Last week I started a Military Mountaineering course. The first week was mostly individual skills, knots, ropes, systems, etc. but on Friday we went out to the rocks in a canyon to practice placing protection and building anchors. It involved no real climbing, but lots of scrambling around some class 4 terrain. (Class 4 terrain is considered the highest non-technical terrain. After that it is classified in 5's: 5:1 being like a rather rough, broken staircase to 5:15 which is more like a wall of glass at vertical or greater.)
So I was scrambling my way up these slopes which a few weeks ago would have scared me a bit, but after a week in Oregon doing actual climbing, these slopes were just fun. I wasn't wearing any gear, hiking boots instead of climbing shoes, no ropes. I was just friction smearing my way up the rock like spiderman, running on up that thing like it was my job. We did a run through the canyon earlier in the week, and I was flying up some fairly technical terrain in nothing but shorts, t-shirt and vibram five-finger shoes. One of the guys spent his lunch hour bouldering without gear.
And suddenly, despite my fear of heights, I could understand why people climb for fun. I have only spent six or seven days on the rocks in my life, training up for this course, and although I was terrified half the time, just touching the rock again was exciting. After climbing 5:7's and 5:8's (and top roping 9's and 10's just to look like an idiot) that little 5:0 scramble was nothing. It was fun. Rock climbing has given me an awareness of my body that is unlike anything else I've ever done. I have done weightlifting, martial arts, running, swimming, hiking and kettlebelling for years, and each one has heightened my physical awareness in its own way. At the peak of that awareness, for instance when pulling off a smooth transition to the mount, or throwing in an armbar, or snatching a kettlebell with absolutely perfect form, there is a feeling of quietness within the storm of energy and movement all around. In a way it is analagous to the love I have for really, really tough mental problems. If the problem is tough enough it takes up my entire brain, so for that time when I am working on it my mind is quiet.
Rock climbing is like that. It is utterly focusing, physically and mentally. The feel of everything is enhanced. The sound of birds, the smell of the dust and wind, and especially the feel of the rock under my hands. I have always been an extremely tactile person. I love the feel of things.
Then there is the internal awareness of my body's strength, flexibility, weight, balance, movement. The physical knowledge my body has of how to shift my weight, keeping pressure on the hand or foot that has traction, while flowing steadily into the next move is amazing.
And I am not even a good climber. I am strong but I am also heavy, 215lbs most days. I am not tall so I lack the reach that might balance out the weight. But when I climb an easy route, well within my ability level and just flow up it like water, I can see why the real climbers, the guys who weigh 140 or less, keep on doing it over and over, every day. It makes you feel alive.
So although I know next week and the weeks following when I am climbing serious rocks again, back up in the 5:7's and 8's, hundreds of feet up with exposure that would make an eagle woozy, I will be terrified. I will get halfway up and the only thing I will be able to think will be, "I want to go home." I know I will have to force my mind away from pointlessly dwelling on how much I don't want to be up there, and that I will want to quit. But God willing I won't quit. On the other side I will be more alive than I am now. Even if I plummet to my death. ;-)
The glory of God is man fully alive.