Next month marks a year since my life did a complete 180. I went from running water and local organic grocery stores to a “slop bucket” (a collection of water from the sink in the place of a draining sink, since there’s often little to no indoor plumbing here) and massive town runs. I went from everything I’ve ever known and every habit I’d created to a complete new way. But some things remain the same, no matter how far we travel, no matter how far we’ve come. Some things remain.
When I first arrived last June one of my first outings was to go ice climbing. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d ever even heard of ice climbing. It sounded way out of my element and way out of my comfort zone.
The girlfriend I was staying with when I first got here (when I first thought I’d only be here for 17 days and then off to who knows where) runs a guiding service in the area. She had to work that day but knew some of the guides were going ice climbing.
“You should go along” she encouraged. I was newly adjusting to my surroundings. Getting used to peeing outside, still afraid of bears around every corner, still getting used to the light at night and the ever-changing weather throughout the day. Rainstorms followed by blazing sun to suddenly overcast and frigid. My backpack was essentially my mobile closet with everything from a toothbrush to bug spray to a fresh pair of socks. Thinking ahead was key. It was all new.
So when I heard about the ice climbing expedition, I was uncertain. I didn’t know the guides, didn’t know the gear and I didn’t totally understand the endeavor which in the end was good because it allowed me not to think far enough to realize that I would be climbing up into the air when I have a fear of heights.
I have a fear of heights.
It was something that I had all but forgotten about myself until I got here. Occasionally, back in California, there would be a beautiful sunset which we would climb up on the roof of my house and watch. I would gingerly climb the ladder, slowly placing each footstep, holding on for dear life as I scaled the 6 feet that would take me up to the roof that looked down at least 30 feet to the ground below. I would feel my stomach drop, my knees start to go wobbly and my feet begin to numb before I’d even ascended halfway. Up on the top, I’d find my nook and cranny myself into it until I had to move again in order to come down (a time which I hoped would come as soon as possible, but you know, the sun is on her own schedule. Are we there yet?). The thing was, those times were rare. I rarely scared myself, rarely had to step out of comfort, and so, until those moments, far and few between, I started to forget my fear of heights. How convenient.
But here I was, slowly realizing that the sport ice climbing contains the word ‘climbing’ which meant I was going up. Gulp. There was really no turning back. Looking back as we hiked I could barely see the town and had little to no faith of my ability to navigate the rocky terrain back to the home I had just arrived at a day or so before. And so I set out to conquer my fears, while simultaneously pretending they didn’t exist.
We hiked out to the glacier (a glacier!) over rickety bridges protecting us from the freezing water of the rushing creeks below and up and down slippery rock which was a far enough distance that by the time we got there everyone was ready for a snack. It was miles and clothing changes away, we were suddenly on exposed ice. Just the hike alone was more than I had done in recent months due to a recurring neck injury and carrying a big pack wasn’t a daily endeavor, to say the least. I worried as I realized that I already felt tired. Nevermind, snack time. With backpacks full of boots and harnesses and snacks galore, we all sat down to eat and evaluate the situation. Where would we drill into? Which were the hardest and easiest routes to climb? Clearly, I had a lot of input into these questions.
I was totally and completely over my head, but they were patient and taught me what to do. And then, just like that, the line was open. One guide offered me the option of more explanation or to just go. I chose the latter. I could feel the nervousness building and needed to beat it out of the gate. And so, with a relative hang of the idea (use these picks and your boots to climb up this enormous ice wall, get to the top and bouce-glide down) I clipped in and…
I got to the top. My knees were shaking, I couldn’t find my toe holds (it didn’t even compute one bit how a 1/4″ of metal was supposed to hold me into this ice face) and my forearms were screaming from clawing my way up with the axe but I kept going and I made it.
At the bottom, I looked up and realized I had scaled a height probably 5 times bigger than that 6 foot ladder. I was on Cloud 9. I patted myself on the back (after I’d dropped the ice pick) and hugged my girlfriend’s pup whom had followed me out for the day and had supervised my every move.
Buddha, if I fall, will you catch me?
Fear of heights be gone. Onto the next challenge. Right?
