Don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down.
It’s taking every last ounce of willpower to keep my eyes focused on the rock face in front of me, this vertical crack that somehow, someone has convinced me to climb.
We’re rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, and I’m facing my phobia of heights in a very literal way. Exposure therapy, some might call it–doing the very thing you’re afraid of rather than avoiding it.
The fear has a firm grip on my whole body–I’m tense in all the wrong ways. I can feel it in my stomach. My arms. My chest. My furrowed brow.
It’s not that I’m a poor climber, even. I fancy myself to be fairly athletic, reasonably strong, and most importantly, stubborn. I won’t give up before reaching the top, but it occurs to me that I’m going about it in a way that’s, well, less than ideal.
You’re not going to fall. Just relax.
I feel the rope tighten above me, and I know that I’m safe in the capable hands of my guide, Mark.
The granite is far rougher than I imagined it would be, and I’m feeling grateful for the crack gloves I learned how to make earlier that morning.
They’re saving the backs of my hands from being torn to shreds, but my fingertips are still feeling the burn.
Just keep moving. You’re almost there.
In an effort to find a new foothold, my eyes can’t help but trace the line all the way down to the ground below me.
I instantly recognize my mistake and feel my palms turn clammy. I reach for my chalk bag in an attempt to offset the nervous sweating.
We’re on a feature called Intersection Rock, and I’m currently scaling Upper Right Ski Track. This rock stands at a height of roughly 60 meters (196 feet) which means in this moment, I’m dangling at something like 180 feet off the ground.
For a seasoned climber, this 5.3-rated climb would surely be a walk in the park. For me, a complete novice when it comes to outdoor climbing, this is an experience that is pushing me to my very limits.
Beyond whatever limits I thought I had when I started.
I scramble to the top of the ledge and pull myself up and over. Flat rock. Sunshine. Smiling faces. For a brief moment, I feel safe.
The guys (our guide Mark and my fiancé Hans) congratulate me on a job well done. High-fives are exchanged, and some hugs for good measure. They can tell I’m shaken in spite of my best efforts to hide it.
Then the wind blows a little too hard. I feel that unease creeping back into my consciousness.
Oh, right–I’m still on top of a giant f*cking boulder.
Our surroundings are enough to keep me preoccupied while Mark sets up our rappel. It’s absolutely gorgeous out here, there’s no denying that.
Joshua Tree National Park is a world-renowned climbing destination, and it’s not hard to see why. The landscape is littered with giant rocks just like the one we’re standing on top of–they can be seen for miles in every direction.
Each rock feature offers dozens of climbing routes. You could spend a week climbing in one area and never get bored.
So we enjoy the moment, drinking in the scenery and taking mental snapshots. We feel tiny and insignificant up here.
Then it’s time for us to rappel down the rock face I just so painstakingly climbed. It seems somehow even more frightening, but I can’t wait to be back on the ground.
Inch by inch, I tip-toe my way down the eastern face of Intersection Rock. Rappelling, it turns out, is exhilarating in its own right.
Once we’ve safely touched down on the desert floor, I can breathe easy again. Rock climbing is a thrill if ever there was one, and I can feel the adrenaline coursing through me, amping me up for the next route.
We make our way to a new rock feature called The Old Woman where we’ll take on a route named Toe Jam. It’s another crack–a wide one that requires jamming your toes in for traction (hence the name).
And this is how I know exposure therapy works: In spite of the overwhelming fear that I felt during our first climb, I feel far more confident taking on the second. The experience is already slightly more familiar to me, and therefore less frightening.
Unfortunately, my newfound bravado is short-lived. Approaching the top of the route, at the toejammiest bit, I lose my composure.
My feet are slipping, or they’re getting stuck in the crack. My arms grow tired. My palms are still sweating profusely, as is now the rest of my body as well.
On the bright side, the rest of our climbing group has arrived to cheer me on from below, which is great because at this point, I need all the help I can get.
I slip, struggle, and clamber my way up, finally reaching the top. Another climb in the victory column. Another round of high-fives.
Hans follows me this time, ascending Toe Jam in roughly half the time.
From where we sit atop The Old Woman, we can see Intersection Rock in all its glory. A lone climber stands up there, looking like just another piece of dust in the desert. A blip on the cosmic screen.
