the two people who had climbed it before me, that was the part they warned me to watch out for. The mental strength to push back the fear is the most imperative thing to have going into the climb.
I look away from the wall, glancing up at the sky. It’s a great day for it. The sky is clear and bright blue, not too hot, with a breeze blowing through the trees surrounding the rock. It’s just early enough into fall that the first leaves are changing, creating a faint orange canopy above my head. The branches, high above me, rustle in the wind. Soon, I’ll be above those trees. I push that thought from my head, quickly running a hand through my hair.
I’m not scared, I say to myself. I frown for a second. I’m lying already.
Fear of falling looms on the horizon like the rising sun, always in your line of sight. I’ve never fallen before, but there’s a part of me that’s always wondered. There’s a part of me that has always asked the what if.
And with the fear of falling comes the fear of death, because this is free soloing and everything is fatal. That fear is inevitable and certain and in a way it’s rational because death is always a constant, always there. Everytime I free solo I look it straight in the face. I hold my own mortality as I climb and to me that pressure is almost too much, too heavy. I could die at any minute when I climb and that is utterly terrifying.
Despite my fear, I only feel truly at home on the wall. The rock calms me down and clears my mind, solid in nature and in the fact that it has been here for thousands of years and it will continue to be here years after I’m gone. In terms of the lifetime of this huge rock face, my climb takes only seconds. It is insignificant. Something about this takes the pressure off, for me. It has been here for thousands of years and it will continue to exist even if I don’t finish this. Rocks were not made for climbing. It was the boredom of man that drove us to desire the sky.
I look over at Dakota, whose face is shaded by the pines. It’s a little too cool in the shade, but on the wall I’ll be warmed by the sun and the ache in my muscles. Dakota is only one with me today, which is something I wanted. Her presence calms me. She smiles, pushing back her long braided hair, and I’m reassured temporarily. It’ll be ok. It’ll go well, just like every other time.
I’ve climbed this before, over and over. Every Saturday leading up to today, Dakota and I have blown off our homework, grabbed the keys to my older sister’s Jeep, and driven out to the rock. It’s a half hour hike in, on a small muddy trail surrounded by sequoias and pines, trees so tall you can’t help but feel miniscule. It’s become a ritual now, something that bonds Dakota and I together: we’ve spent every Saturday for the past 6 months doing the same thing, whatever the weather or circumstances or what our parents say we can or can’t do (“Sam, come on, you’ve climbed it every week. You have an essay due!”). Of course Dakota would be here on the day I finally climb it. Honestly, I don’t think I could do it without her.
I’m smiling too now, thinking of our trips. It’s been a great 6 months; I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I’m nostalgic for those times but filled with anticipation to climb, to finally do it. I am almost floating. Something I have looked forward to for so long is finally here.
I am so excited I can almost forget about what happens if I fall.
Something about this moment tinged us with a seriousness, as if we’ve just realized the gravity of what I’m doing. Our eyes meet and I can tell she is feeling the same way I am. We’re silent as I go over the route with my eyes. Too soon, my gaze reaches at the top.
“I’m going,” I say to Dakota, and she looks over at me. In the silence of the moment, with our only soundtrack being the wind in the trees, the words sound strange, foreign. She nods. Her ok is said almost as a whisper.
“Good luck,” Dakota says, and turns away. But just as soon, she’s back, hugging me tightly. “Don’t fall, you idiot,” she mutters into my chest, and then backs away. I try to smile at her. I don’t know how it comes out; hopefully it’s reassuring. I walk up to the wall, place my hands on the start holds. They’re all chalked up (to dry up the sweat and achieve better friction on the wall) and my climbing shoes are on tightly. The moment is here and oh God it feels so good. But it is also tinged with fear.
I turn around. Possibly the last time I talk to Dakota, if I don’t make it. I physically shake my head to get that thought out. We make eye contact, and her blue-grey eyes are solemn, expectant. I can’t imagine how my eyes look. Terrified? I feel they are, but Dakota said later that they looked calm. Ready for anything.
“See you at the top.”
It’s a sudden motion when I start climbing, but once I begin I can’t imagine that I was ever doing anything else. The day is beautiful, the rock solid beneath my fingers, and it’s almost like it sets me free. I feel so alive. My terror is in the background now, and I am left with exhilaration. But even if I was scared to death, I would still climb. You can’t give up something like this.
