Week 24: Rock Climbing
Meteora is a place in a Greece known for its geological wonders and the monasteries that sit upon them. The area has giant rocks formed through the ages, largely by ice erosion, and these rocks became the homes of hermits, and later monks, in the 9th c. A.D.
I come here for a few days to experience this beautiful place, intending just to see it by hiking. But it’s also famous for something else: climbing. I arrive thinking about maybe trying it, but, as you may know, heights scare me. I leave a half-day open, either for climbing or resting, and book several other half-day tours: three on foot and one by bus.
One of the pedestrian tours is a scramble that takes place on Sunday. When I signed up I didn’t know what ‘scramble’ meant, and I spend the three hours quite on edge. But, as a step between hiking and climbing, it’s given me a shrapnel of confidence, enough to inch towards trying climbing.
Part of the decision to go, beyond just the thought that ‘maybe I’ll go’ (aka, not going to happen), is that a friend I make during the scramble tour also signed up for the beginner’s rock climbing. Her name is Louisa, she’s also from California, and she teaches technology to elementary students. She has been practicing climbing for six months in a gym.
I once went on a field trip in 10th grade to a climbing gym.
I’ve done enough things that scare me this year to know that I'm going to go through with attempting this. But still, like with the flying lesson, I don’t sign up until the night before: giving myself less time of being “confirmed” on the climb affords me less time for anxiety.
I'm relieved when, at 8:30 a.m., Kostas, one of our two guides for the scramble, pulls up his car. I trust him with climbing.
On the drive to THE rock, he tells us that in Yosemite, rockclimbers are known as stonemasters. In Meteora, they’re known as crackmasters. This word makes me laugh.
His comfort with the rocks and his easygoing nature loosen things up: he mockingly launches into Grease’s “tell me more, tell me more” when Louisa says she practices in a gym.
He calls this climb beginner-intermediate, which kind of freaks me out, but he asks for our trust, since he says he did see us on the rocks during the scramble. When I see what we are going to climb, I can’t comprehend being able to scale even the first two feet. I know nothing about climbing, and this monolith has no rocks overtly sticking out.
Louisa, however, knows a lot, and I soon enough learn that we put chalk on our hands to keep them dry (mine sweat the minute I see that rock) and that something called belaying keeps you hanging in mid-air if you slip. Belaying is essentially a method by which the lead climber saves your life.
Looking like a ballet dancer on rocks, Kostas scales the first section of rock in a minute. I'm next. The first ten feet are the hardest, because I essentially have never done this before and am freaking out with my heart and soul. But the special shoes we wear are magical: they grip to the rocks, and helped me start to trust my body and trust the earth, in the form of rock.
I wear street-running shoes during hikes, and I realize that, as beloved and pink as they are, my wearing them creates a chasm between myself and the earth. Because I don’t trust their non-grippy footing, the only time I drop into my feet while wearing them is when running on pavement.
And another realization, but one that, by now, is an old friend coming round to visit me again: on this unbridled path, again and again, I return to the same 'little by little' lesson. The things that challenge me *force* me into this present state of mind that only focuses on the next step.
Although I mentally grasp the larger goal, if I am not in that present mindzone, I freeze. if I were to conjure scaling that rock as a whole, instead of at each step, I could not do it.
The hardest parts of the climb are actually when that I stop for rest and wait for Louisa to come up behind me, because in those moments my brain starts to analyze. It is during those moments I start to think that what I'm doing is impossible, and because of that mentality, the climbing is hardest in the seconds following those rests.
Eventually, I reach the top, with Louisa right on my heels.
But when I reach that long-awaited horizontalish top of the rock, I encounter a different fear, one that goes to the depths of my psyche, beyond the physical challenge and the fear of heights that the climbing posed.
I trust Kostas with my physical safety and I like him as a person, but this fear, more subtle than the height issue but also more sinister, is subconsciously conjured from the past: I’m trapped in a place with a man that I can’t get out of my own.
It’s not personal to this situation or to Kostas - only a reminder of the past - but it does appear and is more uncomfortable than the climbing. Louisa’s presence is paramount for those ten minutes.
In a way, this is the reason I challenge myself physically. Pushing the boundaries of my experience with my body - discovering all it can do with the alliance of my mind - is empowering beyond all measure, yes. The mist surrounding ‘impossible’ activities - whether physical or purely internal - disappears, and it’s as though the brilliance of possibility illuminates the darkness born of the until-then-unknown.
But it’s the deeper elements of exploration that motivate me to action: the meeting of myself, the witnessing of myself, the encountering of myself in ways much deeper and more real than could be possible were I to keep to the confines of comfort.
And it’s not that I, or anyone else, should push herself to discomfort in dangerous ways. If I have a foreboding feeling, other than standard fear, going into a challenging activity, I hope that I never let adrenaline or achievement eclipse intuition. It is imperative to feel a foundation of safety before exposing myself to kicking boundaries like this.
It is that container of safety itself that allows fear to surface in a healthy way, in order to explore itself and ultimately transform into healing. Isn’t it true that the more safe one feels with a partner (in any sense: a therapist, an animal, a life partner), the more she allows herself to express the most unnameable fears, to explore the strangest desires, to embrace the depths of the unknown?
On top of that rock, I encountered a terrified, forgotten aspect of myself that, over time, I can work with. I find that it is these darker aspects of myself that, when I slowly integrate, offer me innate wisdom and a fuller experience of myself. Those aspects are, I’ve learned through working with horses, not to be suppressed or fought with, as they offer incredible insight into self-growth.
Back to the rocks: after ten minutes (taking pictures, of course), we rappel down with speed, and all that’s left at the top is rope looped through the highest bolt. From the bottom, Kostas pulls it out, and Louisa and I decompress all that energy out by talking, walking to the car, and having dinner. I am incredibly grateful for this first experience...and also want to kiss the ground.