What the Hell am I Doing This For? Climbing to New Heights

What the Hell am I Doing This For?

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Several months ago, in an effort to stall the sands of time, I posted about a rather aggressive list of items I wanted to accomplish before my 50th birthday. My intent was to create a sense of urgency in my own life so I would quit making excuses and just “do it” like Nike so aptly tells us in their ads. Let’s face it, I’m already 49 and the list of things I haven’t done far outweighs the list of things I have done, so I figure I better get off the proverbial pot and get to work, err fun.

On this list was a couple of rather extreme sport minded accomplishments that had been swirling around in my head for a couple of years now, so in my bold attempt to stake claim to my youth and defy old age, I bravely put them high on “the list” so I would be sure to achieve my greatest goals.

I’ve wanted to climb Montezuma’s Tower in the Garden of the Gods now for three years. Before that I have to admit I didn’t even know it was there, much less have this insane idea to summit one of the highest pinnacles in this pristine park, but once I realized it was there and that it could be climbed, well it just started eating away at me until I just had to do it.

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I noticed it on one of my first rock climbing adventures with Front Range Climbing Co, and as I sat on the top of a much smaller summit I looked out over the park and my eyes rested on the biggest, baddest, most beautiful sandstone pinnacle I’d ever seen. When my tired eyes registered that the most ambitious of climbers were actually perched precariously on its cagey sides I knew that somehow, someday I had to conquer it.

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“I want to climb that one,” I eagerly pointed out to my trusty guide Daniel. As his gaze rested on my far off target I noticed a little twinkle in the corner of his eye, but he gamely replied, “Actually, that can be done, but it is a more advanced climb and it is what we call a double rope line because it is 150 feet high.”

I filed this nugget of information away in the back of my mind and continued with my beginner rock climbing lessons, eventually doing many of the different climbs in this park, on Flatirons and even on ice, but I never forgot my little dream to climb big someday.

Finally this past fall, I decided there was no time like the present and I called my buddy Isaac, at Front Range Climbing Co and asked him if he would help me make a dream come true and let me climb Montezuma’s Tower. Isaac knows me and he knows what I can and cannot do on the face of a rock, but he also has come to know me as someone just stubborn enough to push through the tough spots to achieve a dream and he agreed to take me to the top.

I recruited a friend and arranged my schedule so we could take advantage of the cooler October weather and soon the plans were in play.

In true Jackie form what I want to do and what I should probably should do don’t always match up, but I like to think that is part of what makes me so charming. Anyway, I announced to my loving husband what I was planning and asked if he would come along to take the pictures and videos of this grand adventure. He loves me so he said yes.

On the day of “the summit” Isaac, Lauren and I, along with my paparazzi crew (my husband, 13 year old daughter and Rowdy the Golden Retriever) walked deep into the park and set up at the base of Montezuma’s Tower. Isaac began explaining how this was all going to work and started setting up the ropes and gear accordingly.
As I craned my neck back as far as it would go and I looked up into the sky I realized just how tall this pinnacle really was. It seemed to loom straight up into the air, like the beanstalk in the old fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk, going straight as an arrow up into the clouds.

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Isaac, one of my all time favorite climbing guides has the patience of an angel and a wicked sense of humor. He is also very calm and matter of fact about rock climbing. He carefully went over all the safety components of climbing, checking our gear, triple checking each and every knot and carbine. Once he was sure everything checked out he calmly told us what he was going to do and then what we had to do. It was at this moment that I had my first “twinge” of doubt. Up to this point I was just excited and a bit naive about my actual role in this adventure.

See the thing is, on all my previous rock or ice climbing adventures the highest I had ever climbed was probably 60-70 feet up. In every one of these climbs I was not only with an expertly trained guide but I was always in direct sight of them. This means they could always see me and therefore make sure I was what I refer to in my mom life as “making good choices!” The guide could see where my feet were, where my hands were, what my next step was going to be, and that my gear was functioning properly and I was clipping on properly. All this direct and careful supervision gave me a bit of false confidence but now I realized I had to have my big girl panties on to summit Montezuma’s Tower because suddenly Isaac started talking about all these things “I was going to do.”

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“Wait a minute George,” I thought.

“You mean I am going to have to set the ropes right, clip on and off midway up and make sure the route up is safe for Lauren coming up behind me” I said in a whisper. “All without you being able to see what I am doing?”

“Oh Lord, help me” I started praying as fast as I could.

It was at this precise moment I realized I wanted to climb, I just didn’t want to actually be responsible for my safety or anyone else’s for that matter. The dawn of the bittersweet reality settled upon me. That was not how this was going to work.