Back in California this past Fall my Mom and I celebrated our birthdays (we are a week apart. Two Scorpios. You can guess how my teenage years went. Sorry for being a terror, Ma). For mine, we took a walk. For hers, she chose a craggy cliff side stroll. There were ravines and hills to climb up along rocky cliffs. It wasn’t exactly a walk in the park (although it was gorgeous) and for the first time in a long time, I saw her fear of heights in action.
Growing up, I remember us both having fear. Now, a seasoned ice climber with one day of climbing behind me, I was coaxing her past the hairy junctions, holding her hand and congratulating her on the other side. She did it. She too conquered the fear.
We were free. Right?
As you might have guessed, nope. Wrong.
This is how I found out: in this Shoulder Season of Spring before Summer, work is very much of the pick-up variety until everyone’s full-time jobs start. I was lucky enough to pick-up work from a local restaurant that my neighbor and friends are starting. The task? Painting.
The first day we arrived (The Chief, Cinda and I. The Chief had done construction for them throughout the Winter. Days below ten degrees finally became their cut-off point (meaning work would be called off) but this was only after working multiple days in below zero temps, even 20 below one day. I barely left the house on those days. They worked outside. Total badass status/crazy, if you ask me)) our neighbor was giving us the gist of the painting process:
“There will be some real basic on the ground stuff, some 6 foot ladder stuff and then the real Daredevil parts up high”.
Ha! He’s cute. Daredevil? Look past me my friend, I thought to myself.
And then I heard myself. That standard. Height = No Can Do, in my book. But wait, I thought we had gotten past this, right?
I pushed it out of my mind as I watched The Chief scale the first wall. I had work to do on the ground, only so many people (ideally one) can be on a ladder at once and I was needed on the ground below him.
We are three weeks out of The Chief’s surgery. Ideally, he lifts nothing and does not exert himself. Since the day after his surgery he has had to break the rules in order for our house to keep running, but we’ve tried to keep it mellow-ish, despite his distaste for not doing the heavy lifting.
In comes Summer.
The day we started was the day Summer arrived and with it temperatures of 80 degrees plus.
Up on a ladder, up on a porch, all day on the sunny side of the building with his neck crooked upwards is not the ideal healing and resting situation. And so, I thought to myself as I felt my feet go numb just looking at him way up in the air, if there’s more ladder work, I will try to help take some of the brunt so it’s not just him and his sinuses up there.
Well, it turns out that I had to make good on that offer because there was a whole building to paint. A huge building.
Day two, still hotter than any of us expected and…it’s time for more ladder work.
“Babe, I’ll just do the ladder work today” I said, as simply as I might offer to divvy up the chores. You do the dishes while I haul water. I’ll pump gas while you water the plants. Simple. A trade-off. There’s work for all and it simply needs to be claimed.
I immediately regretted my decision.
Three of us (meaning The Chief and our neighbor with me bouncing around trying to find a place to be of use) moved a 24 plus foot extension ladder from one side of the building to the one in question. We propped it up and adjusted it in the rocky ground it stood upon. We were painting the second level of the building which had a hip roof (just what it sounds like, a roof below the “real” roof. If the roof of the building is the shoulders, the hip roof is, well, the hips) for the ladder to rest upon. Originally, we had discussed rigging up a harness situation in which one person would lean out of the windows of the second story and paint while tied in. As soon as we moved the ladder into place and The Chief all but ran up to the top without so much as a wobble and called it good, I realized that the harness idea was, to be punny, out the window.
Just then, a few other friends showed up. Everyone stopped working to greet them and congregated around the ladder.
My ladder. The ladder I was going to have to climb up. That was as far as I had gotten. I knew I had to climb up it. It didn’t even occur to me that simply climbing up it might not be as easy as The Chief had shown it to be. He “No-Handsed” it.
Growing up watching my favorites in the Olympics like Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan it had never occurred to me that what they were doing was all that hard. I mean, it’s teachable, right? Needless to say, the first time I went ice skating and nearly broke my rear trying to do a jump (because that is what everyone is able to do their first time on the ice) I had the hard realization that simply because something looks easy doesn’t mean that it is and if it’s difficult and someone makes it look easy, well then it might be even more difficult than anticipated. Add fear to that equation and well, you’ve got my second day of painting.
