October 9, 2016

Health : Committing to Slab

This past weekend we went to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite to climb Tenaya Peak.  It's about seven times as long of a climb as I've ever done (1500 feet), and takes an average of 5-7 hours to summit. The climbing itself is easy especially if you're following others and not leading the climb yourself.  Since I was following two experienced climbers, I assumed the climbing would be relatively straightforward and that my biggest challenge would be stamina which is usually a relative strength.

Instead, the biggest challenge turned out to be calming myself down in a moment of complete terror, when I legitimately thought I might fall down the side of the mountain.

Whether the fear was actually legitimate is always hard to evaluate in retrospect, and I was likely much safer than I thought.  But I'd say that the ratio of unsafe:safe was at least 60:40, and enough to make me feel like it was 80:20. I'm generally very trusting of my surroundings and situations, to the fault of not being aware of real dangers. So this sense of actual danger was new to my brain.  And so I kind of (totally) lost it.

There's a point on the mountain somewhere around 8500 feet up, when you switch from hiking to climbing, because the mountain begins to flatten and becomes what's called slab.  Slab is rock that's less than vertical so that you're leaning against it, where there are tiny, sometimes non-existent holds for your hands and feet.  The basis for being able to climb slab is negotiating friction between your feet and the rock, which is why the rubber grip from climbing shoes is crucial.  Unlike most other climbing, you're not relying on being able to grab rock with your hands or rest your feet on a ledge.  It all depends on balance and friction, and continually moving. There's no visible reassurance of your stability--you just need to trust in the intangible layer sticking you to the rock.  You have to fight a lot of your instinct.  You want to reach up with your hands to hold onto rock, but there's nothing to hold on to, and doing this throws off your center of gravity.  You want to stop and rest because it's so taxing mentally, but the more you pause, the more you doubt and lose flow.  And so, like one of my climbing partners said, "The only way to climb slab is to be confident."  Confident that you can move up on rock that looks like this:

I would be happy to attempt slab all day so long as I was tied to a rope and knew that if I fell, I wouldn't fall off the side of the mountain.  But like I mentioned, you first hike up without rope and then transition to climbing with a rope.  So, on this beautiful slabby mountain, where this specific transition from hiking to climbing occurs depends on your ability and comfort level.  For me this transition happened more abruptly than I realized.  I suddenly found myself on a wide expanse of exposed rock I couldn't comfortably hike up because the slab was terrifying, but unattached to the harness and rope I needed to climb.  Not having anticipated this at all, I was wearing worn-out sneakers without any friction grip at all.  They were so slippery, I couldn't fully trust them to stick to the rock (and keep me on the rock) if I tried to climb up.  So I got stuck in one position: my toes propped on tiny edges of rock centimeters long, pressing my palms against the rock and leaning into it because there was nothing to hold onto.

My climbing partners were only ten or so feet above me, in a safe spot where they could stand.  But I couldn't for the life of me gather the courage to climb those ten feet, feeling like if I moved out of my precarious perch I would have nothing to hang onto.  At the same time, my muscles were tiring from being clenched in this position and I felt like at any moment I might weaken, lose my stance and fall, if I didn't start moving up.  And because below me was also all slab and open rock, there would be nothing to keep me from sliding further and further down the mountain.

I was also too frozen to communicate my fear to my partners, but luckily one of them noticed.  He suggested that I put on my harness so that I could attach myself to the rope. Unfortunately, I wasn't in a position to take off my bag, get my harness out, and put it on--any of those movements would take me out of the stance that held me somewhat stable.  So then he suggested that I just tie the rope around my waist, and he threw down the rope to me.  I tried to put it over myself, but at this point I was full on freaking out and couldn't focus enough to really do it.  So then he climbed down to where I was and helped me tie on the rope.  He also stood below me and put pressure on my feet so that I felt like I had more of a ledge.

The key things to know about these things:

1) The rope I had tied to myself wasn't actually attached to anything else.  Normally, it would be tied to an anchor that my climbing partner had built, that would catch me if I fell.  We hadn't had the time before my freakout occurred to actually build this anchor yet.  If I fell, there was nothing on the other end to catch me.

2) The "ledge" that my climbing partner gave my feet were just his own feet on rock.  It obviously wasn't real rock that would stay stable if I slipped.  If I fell back, I'd just take him down with me.  Also, once I started climbing up I'd be on my own (except for the rope, which again, was not attached to anything other than me).

So neither of these things actually changed how safe I was.

But they were visible.  This concreteness gave me the push to finally start moving, and obviously, I made it.

I've always appreciated the mental aspect of climbing, but that moment crystallized just how much of my movement lies in my mind. Even though I 100% knew that the rope around me was doing nothing to protect me, having it there psychologically helped me commit to climbing the slab.

Taking those steps led me to the most beautiful view I have ever seen (among the snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro, sunrise over Mt. Fuji, and skydiving over New Zealand), and one of the best days of my life.  I was so purely happy at the summit, overwhelmed by how big beauty can be.  I know I'm always calling things beautiful, because there are so many different kinds, and this generous labeling might take away from just how awesome this was.  You just need to trust that among all things beautiful, this was at the top.  And I'll post more photographs for Thursday's nature post.

It made me realize how rewarding it can be to approach everything as though you're tied to a rope attached to nothing on the other end.  Knowing there's the same amount of risk and no guarantee, but trusting enough to commit.  Because true anchors of safety rarely exist and true rare beauty does.


  1. So glad you got to see such a beautiful sight, enjoy a long climb, and that you made it up the slab. I think I would have lost my mind and my toes are curling in just thinking of that feeling of falling. Good for you and for your partner for thinking of providing visual cues of support!!

    1. I definitely should have been more prepared, more lessons for next time! Miss you and hoping you're loving the New England autumn now.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...