My sense of triumph is incredible, my relief both overwhelming and humbling. Until this moment, I had never known how much of a rule follower I was. I'd never considered – never had the remotest idea - that the very rules I followed so slavishly, for my protection or to make me a good or better person, might just as well be contributing to my liabilities and limitations instead. The insight shocks me. I already know I am unlikely to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, my aspirations lie elsewhere, but thanks to conquering this 25 foot rock in the Boundary Waters of Upper Minnesota, I will never be the same again.
I am nine tenths up the side of a 25 foot rock in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in upper Minnesota, close to the Canadian border. It is late July. I am 53 years old. I have no idea if the weather is fair or foul since I am focused on one thing, and one thing only. I am stuck. Totally and completely stuck, stomach pressed against the unforgiving granite, my left foot perched at an improbable right angle to my body on a tiny outcropping of rock the height of at least two large stair levels above the right foot which is flailing for a purchase. My hands are clamped for dear life on an overhang above.
How have I gotten in this predicament? What has caused a middle aged woman whose mother took her out of ballet when she was seven years old because she was the “clumsiest girl in the class,” and who then made a self-fulfilling prophecy out of being the first person at the party to spill the peanuts, and the last kid in the class to be picked for any team, to make the choice to come on this Outward Bound Wilderness challenge? Clearly, I am asking the question too late.
I am dressed in a pair of green polyester pants from a thrift shop as directed, (no point wasting money wrecking new clothes from LL Bean) - polyester because it dries more quickly than cotton - red wool socks - wool because they keep your feet warm even when wet - a red, partly poly turtle neck shirt which wicks when wet, (getting wet is one of the operative word during this course), long sleeved to keep from getting scratched to death by the climb - and red because they match my socks since the only thing that is within my comfort zone in this entire adventure is my ability to coordinate my clothing - and old white tennis shoes - old because they will undoubtedly be ruined by the time I am done, although I may never need them again anyway, given the chance that I will kill myself in one of these endeavors, or worse yet, maim myself for life and have to live for the next 40 years with the consequences of my reckless choice to come on this adventure.
Once upon a time there was a woman who spent her life trying to keep a beach ball under water - a task given to her by a wicked witch when she was born. The witch warned her something terrible would happen to her mother if she were to allow the beach ball to raise above the water. The beach ball was very heavy. It was filled with the family grief. The woman didn’t know this, but she used all her energy to comply with the task. She was a rule-follower. Her hair, which was pitch black, and stood straight up from her head, fell out the next day, and eventually grew back in the softest shade of yellow ever seen on the face of the earth. This was a sure sign she had been chosen for something. She had a pale, clear forehead and a look of sweetest innocence. Her eyebrows were so fair they couldn’t be seen. It was a hard life, forever having to keep the beach ball under water, through every minute and every hour of the day and night - through adolescence, high school, college, marriage, the birthing and raising of her children. On the surface, she looked just fine. No one would ever have guessed how hard she was working, how very unusual were the circumstances of her life. (Or maybe they were typical. It was not for her to know.)
I am becoming exhausted. I am 8 weeks post hysterectomy, and have been left with uncertain endurance, as well as an added sense of ineptness. Months after signing on for this program, an unexpected fast growing ovarian cyst has rushed me into surgery, and thankfully, has turned out to be benign. The operation would have given me a respectable out if I'd wanted to take it, but something deep inside has called me to this opportunity, and despite my lack of confidence and many fears, I have not wanted to say no to it. My surgeon has okayed my coming and Sandy has convinced the Outward Bound directors to allow me to stay in the program even after I was told I would have to drop out.
The truth is I have never had athletic prowess, or a good working relationship with the physical world. Yet here I am, trapped like a bug on this unforgiving rock, self-esteem in tatters, life and limb up for grabs, my shame and lack of competence available for all to see. Perhaps that is why I had decided to go so far out on a limb in the first place – 8 days in the wilderness, with no place to hide, weary of hiding, pushing against the edges of my limitations, hoping to find more to myself, culminating here on this rock.
Suddenly, I can stand it no longer. A burst of energy comes from nowhere fueling my weary bones and firing my spirit. I will not take up permanent residence on this relentless rock. I will not give Julie, the teammate who believes I faked having surgery, and who has been on my back all week like a hair shirt, any evidence to pick on me and gloat. I will not give my mother a reason to support her worries, and to say “I told you so” when I return a failure or in a wheel chair crippled for life. I will not give any more quarter to our merciless instructors and my teammates who have failed to rescue me. Somehow my body knows what to do, even though I don't. With one fell swoop I am on the summit. Unbelievably, the solution has been to crawl onto the handhold using those shunned body parts - my off-limits knees, and then hoist myself over the top. After all this struggle and suffering, I have surmounted the block in my path, not only by breaking the rules, but, in effect, by praying myself to the top.
The yellow hair didn’t help much either; didn’t bring her any sympathy. (Innocence is not always a useful trait.) Finally, an old woman came to her, beautiful in her ugliness, and informed her it was time to let go of the ball. And she would help. The woman with the ball was afraid. She had held it for so long it was almost second nature to her. Then there was the question of her mother and the witch. The old woman laughed and turned into a beautiful white wolf. The ball shot into the air like Old Faithful, drenching everyone for miles around. It was a regular tsunami, but amazingly and despite complaints, not one person actually drowned. In fact, some people found it refreshing, and those who didn’t were ultimately cleansed in spite of themselves. Except for some unusually well developed biceps, and a tendency to bursitis, the yellow haired woman lived happily ever after.
My comrades at the bottom of the rock have offered advice innumerable times, and God knows, I have tried to follow their instructions. “Move your right foot a quarter of an inch to the left or try a foot higher,” one calls. There is not a toe hold in either place. “Try bringing your left foot down to the right,” another suggests. But then I would lose those crucial three points of contact that are supposed to keep me from falling off this mountain. I may be crazy but I am not suicidal. Or, then again, maybe I am! “Try lowering your hands and finding a different place to climb from,” Again I find nothing. It feels like I've been at this for hours.
“Please,” I beg, “pull me up”. I have tried everything. I can see the summit enticingly just beyond my reach. One of the two team mates manning the ropes looks down at me sympathetically. Jackie would come to my aid if she could; she is also from Michigan and would later turn out to be a special friend, but our instructor, Sandy, is adamant. “Don't do it.” she commands. “She can make it on her own.” More instructions from the bottom of the mountain. Some from the top. I try all over again, but nothing works.
I am wearing a yellow helmet, and have a harness strapped around my waist and between my legs, from which ropes are attached, so that theoretically, I can be lowered to the ground if I start to fall, or pulled to the top if necessity requires. The ropes, which are there for my protection, give me no comfort, because it looks like I will be spending my life pasted on this rock with no way to help myself and no rescue in sight.
“Always use three points of contact,” our instructors have said, when they were teaching us the preliminaries earlier this day down at the base of the rock. They called this basic teaching “bouldering.” “Either use two feet and one hand, or two hands and one foot. Never use your knees. Knees are for praying, but never for rock climbing.” The NEVER is emphasized strongly. I listen attentively, and practice diligently, despite my considerable anxiety – I have barely slept all week awaiting this - because without the rules I have nothing to hang on to here but air and oblivion.
(Originally published in Borderlines Vol. II Literary Anthology, a publication of the University of Portsmouth, United Kingdom, 2008.)