Climbing beyond hurdles and self imposed limitations

Recently, I went rock climbing at Lincoln Park Athletic Club. Kristin Krupa and Paul Eggers taught and led us through the basics of climbing.

I had climbed a wall or two a super long time ago in high school at leadership retreats. I enjoyed the activity and remembered how wall climbing helped build communication skills and trust within the group. Twenty years later, it’s interesting to see my perspective on the activity.

Climbing couldn’t have surfaced at a better time in my life. The hurdles that I encountered on the wall were reflective of what I was dealing with recently in my personal life. Here are some lessons I had encountered:

“Let go.” While ascending the wall, I did not quite catch the next rock that I was stretching to reach. I ended up falling back, swinging on my rope and grasping with both hands for dear life. I was thankful that the belay system worked and was supporting me while I was suspended in mid air. I heard Kristin tell me to let go of the rope, relax my arms and shake out the tension and the lactic acid that was building up in my forearms. I let my right hand go and shook it out. I heard Kristin tell me to let go of both hands. I didn’t even notice that I was still holding on with my left hand. And when I tried to let go initially, I didn’t want to. I had fooled myself into thinking that I had let go, but I really hadn’t. I kinda chuckled at myself at this new discovery and asked myself why I didn’t want to let go of my other hand. I thought I was pretty good at letting go and being open minded, rolling with the flow. I was afraid and was grasping for a sense of security with my other hand. I took a couple of deep breaths and after some hesitation, I peeled open my left hand with my eyes. I finally let go of the rope and shook out my left hand. I noticed how differently I felt with both hands free.

“Have faith. Stretch and extend your reach from firm foundation.” There were a couple of hurdles on the wall that were super difficult for me to overcome. I was grasping tightly onto the rocks with bent arms (instead of conserving energy and holding on with straight arms.) I was muttering “F*ck, F*ck, F*ck. Sh*t” repeatedly in my head. I was scared sh*tless. I didn’t want to let go. I knew that all I had to do was swivel my feet, step onto my toes and push up strongly from my legs and reach. I was afraid that I was going to miss and FAIL. I doubted my ability on whether I could do it. I ran through a myriad of excuses in my head on why I couldn’t do it. I complained to myself that I was too short, and that the wall was set up for a taller person to successfully climb the wall with ease. I criticized myself for not conserving energy intelligently. I doubted whether I could do it because my hands were so tiny and my arms were so weak and tired. Wah wah wah… After much contemplation and grasping, I mumbled, “F*ck it. Have Faith. You can do it.” After another round of expletives, I inhaled deeply, pushed up, stretched, and reached. A couple of times I missed, fell, and I swung on the rope. But I regrouped and tried again. After reaching a certain height, I had butterflies in my stomach and was anxious about how high up I was. I had not expected to run into that kind of fear as I was not one to be afraid of heights. I acknowledged my fear and noticed where I felt it in my body. I allowed myself to feel the intensity without criticizing myself, without dismissing the emotion or without ignoring what I felt. After a couple pauses, the tightness in my body eased, the intensity of fear diminished. When I was ready, I tried again.

“If you miss, try again.  This time it will be less scary.” The first time I missed the rock and fell, I held my breath and held onto the rope really tightly. The next time I missed, I smiled and told myself that wasn’t nearly as scary. I almost had it. The following times I missed, I softly laughed at myself and thought about what to do differently the next time around. I could have told myself how much I suck at climbing, how much upperbody strength I lack, how slowly I’m climbing. Usually, harmful self dialogue takes over and persuades me to think I can’t do it, and that I’m a huge disappointment, a failure. But instead, I focused on where my feet and hands were positioned, where to place them next, focused on my breath, and checked to see if I was enjoying the experience. Usually the practice of self compassion is very difficult for me. I have a hard time accepting where I am right here, right now. I am always thinking of what I am not doing and what I can do better.

This continual process of failing and trying again reminds me of something I heard recently in one of Blanca Aviles’ yoga classes. Try and do the impossible. If you keep trying, the impossible will eventually become possible. And maybe through time the possible will become easy.

“When the going gets really tough, it’s hard to get through the hard parts alone.  Be open to support from your environment and guidance from your friends/peers.” I was ready to give up and throw in the towel. I had made it up 3/4 of the way. I had made a valiant effort and overcame a couple of challenging spots. I learned a lot about myself and was happy at the amount of progress I had made. My ego was telling me not to give up. That it was mind over matter. I was only 3 more steps away from the top.  I just had to rest, focus, believe, have Faith, breathe, and try again. One step at a time. My arms were spent. My legs were burning. My ego was bruised. I didn’t want to go any further. I wanted to get back to the ground and rest.

“You’re almost there, Julia. 3 more steps,” I heard Kristin say.
“Keep moving,” I heard a stranger yell from the sidewalk.
“You can do it, Julia. Place your foot on the red rock and reach for the white rock on your right,” I heard a friend say.

In my head, I thanked Kristin and friends for patiently waiting on the ground and spotting me with the ropes and the belay system. I turned and looked behind me. I drank in the beautiful view of the sunset reflecting off the skyline. I relished the refreshing breeze that lightly brushed over my arms and through my hair. I took another deep breath in, focused on putting all my strength and energy into my legs so that I could push myself up high enough to reach the white rock to my right. I caught the rock! Between catching the rock and the support and encouragement from friends, I caught a second wind and pushed myself to keep going. Step by step. Breath by breath.  I finally made it to the top.

Yes! At last, I f*cking finished! I did it! I enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment, of overcoming obstacles, self doubt, and fear. I certainly couldn’t have done it without the help of my friends.

I looked around at the view, noticed the sounds of the city, the sensation of the sun and breeze on my skin. Then I sat back, let go, and descended to where I started.


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