I feel it first in the pit of my stomach, the knowledge that my safety is in my friend James’ hands. He anchored the rope that’s holding my weight, the same rope that secures us to each other’s harnesses. James is an experienced climber. If I slip, his reflexes are my backup.
We’re at Lighthouse Park in Vancouver for my first outdoor climb. Below me to my left there’s an intimidating drop to cold, choppy water. Above me is a series of well-chalked holds. A winter’s worth of practice in the climbing gym did nothing to prepare me for this.
I’m partway up a beginner route that is tougher than anything I’ve attempted at the gym. I inch to the right, quads and biceps bulging. Below me James calls a warning. If I fall now, he says calmly, I’m going to swing wide-I’ve been moving steadily away from the top rope since I stepped off the ground. In my nervousness, I hadn’t noticed. I am momentarily petrified at the thought of swinging out over this cliff.
With a worried glance down at him, I call back that it’s not a question of whether I fall, but when.
"Trust your feet," he insists.
I have to laugh. When I started up the rock I never questioned my trust in James, but trusting myself hadn’t occurred to me.
The first time I walked into a climbing gym I nearly turned around and left-even the ceiling was covered in people, muscled and chalky and dangling precariously from every available surface. No way, I thought. I won’t make it off the floor.
My friend Heather had convinced me to take an introductory course with her, mostly to get me out of the house, I suspect. At the time, a career shift and an unexpected break-up had stolen my centre, and even something as simple as getting out of bed felt like an accomplishment to me. Even yoga, once a constant in my life, was a challenge-I couldn’t stop holding my breath.
Navigating my body up a wall seemed unlikely. I can’t do this, I thought. But Heather was counting on me.
To pass the course, we each had to take a surprise fall so the other could demonstrate her skill with the ropes. When my turn to climb came I couldn’t look down. I hadn’t ruled out a freak accident, perhaps a steadily fraying rope. I clung to the holds.
Somewhere I found the courage to let go.
It is much harder to trust my feet on this rock than on colour-coded indoor routes. Here, I need to make my own path and travel by instinct. I strain upward to reach a well-chalked hold, but I reach too far to the right. My toe slips.
"Falling," I shout.
James pulls the rope tight. I swing out over the water then back to the cliff, and then out again. It’s over. Height-wise I haven’t dropped an inch.
Across the water a ferry leaves the shelter of Horseshoe Bay. The light breeze is silk on my skin.
"Are you okay?" James calls, and I understand that yes, yes I am.
I’m swinging gently and my body is shaky, exhausted, covered in dirt. I feel beautiful. Capable. In fact, I feel more like me than I ever have in my life.
"Can I keep going?" I ask James. He nods and positions himself to support me. I wipe my palms on my cargo pants and reach for the rock again.
Adrienne Mercer is an author, freelance writer and former journalist. She lives in Nanaimo.