I could feel the fear mounting (where was this even coming from? I had conquered this, right?) as we stood talking, I knew that my knees and feet wouldn’t respond much longer if I just kept looking at the feat ahead of me instead of starting it. So, with everyone there, I grabbed my paint bucket and brush and started climbing. The Chief had scampered up without holding on, I got one rung up before I quickly realized that he must be part Ninja, part Panther, as I fell forward and clung to the rungs for dear life. I started up the ladder, paint brush and bucket in one hand, the other free, both sweaty. Thankfully, the crowd on the ground took this as a cue that the break was over and started to disperse, a bit. This was not a moment for spectators, I looked like a newborn fawn taking its first steps. I was awkward.
A good three minutes later I was up the ladder (something that had taken The Chief all of about 7 seconds to complete, dang Kristi Yamaguchi look-alike).
When in doubt, sit down.
I balanced one foot at the top rung and the other one rung below it and huddled to get my bearings. Bearings: well, I’m up really high. I have now become one-handed because I have nowhere to place my paint and essentially I am no handed because I need to use the other to paint.
Typically, I have pretty excellent balance, but try to balance a bucket full of fear and you get a spinning coin about to fall. Heads or tails? I decided that one, I was not going to fall and two, that I was going to at least get a few slats painted before I called it quits.
It turns out that even at full extension, my dual rung stance didn’t get me high enough to paint the highest slats. I would need The Chief’s help after all. So much for being his savior. This, I immediately saw as my out. I mean, does it really make sense to trade-off and on so that I can paint 2/3 of the top portion only to have to run and get The Chief for every last 1/3 before we (they) move the ladder again? Not at all.
This gave me the push I needed to finish my first section. My thighs were shaky from my balancing straddle (and from fear) and my positioning was awkward but I was able to power through and slowly make my way to the ground. Ah, sweet Earth. I’m never leaving you again.
Fear of heights realized, not welcomed, but acknowledged.
I rounded the corner to find The Chief.
“Hey babe, you ready to switch?”
I stalled telling him that we were switching for good. I went over to the wall he was working on (from the ground) and picked up his brush to work while he finished the last third on my area.
I had taken it on and yes, I was scared but there was something holding me back from completely abandoning the endeavor. Could I just give in so quickly? My thighs felt rested. He finished and came back over to get help moving the ladder. We summoned our neighbor for help as well.
“Babe, does this look good? Can you reach both sides from this?” He asked as they tried to place the ladder to my liking.
I couldn’t answer because if I did I would have said “Put it where you like, dear. You’re the one who will be doing the painting here” but I hadn’t fully committed to quitting the project just yet, so he got a silent reply. He thought I didn’t understand the question and so a few reconstructions of the quandary later I was finally able to answer.
As soon as our neighbor left I was able to explain my tongue tied-ness.
“I’m scared. It’s really high. It’s like…it’s really high”.
“Oh, ok. Do you want me to do it?”
I did, of course I did.
But I am stubborn and made myself try again.
We finished another section. I was starting to get my sea legs about me. I was feeling more confident. I still moved like an awkward crab but I felt a bit more at ease.
For the next ladder move the cat who had gotten my tongue had left to find someone elses. My tongue was working and I directed them where to place it.
No sooner had a climbed up (this time with no hands until at least the fourth rung. Progress.) and gotten situated did I start to feel just the slightest shift.
Was the ladder moving? No, it couldn’t be, I said to myself as I realized that this last move I hadn’t checked the footing holds in their rocky setting.
It turns out, it could be.
Just as soon as I had started planning my escape route the ladder started moving again, a good consistent very slow slide off the roof. There was no time for planning, I was falling. Simultaneously, another stopper by stopped on by. I didn’t know him. I pointed at him. “You, come here. Now. This ladder is sliding”.
He ran over and didn’t move until I was safely on the ground.
“Your footing is uneven in this rock”.
Yes, thank you.
I hightailed it to The Chief and told the story of my near doom.
Clearly seeing I was shaken, he offered again to take over.
And so I let him…
for about five minutes.