For the second time today, I feel magnificently small.
Another thrilling rappel puts us back on the ground where we discuss which climb should be our last of the day.
After conferring with the other members of the group, we settle on a rock feature named Cyclops and zero in on its best-known route, The Eye.
We wander through campsites and across paved roads. We meander along dusty foot trails that are well-marked, leading us right to where we want to go.
It’s late afternoon now, and in the desert of Joshua Tree, the sun sets early–around 4:45 pm. We’ve got time to complete one more, but barely.
By now, my feet are feeling the pinch of my brand-spanking-new climbing shoes, my muscles are fatigued, and there’s a chill in the air cool enough to necessitate the extra layer I’d packed.
We watch a few climbers take on The Eye before we make our own ascent, and I can’t quite figure out if this will be easier or more challenging than the climbs we’ve just completed.
Being the third and final climb of our day should have been indication enough that this route was not to be underestimated.
Mark climbs ahead of us, setting our gear as he goes (this is what’s known as “trad” or “traditional” climbing). Hans and I follow, this time climbing more or less side by side.
I quickly find out that I’m more tired than I’d even realized–not just physically, but mentally as well. My stubbornness isn’t taking me as far. Instead, when I hit an obstacle, I hesitate.
The fear is back.
I waste time and precious energy hanging in the same spot, not sure how to continue and too frightened to let go of the rock (even though I know full well that I’m supported and safe and won’t actually fall to a grisly demise).
I try to explain to Hans how I’m feeling, and the fear is now obvious in my voice. It’s meek, clearly trembling. Part of me feels bad for him because we both know there’s nothing he can do for me now–I have no choice but to keep climbing.
And so I climb.
It feels like an insurmountable task. I’m certain my energy is spent. The sun is now touching the horizon and we’re in the shadow of the crevice. Thanks to the effort, though, I can no longer feel the cold.
Time seems to have slowed to a crawl, and every move seems to require everything I’ve got. Shimmying up the final chimney of the climb, feet on one side and back pressed against the other, I can hear my camera gear dragging along the rock, adding insult to injury.
I heave myself up over the final ledge.
I’ve done it, I’ve f*cking done it.
Climb number three. A high-five from Mark.
The moment the exertion ends, a flood of emotion overtakes me. Tears well up in my eyes and I take a few deep breaths before giving way to the silent sobs that demand to be released.
I peer out through The Eye at the dusky scene below as Hans makes his final few maneuvers, which are far more graceful than mine.
And since I didn’t drag my camera all this way for nothing, I snap a quick photo as our first day of climbing comes to a dramatic end.
It’s a moment, a memory that will never leave me; a reminder of the tenacious spirit I’m slowly rediscovering here in the desert of California.
During the next few days of our rock climbing retreat, we stay much closer to the ground.
We’re now bouldering instead of trad climbing, which means no ropes and less height–and for me, less fear. I’m grateful the greatest challenge is behind me, and grateful for having had it, too.
Morning and night, we rejuvenate our bodies with mindful movement in the form of yoga. During the days, we climb independently.
We wander through the park with crash pads on our backs, looking for routes we can manage. We find many of them to be far more difficult than the ratings suggest (known as sandbags in the climbing world).
I enjoy this form of climbing because as much as it is about physical prowess, it’s also about intellect–they don’t call bouldering routes “problems” for nothing.
Each one is a new and exciting challenge.
We use our downtime to reflect on the experience thus far. Hans tells me he’s proud of me for facing my fears, and I feel proud of myself, too.
We rest our tired feet and hands and slather Climbing Butter on our chapped and torn skin.
It’s the weekend now, and the park feels crowded, but we enjoy pushing ourselves to very reasonable limits while soaking up the sun on a few perfect, cloudless days.
By the time our rock climbing retreat ends, we are changed. More confident. More capable. Less afraid.
Ready to become professional rock climbers? Probably not. But I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that those brand new rock climbing shoes won’t be going to waste.
Sometimes in life, we stop believing in ourselves. We forget that we need to be our own biggest cheerleaders. This rock climbing retreat showed me just how capable I was; empowered me to confidently take on the next challenge in life, and then the next, and the next after that.
Has an experience like this ever helped you overcome your own fears? Would you try rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park?