Monday, July 31, 2006


three years ago, i went rappelling and rock climbing and caving and tubing, each of them all for the first time, all in a single day. it was brilliant, and i think did more to help me find who i am than anything.

here's what i wrote the day after:

Beautiful skerry

At the top of the rock’s steep face, I looked out across nearly a mile of visibility of the New River as it wended toward me and then away again, falling over the rapids. People in innertubes landed on the gentle skerry, basking in the sun before descending the rapids, the rocks part of the same ridge which rose so high above them once out of the river, on which I now perched. I was wholly fetched with the view. The people were small, but not tiny. It was a perfectly good rock face, a delightful spot for something mundane, perhaps a picnic by day or star gazing by night. It was a perfectly good rock face.

It seemed a shame to jump off it.

The river wasn’t there to catch us. We had climbed and at points scrambled (I did more scrambling than the others, I’ll warrant), up this beautiful rocky ridge, this piece of it called Fool’s Face. It was a face indeed, one which angled back under itself at the outcropping. I loved being up there. I wasn’t so thrilled at the idea of going over the edge.

Granted, we had rappelling ropes, and people who had done this before, and I signed up to do this. I really wanted to just slip so easily over the lip of the rock, balancing my weight on a single rope, held by a harness of a strap knotted in bizarre and intimate configuration about my hips. "Call out: ‘Rope One, Ready To Rappel,’"he told me. I could hear the title case, and I opened my mouth to repeat the words, innocent enough as they seemed. But my throat simply closed up, not willing to lie. I wasn’t. I wasn’t ready to rappel. I wasn’t ready at all. I wasn’t ready.

"What if I accidentally let go with my right hand?" I asked. Aaron looked at me, all calm as he leaned back into his harness, one hand resting lightly on the rope securing him to the top of the face, only the arches of his feet balancing delicately on the sharp edge of the rock preventing him from plummeting down and down. "You won’t." The quiet certainty of his voice, calm as a spring breeze and as soothing, did little to shed the images of leaning over the Dominion Tower decades ago, of dark thoughts on dark nights at the overlook at the star, or all the times I had ever confused left and right, and all the times I had ever dropped anything. Ignoring the parade of my own clumsiness going along in my mind, I scooted backward on my knees again toward the lip. I got closer to the edge this time before the survival instinct sent images my way once more, my mind a mute, passive receiver of all the reasons I really should find anything else to do.

I sat back and faced him again. "I’m scared." I looked into his face through my sunglasses, as honest about anything as I had ever been. The calm blue sky received the clouds drifting across its canvas, nearly apace with the current lapping along, just behind his shoulders. He seemed more a part of the world which framed him than of anything remotely related to my swiftly beating heart and swirling thoughts. "It is scary." I was surprised not to hear anything other than recognition in his voice. No shrugs, no dismissal, nothing other than naming something for what it is. "This is the hardest part. And we can take all day if that’s how long it takes. Or we can turn it around and not do it." That calmed me down. He told me about John with the rope at the bottom, acting as a belay. He told me he would go down with me, right next to me. The rush in my ears was gone as he looked at me. "It’s really just whenever you find enough gumption to go over. Take all the time you need." With all the patience of a glacier, he rested, looking at me, leaning back against the lip. I wasn’t convinced he wouldn’t be able to fly if he chose to.

Oh hell. I’m sort of known for gumption.

The face bit and grabbed back at my handhold as I slipped over the edge, then let go with my left hand altogether, bumping, sliding, gliding down the rope, the face slipping away under itself until I couldn’t even push it with my feet. The stone was beautiful, impervious and austere as the wind caressed me, the world dropping away and all its cares with it, an oasis of stillness enveloping me where only the face, the rope and my suddenly-comfortable harness cradled my body. I wasn’t convinced I wouldn’t be able to fly if I chose to.

The ground found me, disappointed me as I let go of the rope and found Aaron looking at me, a smiling question all over his delighted, no-quite-smug face. "That was wonderful." I handed him the rope after I loosened my eight from it. [all these new terms and words: eights, belays, 'biner; it’s all really about not dying. And about living on your own terms.] It was wonderful indeed.

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