Written by: Sam Roberts, Blue Ridge Mountains Backpacking, Rock Climbing and Whitewater Canoeing
“Up rope,” I hollered to Justin, my climbing partner. I felt the rope tighten on my figure eight follow through. I began to climb again, carefully placing my foot in the little cracks, not looking down. Justin was belaying me from above and was clipped into the side of a rock. As I inched my way up, I unclipped myself from each clip holding my rope in. Finally, I reached Justin and could be taken off belay. I clipped myself into the carabiner and could now unclip the belay.
“Off belay Justin,” I said.
“Belay off Sam,” he replied back.
I was now being held into the side of a rock wall with a single carabiner and a clove hitch. My climbing instructor Ethan had told me earlier the safest way to be held securely into the side of the wall was to actually lean back because that meant there was no slack in the rope.
Of course, I thought to myself, leaning back had to be the safest way. I leaned back in my harness and felt the rope pull me.
“It’s quite the view from up here,” Ethan points out. Going against everything I had told myself not to do, I looked behind me, and this is when I am hit with a wave of emotion.
About nineteen days earlier, I was watching the wheels of an airplane leave the runway at Boston Logan Airport. I was flying alone, and my mom was probably on her way back to our house after dropping me off. I had never felt more alone. I was being sent on a three-week Outward Bound course in the Blue Ridge Mountains with an organization my mom had worked for when she was younger. I had dreaded going, and it didn’t even feel real that morning when I had woken up. There was no going back at that point. I looked straight ahead and swallowed. Welp.
But now I was there, hanging off a cliff, 250 feet, in the middle of nowhere in North Carolina, and I took it all in. The hills in the distance, the rocky faces, the trees with cloud shadows over them, and it went for miles and miles.
“You good Sam?” Ethan asked, seeing the pause I took.
“Yeah. I-I’m alright.” A big smile came upon my face. “Let’s get to the top of this thing.”
We continued to tackle the rock face, taking it step by step. After Ethan and Justin got up to the next pitch, it was my turn.
“Climb on Sam.”
I tilted my head backward and looked up the near-vertical crack I would have to tackle. It seemed impossible. This was the last pitch I had to get up to, but there had been no footholds, no nothing. I took my first step with my left foot, but it slipped instantly. I panicked.
“Falling!” I shouted. Ethan was belaying me, and I immediately felt my rope become tighter, preventing me from falling.
“Everything ok?” Ethan asked.
“Yeah! Climbing again!”
I continued to search for any cracks to place my foot. I noticed a small indent slit about at my waist height. It for sure was going to be a task to get my foot up there, but it was all I had. My hands started to become sweaty again, and my breathing picked up. But my mind knew I couldn’t freeze up here, I had to get straight through this. I closed my eyes and lifted my right leg into the slit. Then I pushed the rest of my body up with the same leg, now becoming even. I was about a third of the way through the crack. This next part was not any easier. A small lane of water was to my right, where I was planning to go, trickling down on the rock. That ruled out the possibility of going right; that would be near impossible. To my left was a near-vertical crevice but with many footholds and handholds. There’s no way I’m doing that. Well, that was the only way.
Being sure not to look down, I grabbed hold of another slit by my right arm and yanked myself over onto the vertical slab. I quickly dug my foot into a foothold because I was now near vertical. I took another pause, a deep breath, and continued to work my upward. One by one, step by step, I inched my way towards the top of the vertical stretch. Once I reached the top, it was almost flat from there. Ten feet more. Ten rulers to the top of this climb. I could quickly tell my breathing was picking up.
“Give me a minute Ethan,” I said.
“Of course, let me know when you’re ready,” he replied.
I stopped where I was, perched on holds on all fours, and received a huge burst of confidence. I’m in control. I turned around and took another look at the view, but I was not afraid this time. During this minute, I processed a lot in my mind. Three weeks ago, I would have never thought I could’ve done this. Absolutely not. I would have told you that you were crazy, out of your mind, if you told me I was going to be doing this. But this was what I was faced with, and I had taken up the challenge. I was not scared anymore. If I could do this, I could do almost anything. Heights was my biggest fear or at least one of them, and I had just punched it in the face. Hell yeah.
“I’m ready, Ethan. Climbing,” I commanded.
“Climb on, Sam.”
I smoked the rest of the stretch. With no fear in my mind, I did not look back or think about stopping. I could do this. Ethan now came into my view as I lifted myself to the top.
“You did that fast,” he observed.
“Quick little burst of energy,” I laughed.
He belayed me into the pitch and walked over to the stable ground, out of danger from the cliff. All around, I saw valleys for miles and miles. Hills of green and walls of rock. The cloudy blue sky painted above reflected the whole picture.
It’s times like these that you realize this is what you live for.