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23 Apr 2011

Scaling New Heights

All of you who have fear of heights, please raise your hands. Since you cannot see me, let me tell you that my  hand is raised. It used to be worse before. I used to feel mortified at great heights. 

As part of various life experiences, I ended up in various places where the view from atop was breathtaking. I am a sucker for "views", so much so that when booking my flights I always want a window seat on the side that the flight enters the airport so I can see what it looks like down there, from up, in the aircraft. It was impossible to refuse getting to the top of places that held such awesome views. That was the first hurdle I crossed. I did not mind heights anymore. Only as long as I was within an enclosed glass tower (e.g. Eureka Towers in Melbourne) or on top of a hill (say, Mt. Coot-tha in Brisbane), where I knew I was safe. 

When I planned a trip to Sydney, a friend of mine insisted that I do the famous Bridge Climb. At the time, I was not aware of what it entailed and I let him convince me to go for it. Once I saw the bridge & suited up, it started to hit me that I might not be able to do it. As the group started the climb upwards, I felt less and less confident of being able to do it. At one point, my heart was in my mouth and I found myself thinking, "Karl was right in not doing this. One could just die from the fear". Once the moment had passed, I started to enjoy it immensely. The view all along was stunning. Watching the sunset from where we were, watching the city lights come on one by one and feeling the wind on the face made me forget that I feared heights. Since then, I've recommended the climb to everyone I've met and even managed to convince the afore-mentioned Karl to try it.

Chris Rawlinson gave me the first taste of rock-climbing when a group of 3 boys & 2 girls went to Mt.  Beerwah one weekend. I must have done less than 10m when the rocks, slippery from the light drizzle, started to alarm me. I looked down to tell Chris that I might not make it to the top and froze when I realized what a fall could do to me, from where I was. No harness, no guides, no safety measures here. Pure nature. The mountain, the hard rocks and the naked climb. Fortunately, experienced as he was, Chris guided me down the mountain. Later, watching the guys run up & back down like mountain goats, I felt a bit sheepish... I had barely done a small percentage of the climb they covered. Someday I would try this again, I decided. 

This morning, Sarat & I arrived at the Riverlife office at Kangaroo Point at 8.10AM, for a session of rock-climbing. Having done a few metres on a real mountain and considering the fact that there was an experienced guide to watch us over, I was confident I would be alright. However, that was not to be. Firstly, this was more real than I realized! This was a cliff with real rocks, just like the mountains, but worse in that it was an almost 90 degree incline. I barely made it 5m when I simply could not do anymore and had to be let down. Having a rope around my waist and a partner belaying was absolutely no help to my confidence. I could not get enough hand-holds and my shoes kept slipping. I hated it but I knew I had to give up. Standing stuck on a narrow foothold forever was not helping.

Then it was the turn of Kendra, a tourist from California, who had done some rock-climbing at an indoor gym. She had some initial trouble at the exact location that I had been stuck at but she managed to pull it off and make it to the top. Bravo! In his turn, Sarat scaled a little higher than I had but soon gave up too. I decided to give it another shot. Scrambled up, got stuck at the exact same location. The rock that I was trying to wrap my right leg and hand around was too broad for my height and I absolutely could not hoist myself up. I yelled down to Blair, our guide, that I needed a bit of help lifting up. With a little help from the belay, I conquered it and then there was no stopping anymore. I made it all the way up, just one rock short of the peak. Too excited to have gone that far, I did not even bother to attempt to go to the top, I yelled out to be brought down. I think, just knowing how I could get down using rope if I need to, with the help of the belay, had kept me going. 

I also noticed that once I gained a little more confidence, the hand-holds and foot-holds did not matter that much. As long as I was able to grip the rock for even a few seconds with my palms and shoes, I had the courage to move the body. Getting over that inhibition was the big deal. It felt good. We had paid for 2 hours of rock-climbing, so Blair asked us if we wanted to try the same climb again or another one. Sarat was done in, thanks to all the cricket from the previous day. It was scary business too, rock climbing for first timers. Kendra & I decided to try another climb, a different one. 

I let Kendra go first so I could get a mental picture of the landscape of the rock and also watch her movements. I was still a novice, I was not going to kid myself. The initial bit was hard because the rock seemed pretty smooth but she made it to the top fairly quickly. Then, it was my turn. I slipped about 4 times before I could finally start making progress. Blair offered to help with the first bit but I refused. I was sure I could do it. I took a deep breath and told myself I should not try to hurry. Go slow, go easy, this can be done. Within seconds, I was scrambling up more comfortably. There was again, another particularly uncomfortable rock but by now my body and mind co-operated better. Fear had taken a break. I gingerly placed both feet on the best foothold I could get and put both my hands on a single rock that jutted out, right above my head. I put my head down and hoisted myself up. Once that was done, the rest just happened.

One rock after another, I kept going. It felt great. I did not even believe anymore that I could not do it. I just knew that I could. I hesitated a bit at one point where a tiny stream of water wetted the rocks. I was going to look for an alternative when Kendra called out to not let the water deter me. So, I grabbed a dry part of one of the wet rocks and went on. It was a pleasure to find a flat surface at the top, where I could walk with both feet. After sticking my feet in crevices and balancing on my toes on small foot-holds, this was a great break. I wondered if I should stop because I had come up this far, it did not make a difference whether I made it to the top or not. Kendra yelled out and said to go for it. I remembered how I had not made the peak on the previous climb. I decided I was going to do this one right. So I did. 

When I looked down, my heart skipped a beat. I did not look down for long but I allowed myself another peek. I sucked in a deep breath and turned around, in preparation to get down. I called out to the belay to loosen the rope and let me down. It was exhilarating. I was right there, balancing on small foot-holds, grabbing on to bits of hard rock and looking down... feeling excitement rather than fear. I wish I had taken a moment to enjoy the view around me but that might have been a bit much to ask of a first-timer. 

I might do it again. I might do a naked climb on a real mountain or I might not. I do not know. What I do know is that I am grateful for my inane need to try everything in life and for that streak in me that would rather face the fear headlong than give up.

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