I had walked over to his previous station and spent four minutes staring at the wall before I ran back over to the hip roof happenings.
“I want to do it”.
Patiently, he climbed back down. He checked to make sure I was actually comfortable with it and that I wasn’t purely fueled by pride (ugh, he knows me too well) and then confident in my responses he gave me some pointers. I watched him run up the ladder and show me footing options and window grips to be able to hang from the window to gain reach and stability.
Perfect. Thank you. Now go away so I can look awkward as I try to replicate what you just did.
I did not replicate it. It did not look the same, I’ll tell you that right now.
But, I did get back up there and together, switching on and off we nearly finished the whole side of the building that day.
The next day I was gung-ho to start and finish the last section. My thighs were sore from bracing myself and my feet hurt from trying to grab onto any sort of traction I could find (where’s the super power of Gecko hands and feet when you need them, right B?). I was done. The last of the “Daredevil Work” would be completed and I could go back to the safety of the ground feeling like I had made headway with my fear of heights.
Well, Alaska (and years of planning and building blueprints) decided differently. You see, the building, no surprise here, is a box and thus, has four sides, all of them two stories tall. The “Daredevil Work” was only halfway through.
I feel like my only interaction with scaffolding is the famous photo of men on a lunch break in New York in 1932. You know the one.
This isn’t even scaffolding but it’s my idea of what being on scaffolding is like (if you are as brazenly comfortable as these gents are on it).
And so, lunch pail (actually, paint pail) in hand I ascended, climbing the big ladder again as it wobbled the scaffolding. I reached the top and immediately sat down (it really is the move, I’m telling you) to asses my surroundings. The Chief came up to show me how to move myself and the scaffolding up.
It’s going higher?
The best part about adjusting scaffolding is that, if you’re alone, it has to be done unevenly. You adjust one side two to three moves up by sticking your foot in a metal apparatus and (in my case) putting all your weight on it to get it to move down which raises that side up. Then, you walk uphill on the wobbly boards to the other side and do the same thing. Back and forth feeling like you’re surfing, raising up a bit more each time until you’re where you need to be. You also do all of this while trying not to spill your paint bucket everywhere or fall off.
Three separate sets of adjustments and hours later and my section was done. By the end of it I was feeling more confident again. The Chief reminded me that it takes practice, that he’d been doing this for years and to have patience. Patience, schmatience, he’s part Ninja. But he’s also a correct Ninja because by the end of the day as the winds picked up and I gained a partner in crime as we moved the scaffolding to the next section and we bounced one another around with our each and every move I found myself swaying with the boards instead of resisting them (while resisting my urge to sit down) and finding new ways to reach a little farther or lean a little more. Efficiency up, fear down. But not completely gone.
It turns out that a year ago being strapped into a harness that was attached to a rope that was bolted into ice (does that seem secure to you? Me neither but they are the professionals and it was amazing) that was held on the other end by an extremely confident crew is a little different from climbing up a ladder solo and balancing while painting on its upper rungs. I had not conquered my fear but I had faced it again, this time more seriously and man, was it determined to stay put but it wasn’t going to.
Without the stretch out of the norm how are we to remember our fears? Even more, how are we to challenge them? And how are we to start the journey past them? I had been living in the safety of a world I constructed where I knew what would come next and how to avoid it if it scared me. Here, there’s still the option to say “no” but the situations come upon me faster than I know how to plan for and thank goodness for that.
My scheduling of my safety bubble has been interrupted and fear has been a frequent visitor but even though uninvited, fear is a welcome surprise to remind me of the things we carry with us no matter where we go. Before I came here, I put a reminder in my phone to do something every day that scares me or simply puts me out of my comfort zone, be it trying a new class or getting lost and finding my way back. I had to search out those things. Now, they come to me. Oh, joy. But really, it is a joy.
I have a fear of heights and I now remember that but I will keep challenging it until it turns into “I have a slight fear”. Perhaps it will never turn into “I had a fear” but I’m sure there will be enough situations here to make it come to be if it is at all possible.
Until then, I’ll keep the reminder of my Mom conquering her fears, step by step, one foot in front of the other and of my Ninja boyfriend, making the hard look so easy that I (somewhat) fearlessly attempt it.