Story by Samantha War/ Contributing Writer
Hanging there, 100 feet in the air, a rope attached to my harness, I started to cry. This was the last climb of my four-day camping and climbing trip at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. My last climb on a vertical sandstone wall was a route called “There’s No Place Like Home” which was part of the crag that climbers call “Emerald City.”
Ascending the 100 feet, I experienced happiness, playfulness, feeling like a child again but there were moments of frustration searching for the best foot and hand holds, my muscles, toes and fingertips screaming they couldn’t hold on anymore. Then I found the next move to progress up the wall. At the beginning of my climb I doubted myself, thinking I’d just be happy if I made it 40 feet up. The route was rated 5.11c and this was not a grade I had ever climbed outside before. The higher the number and the letter the more challenging the climb: smaller notches in the rock to grab or put your foot on, little crevasses in the rock that your fingertips can barely grip. But before I knew it, I was halfway up. My feet were on a ledge five inches wide, 50 feet off the ground, my fingers grabbing the thin, gritty, brown shelves of rock, not even an inch deep, hoping they would hold, my middle right fingertip bleeding from the days of climbing before.
I tuned everything out.
I was already above tree level. I could see the road, houses in the distance and a gray cloudy sky surrounding me.
As I started climbing again, all I could focus on was every movement I made: nothing around me mattered, nothing in the world mattered, COVID-19 didn’t exist, nor did my mother, my friends, the fact I was just laid off from my job or the bruises on my knee. I was only focused on the climb, my next grip, the next foot hold, my eyes constantly searching for the next best hold, a free hand feeling around the rock for something to grab, scaling the wall one movement at a time.
The next time I looked up, I was a few moves away from the anchors, my final destination, the last piece of hardware that I would climb into to keep me from falling 100 feet down to the ground. My eyes were swelling up with tears, the rush of emotion surprising me as I continued to climb. I climbed harder, faster with more confidence as I reached my finish line. The last few moves came easily, with good, sturdy, pieces of sandstone to hold onto and my feet moved naturally, feeling at one with the rock in that moment. I reached my hand up, I’m at eye level with the anchors and I feel the rope tighten, my belayer below me had helped me through my journey, watching my movements, the rope, ensuring my safety every step of the way. At that moment, I relaxed. I began crying and allowed myself to feel everything in that moment.
I had done it, even with my doubts, the intimidation of the grade, my body bruised and bleeding. I had just climbed 100 feet, my first 5.11c outside, nothing else in the world mattered, I couldn’t hear anything except a light breeze and the sound of my own sniffles.
I sat there, 100 feet off the ground, taking in the view.
Climbing “There’s No Place Like Home” is a metaphor for my life and what is going on in the world. I’ve been laid off from a job I’ve held for three years, a victim of collateral damage from COVID-19. I am told to be socially distant. The one place I can do that well is at my fingertips, literally.
Climbing presents me challenges. Rock just like life, doesn’t discriminate. Rock doesn’t care if I’ve had a bad day, if the holds are horrible, if I’m bleeding, if I slip and fall 10 feet. It’s up to me to conquer it, figure out the best way to overcome each challenge and continue to the next movement. I will have bumps, bruises and blood along the way but reaching the top of the rock is one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. There is no bigger sense of accomplishment when climbing 100 feet with only a 9.8 mm rope to keep you safe and conquer the climb. There is no other experience quite as humbling, making me realize what a small part of this world I take up when I scale a rock wall. I am just a small piece of this rock’s history; it was here before me and it will be here after me.
Not everyone will be able to understand my experience, what this accomplishment means to me, especially during this time when such uncertainty lies ahead. These are the moments that bring me back to the rocks, the one place I can truly live in the moment, focus only on myself and the rock beneath my hands and feet. Nothing else matters, nothing else will ever matter, it’s my moment, my time, my experience.
Taking my final look around the crag, an area filled with rock and leafless trees, I watched a few cars pass on the road, felt the breeze on my face blowing bits of my hair around and heard my friends chattering below me. I gathered myself together, setting up to rappel. I sped down the rock in four bounces, far faster than I went up it, stopping only for a moment to untangle some of the rope caught in a tree. Reaching the ground, tears still in my eyes, I celebrated my victory with my friends.
Indeed, there is no place like home.
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