One of the girls on my Outward Bound trip, Danielle, had a fear of heights. As 16 year olds we spent so much time saying we had fears or phobias of things that made us nervous or uncomfortable—spiders, the dark, public speaking—that meeting someone with a genuine phobia was almost surprising. It was a non-issue for most of the backpacking section; the Appalachian in New Jersey is not known for high cliffs, peaks and vistas. But the last day before our canoeing section was rock climbing, and that would be an issue.
At that point in my life I had climbed many trees, rock walls in gyms, and banisters and popcorn containers when I was learning to walk, but this was the first time that I remember top roping outdoors. It’s not my experience climbing that made it so memorable, but belaying. After an overview of the mechanics of belaying and a general rock climbing orientation, we were assigned partners. Whether it was random or not, I was paired with Danielle.
She wanted to go early, so there wasn’t time for her fear to build, but she was still nervous.
She stepped towards the wall. One handhold, then the other. One foot up, then the other. She was on. She made it about two feet off the ground, asked to come down, and inched down off the rock face. That was it. The rest of the group went up as we cheered them on. Danielle belayed me, and maybe it was that experience that made her say, “I want to try again.” I was touched when she turned to me and said, “Will you belay me?” We both clipped in, checked the locks on our carabineers, and approached the wall.
Everyone’s focus was on Danielle. I gave her as little slack as possible as everyone cheered her on. Every possible handhold or foothold was pointed out, every hesitation was met with encouragement to keep going just one more foot, and every time she stood up fully there was a huge cheer. We were all behind her, 100%. Her goal had been to make it further than the first time, and she inched higher and higher, up to the top of the trees. Suddenly there was nothing behind her but air. At that point I don’t know if she looked out or if she just felt less protected. She stopped.
“One more step!” Everyone yelled up.
“No. This is it, I want to come down now.”
I took all the slack out of the rope, “Okay Danielle, just sit back, hold onto the rope, I’ll bring you down.”
She didn’t move.
She was frozen on the wall. All the voices that had been so loud in pushing her further and further up the wall and out of her comfort zone, were now silent. I could feel my instructors’ eyes on me. It was just me and Danielle, and we were both acutely aware of the fact that the only thing keeping her safe on those rocks was a 10mm rope that I held tightly at the base of the cliff.
My mom tells a story from when I was 5 or 6 years old. She was inside and heard me calling her. When she came outside she didn’t see me at first, until she looked up. In the copse of trees in front of our yard she saw my, in her words, “little face peeking out of the top of the trees.” Those trees were maybe six inches in diameter at the base, and my little face swayed back and forth in the breeze. I’m so thankful for how my mom reacted, her split second decision: ‘I will not make my fear into her fear.’ How different my life would be if she had panicked, if she had demanded I get down, if she had said anything other than what she did: “Wow, look at you!” I beamed.
As I looked up at Danielle, I had the same thought as my mother; I will not make my fear her fear.
“Okay, don’t worry, I’ve got you. Feel how little slack there is in the rope? I’m holding you up. See that rock by your left elbow? Move your hand down to it.”
“I can’t let go.”
“The rope is locked, you won’t move.”
I talked her through moving her handholds, then said, “Danielle, I’m going to lower you. It’s going to be 5 inches of rope, and I’ll go slowly.”
I don’t know how long it took. I walked her through every movement, every time I let more rope out. I said “I’ve got you,” so many times it didn’t even sound like words anymore. My right hand had a clear imprint of the rope. But I wasn’t shaking, my voice was clear, my feet braced shoulder width apart, eyes trained on Danielle. Everyone else was silent. She made it down. She didn’t let go until her feet were on the ground, and she ran over and hugged me, almost knocking me over. She did it. I did it. A wave of relief washed over me. It was only then that I started to shake. It took me three tries to unclip my carabineer.
For both of us, that experience was an accomplishment, and it’s permanently impacted my outlook. She didn’t make it to the top, but I’m more impressed with how far out of her comfort zone and past her personal goals she made it than I am with anyone who made it to the top. I don’t even remember who made it to the top. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t remember my own climb, but the gratification and accomplishment of that paled in comparison to supporting Danielle. I recall those feelings frequently now as I spend my time bouldering. When I struggle to complete a V3, it could be hard to see someone else monkey up a V10, and it could feel disingenuous when they encourage and support me on something that would be easy for them. But it never does. I know without a doubt that they genuinely feel accomplishment when they help me reach a goal, even if they could do it with ease. Their support and enthusiasm when they congratulate me is genuine. It’s so hard sometimes to remember that success is personal, not comparative, and whenever I forget that I think of Danielle, who’s still in some ways the most successful climber I’ve ever known.