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From fear to eternity

After losing a job, learning to walk backward down a 150-foot-cliff.
By Lyla D. Hamilton
Spring 2007 2.15.07

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The last carabiner clicked into place. I locked it, smiled wanly at my climbing partner, and took a tentative step. I scarcely noticed the 60-pound pack on my back. There were other things to think about. I was walking backwards down a 150-foot cliff.

"Feet flat against the rock," I reminded myself; "sit in the harness." One step. Then another. Methodically, I kept the rope below me free of knots and kinks. "Breathe! Your brain needs oxygen." Then again, I thought, maybe it's better not to think.

Forty-something and just reorganized out of a corporate job, I had enrolled in an Outward Bound course. I'd always admired climbers who clung to bare rock, depending on fingertips and toes, ropes and pitons. I'd envied backpackers, too, for their special relationship with earth, air, fire, and water. I chose a course that included rock climbing, rappelling, backpacking, and a period of solitude in the desert.

As our young leaders prepared the complex rigging for the rappel, some in the group joked nervously. Others sat in anxious silence, especially after a poorly placed backpack rolled off the cliff. It banged and thumped for at least 15 seconds before reaching the bottom. I wrote in my journal.

"Your last will and testament?" someone teased.

"No," I replied. I didn't think I was going to die. Our leaders were experienced mountaineers. I trusted them. "What am I afraid of?" I scrawled.

I could fall. Probably not far enough to do serious harm. Scratches. Bruises. Worst case: a fracture. My helmet would protect my head.

I would control the speed of my descent by playing out the rope from my right hand. Stopping was as simple as bringing the rope back to my hip. I knew what to do. It must be something else.

Again, I asked: "What am I afraid of?" Finally, I heard a timid voice. Failure. "What?" I said. The voice became louder: FAILURE! "Hmm." I considered that. What was failure? Did I think I wouldn't be able to start? No. Did I think I would fall? No. Did I think I would freeze halfway down? No.

What's failure?

Then it came to me. Imperfection. Not doing it splendidly. Not doing it with style, polish, finesse. Not being the fastest. Not being the best.

When I was growing up, my mother often repeated the maxim of her school principal: "A word to the wise is unnecessary." Now I knew why I hated that saying: it made no allowance for learning.

"So you're either perfect or a failure?" I demanded. "Absurd!" I shrugged the critic off my shoulder and tucked my journal into my backpack. I'd do my best. It would be all right. Inhaling deeply, I stretched and walked to my destiny.

Standing at the edge of the abyss, I was afraid. Mustering my best little-kid voice, I wailed, "Mommmmmy!" and laughed exuberantly at its silly appropriateness. Announcing my fear reduced its power.

I focused. Took a step. Another. Paused for a photograph to prove that I'd walked off a cliff. A few more steps. "This isn't too bad," I thought. Foolishly, I glanced toward the broad sandstone ledge that was my destination. It seemed too far for any rope to reach. Fear clutched at my throat.

"Focus! Look at your feet! Breathe!" From above and below familiar voices cheered me on. Then friendly hands reached up as I maneuvered past an overhang just above the ledge. Wouldn't want to skin my knees five feet from the bottom!

Vertical again at last, I celebrated for a moment. I'd expected to be elated. Instead, I felt calm confidence and deep satisfaction. I wasn't fast or fearless. I hadn't descended gracefully. But I'd done it. That was enough.


Two days later, I was alone in the desert with sparse rations and simple gear: nuts and dried fruit, the day's vintage of iodine-flavored water retrieved from a muddy rivulet, a tarp, and a sleeping bag. For the next 24 hours, rocks, trees, and canyon walls defined my universe. Except in an emergency, I would not communicate with anyone else.

In the uncertain sunshine of early spring, I chose a site for my makeshift tent. Lizards scuttled through the underbrush. Birds sang wistfully. I saw deer tracks and coyote scat. I wasn't alone.

I sat down with my journal. Words tumbled onto paper: ruminations about the desert, the past and the future; about hopes, hurts, and decisions. I put the journal aside. If I spent all my time writing, I'd miss the essence of the experience.

I lay back and watched the clouds. Sun and shadow alternately warmed and cooled me. I thought of the people who had lived here centuries before. Everywhere, pictographs in vibrant ocher and white attested to their presence.

As the Evening Star appeared, a chill wind foretold a change in the weather. I lit a solitary candle. In a private ritual, I consigned to flame and wind the burdens and hurts I'd brought with me. At dawn, I awoke to a dusting of snow.

I sought words to express the meaning of my experience. The familiar language of combat and competition didn't fit. I hadn't conquered the cliff. My presence didn't affect the mountain; my successful descent was not its defeat.

I hadn't conquered fear. I'd let it speak but had not allowed it to govern. I embraced its healthy concern with self-preservation but not its dread and deadly seriousness. I'd let myself play. Fear can't coexist with playfulness.

I hadn't conquered perfectionism. I'd chosen not to let it paralyze me.

I certainly hadn't conquered the past. What has happened will always be part of me. It's futile to pretend to forget—and vital not to be burdened by memory.

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