I have been doing a train-up for a mountaineering course I’m going to be going to soon. This means that I am learning to climb rocks. I have all of three days of climbing experience now, entirely on sport climbing routes (sport climbing routes have bolts drilled into the rock that you can clip into as you go, as opposed to trad routes that you have to place your own protection as you climb.)
The first day was rough. It was raining, the rock was wet, and I had never climbed before. The only thing I knew how to do was pull-ups, but no matter how strong my upper body may be (I can do more pull-ups than the average bear) it is not strong enough to haul my 215 lbs up wet rocks all day long. No matter how good you are at pull-ups, you can’t pull up on something you can’t grip. Plus, I am afraid of heights.
The second day was much better. The rock had dried off and I was learning to use my legs and body weight to hold myself on the rock. I was the first to climb a particularly demanding route, which I did on the first attempt.
The third day was better still. I crushed every route that the other guys did, muscling my way past moves that other guys just couldn’t stick. At the end of the day when everyone else wanted to quit climbing and just practice building anchors, I talked the instructor into letting me try a route he had never done before. He guessed it was a 5.10 and he told me I wasn’t going to make it. I didn’t, technically. I made it to one body length from the top before I was smoked and stuck, unable to progress any further. But I was not sketched out. I was easily able to talk through my descent plan, and conduct a retrievable rappel without leaving any gear behind.
The instructor said, “Well, I can tell we’re going to have a fun time in ----- ----- when we go down to climb there, because apparently you don’t give a f--- and you’ll try anything.”
That is a very strange assessment of me. The longer I stay in the Army, the more I realize I just don’t fit in. All the other guys assume that I just don’t care about anything because I go hard and long and don’t quit or complain when things get sketchy. They assume that I just don’t give a ----.
But that isn’t true at all. I’m not sure I understand it myself, but the one thing I am sure of is that I do, most definitely care. I don’t want to die. I love life. I love my family and my friends. I love the books I read and the faith I have been given. I love pizza and beer, comfortable chairs by the fire with a book and cup of tea, conversations with intelligent, joyful Christians. I love the sound of children laughing, I love running around the lawn with a crowd of youngsters, or sitting and feeding an infant a bottle. I love music and stories, poetry and prose, art and movies. There is so much in the world that I love. Maybe when I was a teenager I didn’t really care if I lived or died, but I haven’t been a teenager in a very long time.
I am aware, inescapably aware, that every moment of every day I spend doing dangerous things, is a moment that I risk losing all of that. I could die or be crippled for life. I could lose my eyes, or my hearing, or my legs. Most terrifying of all, I could lose my hands (I would rather lose almost anything, rather than my hands). I could spend the rest of my life a quadriplegic in a hospital bed, all because of a slip on a rock somewhere, or a stray bullet.
I care, all right. Nor am I seeking out thrills. I don’t really get any thrill or satisfaction out of the adrenaline, anymore. Adrenaline is a gift, a tool that focuses and enhances my abilities, but it is an uncomfortable feeling.
So why did I choose to climb that extra route? I can’t really explain it. Climbing is fun, on easy routes, but the hard routes just suck. There is a certain physical satisfaction in sticking that move with smooth, powerful economy of motion, but there is so much pain involved in getting there. I hate that feeling of being halfway up the rock, tired, demotivated, my forearms burning, my calves cramping and shaking, unable to go down, unsure if I have the strength to go up. It is a feeling of being trapped. When you just want to close your eyes and go to sleep, and wake up and have it all be a bad dream, but it isn’t a dream, you really are where you really are and you have no choice but to keep going, or fall, let the rope catch you (if your protection is good) and just give up.
So why did I insist on doing that extra climb? I just wanted to. What else was there to do? We were out at the site for a certain length of time. The purpose of being out there was to practice climbing, so if I’m not climbing or belaying another climber, why am I even out there? I have more useful things to do with my time. I have books to read, people to talk to, prayers to say. I think I climbed it because it would have been a waste of time not to climb.
Why am I going to keep climbing? Why am I still going to deploy and leave everything I love behind for almost a year?
Because this is what I have been given to do. The lawful authority I have freely subjected myself to by the grace of God has given me this task. Therefore this task comes from God. Somehow, in God’s economy of salvation, it is necessary for me to give up things. I don’t know how, or why, or what will come of it. I know that I would not love my family the way I do if I had not spent most of my adult life separated from them. I know I wouldn’t love hot showers so much that they almost make me weep, if I hadn’t spent so much of my life cold and dirty. I wouldn’t love pizza as much if I had never been delirious with hunger. These are symbols of some deeper metaphysical reality. Somehow, my sacrifice of life (what I look upon as my “real” life) makes that life more real, and somehow it benefits the people I love, who in turn are what makes that life my “real” life. Somehow, by becoming poorer I become richer. The armchair is more comfortable, the beer is more flavorful, the book is more meaningful.
Without tasting death, it is impossible really to live.