Your brain reluctantly quiets your instincts and adapts to the danger that comes with clinging to the side of a cliff

I perched on the ledge, my fingers gripping a small piece of rock, and looked up at the expanse of limestone before me. There were no holds to grab onto and the nearest ledge was out of reach. I searched the crag surface with my eyes and ran my hands over the rock but there was nothing, so I shifted my position on the ledge, a few feet to my left, and looked up again. There it was. Another ledge and a foothold that I could use to reach it. I stuck the toe of my climbing shoe into the hold, lifted myself up, grabbed hold of the ledge and pulled myself onto it. Standing on the ledge, I took a deep breath and looked up. Onto the next move.

I had been indoor rock climbing a couple of times but this was my first time outdoor rock climbing. There is something about climbing an actual, natural, dirt-covered cliff face that has always appealed to me, so when Conservation Halton and ONE AXE Pursuits started offering an introductory rock climbing course at Rattlesnake Point, I was in.

Sure enough, rock climbing outdoors is a different beast. There are no bright, coloured hand holds to reach for or distinct foot holds to push off from but there is dirt, mud, moss, sticks, stones and rocks. There is no air conditioning or florescent lighting but there is the wind in your hair and the sun on the back of your neck. When you climb outdoors, you never know if the nearest rock will be within a reasonable reach. You don’t even if the rock you’re reaching for will hold.

Faced with these natural elements, I quickly learned that climbing is about adapting to the natural features of the rock—not the other way around. You might find a lip in the rock that has become smooth from the grip of so many hands but you can’t change the shape of the cliff. Instead, your fingers adapt to the strain of holding onto thin ridges. Your forearms adapt to the demands of your hands as you grab onto holds and tighten your grip. Your shoulder muscles adapt to the opposition of gravity as you pull yourself up onto a ledge. Your back muscles adapt to the weight of your body as you hold yourself close to the cliff. Your abdominal muscles adapt to keep your body in control as you climb through positions. Your leg muscles adapt to each lip and ledge where you might be able to stand, balance on the balls of your feet or even just wedge your toes. Your breath starts out quick and frantic but eventually slows, deepens and adapts to the push, pull and pause pattern of climbing. Not used to staring straight into the face of a rock formation, your vision adapts to the challenge in front of you with enhanced depth perception. Your brain reluctantly quiets your instincts and adapts to the danger that comes with clinging to the side of a cliff.

In rock climbing, the route you take up the cliff is referred to as the “problem” and it occurs to me, as I maneuver my leg up onto a boulder and then find myself suddenly stuck, that this term couldn’t be more appropriate. I look around for a foot hold to push myself up the rest of the way but I don’t see anything, so I maneuver my leg off the boulder and look for another route. Just like you can’t surmount a tough rock climbing route using brute force, you can’t overcome obstacles in life by being stubborn and rigid. Whatever challenges or changes you face—going through a breakup, losing your job, dealing with debt, moving to a new city or becoming a parent—you have to be willing to adapt. In addition to basic knots and safety skills, the ONE AXE instructor leading course at Rattlesnake Point helped me adapt and use what was available to me, whether that was a hold that I hadn’t noticed, the strength of my own legs or the courage to leap to another rock.

As my afternoon of rock climbing at Rattlesnake Point came to a close, I completed my final climb. I hauled myself onto the last ledge, climbed into an enclave in the rock, clambered to my feet and turned around. Down below, the treetops were so lush that they obscured the forest floor. Farm fields formed a patchwork of land. In the distance, the other side of the escarpment defined the landscape. Just above me, turkey vultures soared through the sky. As tough as a climb might be, and as challenging as life can get, the view from the top is worth it.

This introductory rock climbing course was part of the Try It Series, hosted by Conservation Halton in partnership with ONE AXE Pursuits. To learn more about the series and register for one of the Try It: Rock Climbing courses, click here.

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Last modified: July 6, 2018

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