The Mountains and Me


The first lesson I learned from the mountains was courage

In the mid-eighties when I first separated from my husband, I decided to join a hiking club. People advised me that it was a good way to meet people (men), with similar interests. I phoned the contact for the BCMC (BC Mountaineering Club) to find out when and where the next hike would be. Larry, who answered, said it would be a while, but why didn’t I come out Wednesday night when the experts in the club were taking the new and prospective members out for a few climbing lessons. No previous experience required. He said it would be fun. “Why not?” I thought. As loneliness loomed stronger than reason, I agreed.

I met the ‘climbing’ group in a church parking lot at 5:00 p.m. on a hazy summer night. We drove to Lighthouse Park and I went for the climb. With my helmet firmly in place, I was guided to the bottom of a ten foot vertical stretch of rock. Then someone named Wayne said, “O.K. climb.” I began scrambling up the cliff and soon became severely stressed and scared. My arms, flailing for grips above my head, ached mercilessly. Finally, shaking, I made it to the top and vowed I’d never do that again. It wasn’t even that high. “Now that you’ve learned how not to climb,” Wayne said, “we’ll get on with the lessons.”

Subsequent lessons indeed proved to be much more pleasant. Late afternoon drives up the Squamish highway were rewarded with warm colourful sunsets above the tree tops, lots of fresh air, and entrance into the secret club of those who understand what real roped climbing implies. I successfully climbed up (and down) a twenty foot high sheer cliff on my second night. I would not have believed it possible. And yet I did it! I was impressed.

Roped climbing, although not difficult, stretches the limits of most people’s courage. And, suffice it to say, you must know what you’re doing, and you must be prepared. What I quickly acquired was a great deal of respect for the participants. The sport involves something expressed as “low probability, high consequences”. What this means is that the chance of being hurt, providing you follow the rules respectfully, is slim to none. What it also means is that if you do get hurt, your injury may well be serious. Real climbers don’t take chances. An improperly anchored carabiner could result in a a fall to your death. It makes you think carefully about it before you start, doesn’t it?

My teachers were experienced, careful, responsible, and fun! After several lessons, however, I reached the end of my interest. It stretched me too far to climb up on faith – and to have no idea afterwards how I made it. Plus that rule – what you go up you must come down – caused me to balk. I never did acquire a pair of those soft “fly feet” shoes that mark the entrance to serious rock climbing.

As the end to my last climbing night I had the privilege of ‘belaying’ someone else. My partner was thrilled because he could concentrate on climbing and I didn’t need a turn. My task was to sit quietly at the bottom of the cliff and hold on attentively to a rope that was fastened to his climbing harness. The rope was a backup in case he slipped. Occasionally he did go for a swing on it. Cool. He was working on “overhangs”.

The final point of this story – the reward – was that when I returned to my normal participation in hiking – walking on trails – I had lost my fear. Once you experience that an inch of rock is a more than adequate perch, a three to four foot wide path seems overly generous, even when edged by a steep drop. And as for suspension bridges – Vancouver’s favourite tourist thrill – instead of looking impossible, they now beckoned, wide and secure. They had railings. You couldn’t fall off if you tried! I trotted across with impunity.

I’m glad my enlightenment came in time to influence my kids. I believe now that the fears I used to carry had been taught to me somewhere along the way. Taking risks within safe boundaries has allowed me to learn and change. I have broken a pattern that my parents imposed on me. My children now trot cheerfully along side of me, (yes, those people were right about the men), and are not afraid. Since I took the courage to face my fear, that fear has lost its grip on all of us.


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