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Isaac clearly, and calmly restated the “plan” to me. He was going up first as the lead climber and would set the line for me. Because the rock I had chosen was so tall we needed two ropes to reach the summit and therefore once he got over the first bulge in the rock he would no longer be able to see us. He would have to wait above us for us to climb up to him. Once we reached his midway point he would lead climb up the rest of the way to the summit and again we would have to climb up to him. Once Isaac started up we would no longer be able to see him. Lauren would belay me and we were going to be responsible for each other and ourselves. Just like real grownups. Crap.

Having not factored all this into my “big” plan it took me a few moments to regroup and gather my courage. “Ok, how hard can this be” I thought gamely to myself. “I have done several climbs, surely at this point I know what I am doing”. “Oh hell” I thought, raging doubt set in.

Lauren and I exchanged a brief but serious look. I could tell she shared my concerns.

Finally Lauren and I nodded in agreement and Isaac quickly started easily scaling the rock face until he disappeared completely from our view. In a few minutes he called down saying it was ok for me to start up. With Lauren belaying me below and my husband giving me a generous boost up over the first hurdle, I swallowed my pride and got to work, carefully climbing up and up.

When things are going well on the face of a rock, rock climbing is fun and relatively easy. You place your hands, push off on your feet and reach up until you find your next handhold. In this way you carefully pick you way up the wall but you feel empowered, a bit like Spiderman!

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However, when things are not going well on the face of a rock this is when your character is really tested. Unexpected things happen, like sometimes there is no place to put your hands and get any kind of a grip. Sometimes you have to reach, really far to get a grip. The same is true of where to place your feet. The farther you have to stretch the harder it is to pull your body along. On this particular rock we were very exposed and the wind came up making you feel even more vulnerable on the side of the rock.

For me the real test came when I got stuck midway up the rock face, far below where my instructor and trusty guide could actually see me and too far up for me to give up and go back down. I found myself unsure of what to do, how to solve the problem. Isaac calmly talked to me helping me work through my options and in the end helped me by leveraging the rope from above to give me a little boost when I was unable to pull myself up with raw strength. Back on track again I carefully made my way up but faced another serious challenge when I had to move the ropes and set the line for Lauren who could be coming behind me. I tried to remember what Isaac had told me to do but I was insecure about my abilities and my knowledge and worried that any error would put Lauren’s safety in jeopardy. Again, far outside my comfort zone I found myself having to yell up to Isaac to confirm what I was doing and how I was doing it. His calm and reassuring voice drifted down to me and eventually I had to let go of my fears and push onward and upward. Frankly, I just had to believe in myself and it was not easy.

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At the midway point I tied off so I was safely hooked to the rock face and tried to catch my breath while Lauren far below started climbing up to us. The wind was cold and bit into us because we were exposed and had no protection. When I looked down it was hard to not be intimidated by the imposing height. All I could think was “how the heck did I get here?” and even more importantly “why the hell did I want to do this?”

Once Lauren, Isaac and I were carefully at the mid-way point, Isaac once again gave us our newest set of instructions and then promptly disappeared above us. I had one more section to conquer,

By now I was close to 100 feet in the air, fatigued and cold and more than a bit freaked out about what I had yet to overcome before I could summit. Stuck again, unable to pull myself past a difficult part I paused and tried to suck it up. I wanted to reach the top, I wanted that feeling of empowerment you only get when you accomplish something you didn’t believe you could do, but at this point reality had fully sunk in and my mind, body and heart we engaged in a full on battle. It was really cold this far up on the rock because it was so high and exposed and the wind had unexpectedly come up bringing a cold front over the front range. The journey up was harder than I had anticipated and I was totally fatigued, my hands were trembling and I needed a break. Mentally I was frustrated with myself because I was struggling. I had to admit that I needed to work harder on building my physical strength if I wanted to pursue these kinds of intense activities. What I did know without a doubt was that I was safe and that the only way down at this point was up so if I wanted relief I had to get my big girl panties on and get to the top, however I had to do it.

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It was then that Isaac proved to me he is a truly gifted instructor. Sensing my fear and frustration he started singing the iconic Aerosmith song “Dream On” and I found myself teeth chattering in cold and fear but smiling in spite of myself. I gritted my teeth, yelled up that I was on the way up again just did what I had to do. Thankfully I had a good friend on the other end who gave me a little boost just when I needed it the most. I had of course totally forgotten I had my helmet cam recording my climb but in watching the footage you can hear me muttering under my breath that I am scared but going to do this anyway or I’m never getting off this rock”

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Thanks to good friends, a stubborn streak a mile long and an adventurous heart I sucked it up and made it to the top of Montezuma’s Tower that day. In the end, I did it. It wasn’t particularly pretty, I had to overcome some serious fears and insecurities but I found I was brave enough to try and stubborn enough to finish!

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She Did it Anyway

So my friend, “what’s next on your list?”

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