It’s exactly like it was before. It’s comforting: I’ve done this before. I can do it again.
I go fast, ascending quickly through the moves. Climbing executed with skill has a very precise design, but each move is connected with the fluid movement. It’s an experience to watch a successful climber. It’s as if they have wings, moving up to the sky.
I love free soloing because it allows you to be totally alone. You’re climbing with only your thoughts and the intense desire to get to top. There’s something about being so high up, above it all, alone, that really strips everything from you. You’re rubbed raw of all the things that don’t matter until you are made up of only two emotions: the fear of falling and the utter joy of doing what you can’t live without. And I am sure, totally and utterly, that I couldn’t live without this.
I’m about half up the climb when my foot slips. I’m on two good holds, so I don’t fall. But that one move pulls me out of my relaxed mental space, shatters the walls and lets the fear in. The adrenaline is flowing now. I can’t help but look down.
Shit. I am no longer filled with the confidence I had just moments before. I’m thinking about how high I am. What would happen if I fall. Dakota… I imagine her watching me, 50 feet below, wondering why I’m not moving. I imagine letting go. I see the horror on her face as she watches me fall from the sky.
For the first time, I wish I had a rope. Usually when I climb with a rope, I crave the rush of free soloing. I don’t want to be restricted. But I want a rope now. I don’t want that freedom, the freedom of holding your mortality. Because falling with a rope isn’t fatal. Falling now is, and some part of me wants to try it.
I know that it’s irrational, and I know I’ll die if I let go, but there is something tempting about the pure adrenaline of free fall. I scream in exasperation. The goal is to make it up there in one piece, so why does letting go seem so tempting? I have to snap out of this. I clench and unclench my fingers on the hold and force the thoughts of falling out of my head. I’m sweating and flushed, and it’s ruining my concentration. I need to focus. I need to climb.
I work on my breathing, making sure each breath is even and calm. After a while - it seems like a millenia - my heart rate slows down, though I can still hear it pounding in my ears. I do it - I snap out of it, and start climbing again. It’s hesitant, but I think I can do it. I can get through this.
I’m on the roof now. It’s terrifying, but I push that back. I’m in some outlying mental space now: I don’t feel fear. I feel on top of the world, powerful, not insignificant at all. I feel invincible.
I am out of my comfort zone, no longer held back by my fear, and it feels like freedom.
The wind is in my hair and the rock is cool under my fingers and I would not want to be anywhere else. You just know when you are exactly where you should be; you feel it. In this moment, I can feel it. It’s the sweet pine smell of the trees and the huge rock before me and the cloudless sky and the utter infatuation I have with climbing. This is what I was born to do, I am sure of it. I can’t understand why I wanted to fall only moments earlier. Life is so much more.
I remember a quote I read somewhere, something that really resonated with me: ‘When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump. Otherwise you end up staying in the same place your whole life and that I can’t do.’ This is why I free-solo, why I climb. I keep moving when I am filled with fear because to move even a little bit is better than never moving at all. I climb because when I am on the wall, I am alive. I am experiencing life in full color.
I have one more move before I am at the top. It’s an easy move, described as a crowd-pleaser because to complete it, I have to totally jump, my feet coming off the wall. If there were people watching, this would be the move that makes the people cheer.
I prepare, tense up… and jump. For one short second, I am out from the wall, weightless, flying. It is spectacular.
And then I hit the last hold. I quickly move both hands to it: when both hands are on the finish hold, you have officially sent. No crowd of people start cheering, but below, I hear Dakota.
“YES! Yes Sam! You did it!” I glance down and she’s jumping around screaming, smiling, and I smile too as I climb up over the edge and to the flat part on the top of the rock. I have to hike down to get back to the ground, but I allow myself one moment to reflect. I did it.
I look up at the bright blue sky, down at the solid rock, and I am filled with something that I can only describe as elation. I did it. I climbed the route, and I am on top of the world. Life is filled with small moments like this. That’s what makes it great.
So do it. Climb the route. Kiss the girl. Shout into the void. Just get out there; do something that makes you feel the intense joy that comes with life. I have found that if you love life, it will return the favor. Life will love you back.
I feel that love now, and I feel so, so alive.