Climbing the Mountain Within
I had avoided the climbing wall at camp for 15 years. In all the time I worked at camp, much of it full-time, year-round, I never tried to climb. It was one of the few areas of camp that was a “never” for me. And the trepidation and fear of failure that went with it needed to be overcome. Not a fear of heights. Not a fear of falling. A fear of fatness. Of being too fat to fit into the harness, and too fat for the ropes to hold, and too fat to be able to lift myself up.
So, on an alumni weekend in May 2013, I found myself standing at the base of the wall, nervously being harnessed in. I figured I was stronger, I was thinner, I was more flexible, and it was time.
I tried it. I made it.
And it was nothing like I expected it to be.
See, I’d watched campers and staff climb that thing for years. It looked easy enough. I thought it was about strength, in particular arm strength. I thought it was about speed and agility. As it turns out, climbing is a lot like the weight loss journey itself: it’s about patience and persistence.
The first few steps are pretty easy. You’re close to the ground. If you fall, you just start again. It’s pretty safe and there’s not a lot of fear. Yet! You try a few different ways, because you’re just figuring out how it feels. The consequences of failing, or falling off, they’re not so dire because you haven’t invested a lot of time and energy yet, and you haven’t progressed very far. You just put your foot on the ground and then you start again.
The further up you go, the more tired you get. The desire to just quit, or at least rest, kicks in. Especially when you’re doing it in the spring at the peak of blackfly season! (Seriously. I was so bloody and bitten by the time I got back down because I couldn’t exactly swat at them when I was clinging to the wall for dear life). It’s quite a mental game, telling yourself to keep on going when you’d rather just rappel back down and go grab a cold beer.
I had some great people at the bottom, belaying and coaching. They wouldn’t let me give up. Not only did they encourage me, they offered suggestions. They had a better view of the whole wall, they could see where I needed to go, and where the holds were. When I was right up against the wall, I couldn’t see everything. All I could see was what was right in front of me. You can’t climb alone for safety reasons, obviously, but it started to dawn on me: you can’t climb alone, period, because you can’t take this kind of journey all by yourself. It doesn’t work. You need support along the way. You need people to guide you, to hold the rope and help catch you if you fall, and who can take a step back and see the bigger picture in a way that you can’t. You also need people who know how to give positive encouragement. They never barked orders. They never got impatient or frustrated with me, even though they were getting eaten by blackflies, too. My team just stayed calm and practical, talking me through the options for each next step. They wanted me to succeed, and they were phenomenal cheerleaders.
With climbing, there is no right path. The goal is to get to the top. It really doesn’t matter how you get there. And you make use of whatever you possibly can. So, at one point, I was near the edge. In my head I thought “you can only use the holds that are screwed on to the wall.” A wise voice from below called up, “use whatever you can put your hands on!” Like, uh, the giant post holding the whole wall up, and the bolt sticking out of it? Yeah. On a mountain or rock face, there’s definitely no clear path. If you can put your hand or foot on it for leverage, you do it. Why wouldn’t I do the same on this journey? Use every resource you can, whether it’s conventional or not.
Inch by inch, I made my way to the top. It was super slow. There were points that I found myself in a relatively comfortable position, on holds that had enough space for my feet to rest, and for my hands to grip without my fingers wanting to fall off. I kept looking around. The next step was just barely out of reach, seeming impossible. It was hard to let go of the comfortable spot I was at, to make the very uncomfortable and risky move to reach for the next hold. But that’s why I was stuck. Until I tried, until I reached and grasped, I wasn’t going to move forward. It took me a few tries. I fell off. Had I not been harnessed in and held on with a rope, I’d have actually fallen to the ground. But I just fell off the wall, floated mid-air for a second, and grabbed back on. It’s okay to try and fail, because without taking that risk, you can’t move. Literally. You may have to try more than once.
Because of the time of year, camp had just opened. No school groups had come through yet, and I was the first one on the wall. I think that the holds had only been set up the day before. Some of them weren’t tightened, so when I went to grab them, they turned, making them even harder to use. I found myself getting mad at whoever had set up the wall. I needed someone to blame. I think I did that a lot when it came to my weight. When I was on the wall, though, it didn’t really matter who was to blame for the situation I was in; I was IN that situation. Blaming anyone else just wasn’t going to help me move on. I had to let it go and focus on what I was going to do, what I could do with what was right in front of me. I had to take the responsibility for getting myself up the wall, regardless of who had placed the holds where.
When I finally made it to the top, I’ll be honest: it was anti-climactic. I was like, “okay … I made it … now what?” I touched the top, posed for a picture, and then rapelled back down so that we could get on to the next activity. (Mini golf, where - incidentally - I got a hole in one!). Reaching the goal felt okay, but what felt much better was the climb itself. What felt great, in retrospect, was what I went through to get there and what I learned along the way.
I thought that climbing the wall at camp would be about getting to the top and celebrating. That it would be about feeling pride in finally trying something new. It was, but what has stuck with me for much longer is the humbling metaphor for the weight loss journey. It’s a constant climb. You can’t do it alone. There is no right path to get to the top. You may get eaten alive along the way. But the only way to get there is one step at a time, taking a few risks along the way, with patience and persistence.