Thursday, February 26, 2009

Absolute Freedom

Note: I wrote this post in a haze of jet lag at 4 a.m. a few days after I arrived in Pennsylvania for Christmas, but never posted it. I kind of like it.

I finally made it to Pennsylvania. After four days of solitude in Anchorage, four days of trying not to think about the fact that it was Christmas time, I was alone, it was dark out most of the time, and that I had to take two long plane rides home (I hate to fly), I arrived in the Newark airport late Friday night to the smiling faces of my sister Angie and her fiance Eric.

Since I hate flying so much I always try to find a book that I can really get into in order to distract myself from the painful anxiety that I experience everytime the plane hits the smallest bit of turbulance. I selected “This Game of Ghosts” by Joe Simpson.

Joe Simpson is a mountaineer who’s biggest hit was “Touching the Void”. A book, then a documdrama about the true story of Joe breaking his leg high on top of a remote mountain in Peru and his partner Simon’s brave attempt to rescue him from the mountain.

In this sequel, Simpson gives a very honest account of his life and why he climbs. He talks a lot about fear and about how every climb he struggles with it, but how fear and overcoming it are the reasons that he keeps going back for more.

It got me to thinking about why I like to climb. I have often thought of quitting, because sometimes it just seems too dangerous and pointless. I go up the climb, and then I rappel down the same way I came. What have I accomplished? A day out in the mountains is wonderful, but do I need to take this much risk to enjoy Alaska? It made me wonder, why do I keep going back to an activity that has the power to scare me so much?

Last year I remember leading the climb “Ripple” in Eklutna Canyon for the fourth time. It was amazing to me that even though I had led the climb three times before, it still had the power to put the fear in me. I remember hanging about 100 feet up on the top almost vertical section of the climb. I only had a few more moves to get myself over the hump to where the climb mellowed out and I would be home free. My last screw was 15 feet below me. As I swung my tool hard into the brittle ice, I knocked off a huge chunk about the size of my torso. It hit my foot on the way down and almost knocked me off. I yelled, “ICE!” down to Kim who was belyaing at the bottom and I started to feel a tug at the rope on my harness and prepared to fall 30 feet.

Kim later told me that she thought I was yelling “Take!” which in climbing means take the slack out of the rope and hold me tight because I’m going to come off the wall. It is something that you never hear in ice climbing, because generally people try NOT TO FALL OFF. So at that moment when my fear was bubbling over and threatening to spill out all over the ice, the rope pulling down on my body was more than I thought I could handle.

And I thought to myself, “What am I doing here?” I’m hanging on the side of a frozen waterfall with axes in my hands, a bunch of metal hanging from my waist and points coming out of my boots in every direction one hundred feet over a canyon in the middle of Alaska.

As I felt Kim ease off the rope, I took a deep breath and a second look around. I realized that I wasn’t really in any danger. Falling ice knocking into my boots and the rope tugging on me was all quite frightening, but looking up I could see my tools were now in the ice solid and my boots did not come free despite the ice’s attempt to knock them off.

I breathed in heavily again and then exhaled slowly gathering myself. I managed to quickly put in the next screw and began to climb up towards the trees.

It is precisely that which I have just described, that keeps me coming back for more. Recognizing the real danger and avoiding it, freeing my mind of danger that I have imagined, gathering myself together, controlling my fear and using my tools, my knowledge and my experience to get myself up the climb. It is an extremely rewarding process and as I have found out, it can be leveraged in all aspects of my life.

I am quickly finding out that overcoming fear is not a straight line. Just because I have done something before does not mean that I have now arrived at this level, my fear of this is squashed, and I can keep moving up. There are so many ups and downs. But I think the more I climb the more confidence I gain in my ability and judgment that there is an upward trend. And it is quite satisfying to look back over three years of climibing and see the progress I have made.

The other aspect of climbing that I know I am drawn to is getting back to the basic human instinct of taking care of yourself. In this country we rarely have to worry about how we are going to survive from day to day. We get hungry, we go to the store. We get tired, we sleep. We get cold, we go inside. We get thirsty, we drink water out of a faucet in our kitchen.

These are things we are not even conscious of, which gives us more time to think about everything else. That creates stress. And going to the mountains can relieve it even if it’s just for a little while. Simpson describes this aspect of climbing well in one of the last chapters of his book.

”In a curious way, maybe the climber stops living when he begins to climb. He steps out of the living world of anxiety into a world where there is no room, no time, for such distractions. All that concerns him is surviving the present. Any thoughts of gas bills and mortgages, loved ones and enemies, evaporate under the absolute neccessity for concentration on the task at hand. He leads a separate life of uncomplicated black and white decisions – stay warm, feed yourself, take the proper rest, look after yourself and your partner, be aware. Be aware of everything until there is nothing but the present and there are no corrosive fears to eat away at confidence.

Living for the moment, for nothing but the present, brings with it an unexpected bonus. It seems to me that if you can escape from the need to know the future and free yourself of the constraints of the past, and in so doing act in and only for the present, then you achieve absolute freedom.”

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