On rock climbing blindfolded, or, momentarily overcoming the voices in my head
Amelia, my rock climbing instructor, is tying a towel around my eyes and securing it with a rubber band behind my head. I’m already tied in as a climber; my safety checks completed. But suddenly my harness starts feel like it’s not fitting right— too loose in some places and too tight in others.
“Now I’m going to guide you to the wall” she says, taking my left wrist in her hand and putting her other hand on the small of my back as I step up onto the crash pad and reach out to touch the indoor rock wall. I have climbed this route over a dozen times, but I some how can’t remember any of the holds.
I hear her foot steps walking back over the crash pad to her belay stance. I hear her voice tell me that she’s ready when I am.
“Belay is on”
I can’t hear anything but the sound of myself breathing as I grope the wall with my fingertips thinking, yes, yes… that’s the blue hold. Better for holding than for standing. There’s that reddish circular one over to the left. Right, right.
“Climb on!” Amelia calls out.
I grab two familiar holds and step onto the wall. My arms are immediately strained. I feel like i’m barely holding on. I raise my right hand and start frantically petting the wall, looking for another hold. Nothing. I replace my right hand, lift my left and start the frantic petting again. There. Found it. I reach for it. Step up. There’s nothing for my foot. I start to panic. Suddenly, the sportscasters that enter my brain more often than not lately start their dreaded commentary:
As you can see here Hazel is absolutely the worst rock climber ever on this wall
—oh yeah. I mean she’s so fat she can hardly pull herself up off the ground. The gravity’s just too much on those thighs. Remember when Kegan Callihan told her she shouldn’t get on Kelly Minnich’s porch in 5th grade because she was so fat she’d crack the deck? Still true to this day. That girl is awful. No wonder all those kids were laughing at her.
haHA! Well, you are right. How long has she even been climbing?
You’d think this was her first day, wouldn’t you? God, what an embarrassment.
For a brief moment: airborne. Then, shifting my weight from one foot to the other on the crash pad and bending my knees to a crouch to get the tension out of my rope. I can hear Amelia walking over and then put a hand on my shoulder.
“So, how’d that feel?”
“I can’t do this” I reply. Looking in her direction awkwardly with the towel still wrapped around my eyes.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I can’t. I’m not good enough.”
“What are you thinking while you’re on the wall?” Amelia asks.
“That I’m not strong enough. My arms and legs are shaking.” I’m nearly arguing with her.
“But, you’ve climbed this route hundreds of times. It’s not that you’re not strong enough. Why else might you be shaking?”
I’m getting impatient. I feel like she’s trying to get me to admit my failure. The blindfold is infuriating me as I try to gauge her disappointment without seeing her face. I nearly burst, “because I’m scared!”
“Oh! You’re scared!” she says in mocked surprise. “You’re rock climbing blind folded. Do you think it’s reasonable for you to be scared?”
“So, okay. You’re scared. It’s a scary situation. Fear is a completely rational and normal response to climbing blindfolded. What are you scared of?”
“Not doing it. Just… falling”
I can hear the sports announcers laughing under their breath at me. Their pudgy red cheeks broadening into smiles.
“Is that the worst thing that could happen? Falling?
“I guess, yeah.”
“And what will happen if you fall?”
“You’ll catch me on the rope, or I’ll bottom out to the crash pad.”
“So, you’ll be fine.”
Here they come,
I mean, the manatee girl is in absolutely no real danger at all and she’s freaking out.
Exactly! How ridiculous can she be? I bet she’s crying behind that towel.
Failure. Through and through.
I justify, “I know. I know. I shouldn’t be scared. I’m being stupid.”
“Wait,” she interrupts. “We just both agreed that being scared is a totally rational reaction to climbing blindfolded.”
I shrug. I’m out of ideas.
“So, we know you’re feeling a completely normal and justified fear that will make doing anything harder. It’s not that you suck. It’s that you’re scared and you have every reason to be scared.”
“Right” she repeats. “But, we also know that you’re safe. So, try again.” She’s walking back toward her belay stance
God, I thought this was over. I turn to face the wall. I am thinking of nothing but how badly I want this exercise to be over.
“Belay is on.”
I take a deep breath. Take hold of the same holds and pull myself onto the wall. I mantle my left hand and raised my right foot to the next hold.
Holy shit! This elephant is climbing blind folded!
Don’t worry. She’ll screw it up. She always screws it up.
I reach my right hand up, searching for a hold. I’m frantic. I’m panicked. There’s no hold there. There are no holds. I switch hands. I feel like I’m reaching as high and as far as I can and there’s nothing.
I’m on the ground.
I hear Amelia’s voice, but realized she isn’t walking over to me.
“How did that feel?”
“I’m sorry, I’m trying really hard.” I am doing everything in my power to make sure my voice doesn’t crack.
“I know you are!”
“I’m not strong enough to do this.”
“But, we already decided that you were strong enough. We already decided it’s that you’re scared.”
The sports announcers are shuffling papers. I can hear them clearing their throats.
“But, I’m scared so I can’t.”
I repeat the same dance. Up once. Up twice. Panic. Grounded.
I hear Amelia walking over. She grabs my right wrist gingerly in between her fingers and puts my hand on the wall. She guides my hand slowing up until my arm is straight and then pulls it right until it’s fully extended.
“Do you see how that feels? Slow, controlled?”
I nod. I want her to keep talking and to keep instructing so I can’t focus on my failure and start crying. I want her to talk over the sports announcers. She takes my wrist again and starts frantically waving it back and forth, moving about an inch up, down, left and right with each rushed movement. She is mimicking how I’ve been looking for holds.
“You’re not going to find holds like this. You have to trust yourself. You can be controlled, even though you’re scared.”
“This is too hard for me, Amelia.”
“Why are you saying that? You’re doing great.”
“Because. Because I’ve seen Alex climb blindfolded and he got nearly to the top. I remember. I can barely get off the ground. This is too hard for me.”
“This wasn’t as scary for Alex. You can breeze through all kinds of things that Alex would be way too scared to do. And why are we talking about Alex? This is about you.”
This is about you being a fuck-up, an announcer interrupts.
Amelia continues, “Control your body to calm your mind. Try again.”
I want this to be over. I want to climb normally, however slowly and clumsily I scale. I want this to be over or I want to give up and cry the whole way home.
“Belay is on.”
Before lifting myself onto the wall, I practice sliding my hand slowly to its extension and then over to the right. I do the same on the left. I breathe. I step up and engage my entire core to keep me close to the wall while alternating hands to find holds. There. Got one. Up. There. Got one. Shit. No foot hold.
I start listening to Amelia instructing me where to place my limps. I can hear the sports announcers in my brain, but I force their voices to be quieter and under static so I can focus on Amelia’s voice. Got it. Up. There.
I am five holds up.
“Take off your blindfold! Look at how high you are!”
I hurriedly lift a hand a pull the towel over my brow, which is dripping in sweat. I look down and can’t believe I’ve gotten nearly a story up blindfolded. I throw the towel on the ground. I keep climbing.
The sportscasters’ mics have been momentarily disconnected.