Climbing & Falling

Trusting my body is an act of love.
The author climbing at Red River Gorge, Kentucky, June 2018 (Kevin Hauger)

“Falling!”

For a moment, there is air beneath me; then I’m caught by the rope tied to my harness. My belayer, holding the other end, calls up, “Good fall!”

My heart pounds, but my fear of falling is already fading. A new challenge awaits—a different kind of fear. I have to try again until I successfully climb beyond the place where I fell, past each bolt to the anchors at the top of the route. My goal was to climb the whole route in one try. Having literally fallen short of that, my task narrows to trying to finish without stopping to rest or falling again. It’s a daunting prospect. What if I don’t even make it as far as I did last time, let alone to the top?

My fingertips are raw, the top layers of skin scraped away by the roughness of the rock. I’m frustrated by my hands, unable to hold on despite their calluses; by my feet, for slipping; by the way I positioned my body and threw myself off balance. Below, my belayer asks what went wrong. I explain the foot slip, the mistake in my movement. I’m grateful to her, not just for catching me—my life is literally in her hands every time I fall—but also for her encouragement before, during, and after every attempt. She trusts that I’m strong enough to finish this route; I trust that she is paying attention, that she will feed out the right amount of slack in the rope and be patient even through a long belay.

This trust in another person is one antidote to my fear. But I also have to trust my own body. By virtue of good genes and good luck, I’m fully able-bodied, but I’ve still spent much of my life thinking of my body as a stranger or an adversary. As an unathletic and uncoordinated kid, I conceived of my “self” as separate from my physical abilities—I was brainy, not brawny, my identity divorced from my inevitable failure in any community soccer league or high school gym class. And it’s true that all our bodies sometimes fail us. Our feet slip. Our balance is imperfect. We fight against exhaustion and lethargy; against cravings for foods we know we should avoid; against signs of age and use: wrinkles, stretch marks, scars. In this interminable period of virtual communication and constant enclosure in our homes, we might consider being embodied a liability—another night of restless snacking, another video call facing our unflattering on-screen reflections, tripping over roommates, family members, or pets in too-small apartments. To keep each other safe from viral infection, we sacrifice physical reminders of love. In their absence, our bodies can feel like dead weights we drag around. Even when we don’t hate them, we often mistrust them, making assumptions about what they can or should do, wishing they were different.

My body is not a faulty machine, but something capable, trustworthy, and fundamentally good.

Sitting in my harness, I reach for the rock again, pushing past frustration, disappointment, and burning forearms toward hope. This is the only way to continue the route: recognizing that my body is not a faulty machine, but something capable, trustworthy, and fundamentally good. I am created in the image of a loving God, and he is reflected in the myriad conscious and unconscious physical processes that keep me healthy and strong; in my capacity to grow and develop not just intellectually or spiritually, but physically. Messages of self-love or body positivity tend to focus on teaching us to view our bodies with generosity, but our bodies also deserve our trust in their incredible potential for strength and perseverance. As a climber, having faith in my own body isn’t a matter of convincing myself it is perfect or desirable just the way it is. It’s a matter of not preemptively accepting failure.

Sometimes when I’m in the middle of a climbing route, I press the pads of my fingers against a ripple in the rock and hesitate, paralyzed by the impossibility of pulling myself up using something so small. Even when the holds are large, if the route is long and overhung, leaving my legs shaking with exhaustion, I want to stop trying. I want to reach the nearest bolt and rest there, so I don’t have to risk a fall. I want to give up on my body, to write it off, to enclose it in the limits of what is comfortable. I want to try easier climbs instead, to avoid the out-of-control, split-second moment of losing my grip.

But when I trust myself enough to pull up on that ripple, my shoulders engage and I lift myself higher. The thing that felt impossible is already ingrained in my body by hours of practice. Climbing the long route, my desperate fingers find the next hold. I pull against the textured corner of the cliff and stand, keeping my hips close to the wall. In these moments, nervous and exhausted, I love my imperfect body fiercely. Another move, my right foot searching for purchase on the rock. The metal anchors glint above me. I trust that my foot won’t slip, and I rock my weight onto it.

And if my body fails me again, as it sometimes does, and I feel that moment of nothingness beneath me? I trust my friends, waiting below, to catch me.

Isabella Simon is the assistant managing editor at Commonweal.

Also by this author
The Chauvin Conviction

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