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Fear!
CLIMBING IN THE SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS
BY HEATHER SCHLEGEL
EXCERPTED FROM JACARÉ NO.8

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I'd forgotten what real fear and pure terror felt like. These are not emotions that one likes to acknowledge, let alone feel. However, while rock climbing I felt both fear and terror along with accomplishment, determination, and challenge.

A few months ago I decided that rock climbing would be something fun to try. There were plenty of rock gyms nearby, but I wanted to be out in nature, on real rock. Clint and I were beginners. My only climbing experience was rappelling down a cliff, while at camp, and some free rock climbing (without a rope) while hiking. Research led me to Robert Munio, a man who teaches rock climbing to all ages. We met him on a very early Sunday morning to climb Goat Rock in the Castle Rock State Park south of the San Francisco Bay.

After a short hike we reached Goat Rock, which would have a view of the Monterey Bay when the fog burned off. All we were looking at had been submerged beneath the ocean long ago. This morning, we saw a bay of fog, which looked like a big white blanket settling into the valleys where the eucalyptus and redwood trees grew.

We contented ourselves to look at the view while Robert started setting up. He handed us harnesses and showed us how to put them on. (I had never been in such a contraption.) Robert set up what he called the “webbing,” the series of ropes that went from the anchor (a tree, bolt, or in our case a huge formation on top of the rock) over the side of the cliff. We used two ropes, each made especially for rock climbing and able to support between 4000-6000 lbs. The idea of a piece of rope being the only thing keeping me from gravity's grasp was scary, but exciting at the same time.

Robert had set up three climbs, and each was assigned a number indicating its difficulty. The first was a 5.5, a very easy climb. The rock for this climb was sandstone with lots of handholds and footholds. It looked like Swiss cheese and was a great rock for a first climb. The second climb was a 5.7. This rock was a challenge for us beginners, but very doable. There were fewer places to grip, and we really learned some of the techniques of climbing on this one, like smearing (smashing the side of your foot into the rock face, pushing with your leg) and finding holds where there seemed to be none. The final climb was a 5.7–5.9. Completing this one was a real challenge. The grips were varied and near the top the rock jutted out to form an overhang.

Robert taught us about belaying and why it is so important. The belayer is the person holding the rope at the bottom or the top, the person who can put the brake on and stop a partner’s fall. Safe climbers climb in pairs, and the climber must have complete trust in his or her partner. Your partner is the one who catches you if you lose your grip. After practicing belaying it was time to leave the anticipation on the ground and climb the rock.

I put my shoes on, tied a figure eight knot to my harness and looked up. The first few steps were fairly easy (I started on the Swiss cheese route). I was surprised at how easy the handholds were, and how my fingers found cracks and ledges almost on their own. When I was about 15 feet above the ground, I became aware that I was climbing and I couldn't believe I was actually doing it after wanting to for so long. I looked out over the forests. The view was beautiful. I looked down and the taste of fear came to my mouth. My fingers were finding the holes and ledges, but what would happen if I lost my grip? I'd fall. The anticipation of the fall was so much more fearful than the fall itself. In fact, the falls turned out to be pretty fun.

Eventually, I was climbing up to the overhang on the third climb. Once I got up as far as I could climb, Robert told me to let go of the rock and swing out into the air to be lowered down by the belayer. This scared me the most. I knew the rope would hold me, but I still didn't want to let go. It was the unknown space between the place I occupied (on the rock) and the ground where I would feel safe. I psyched myself up and let go, swinging wide into the space. It was great. I was hanging in the air between the rock and the gorgeous bay by a piece of rope.

After several rounds of climbing up the various rocks, we decided to rappel down. Robert set up two rappel lines and we tied ourselves in, ready to do some sideways walking. Getting into place to rappel is a lot scarier than the actual rappelling or even climbing. I had to lean back against the empty air, supported only by the rope. I had to have complete faith in the person holding the rope. The taste of fear again rushed into my mouth and my heart beat fast. Another couple steps and I was into it. Climbing down was just as fun as climbing up!

Covered with dirt and swear and nursing tender fingers, we hiked back to the car and agreed this was a day well spent. I remember the beautiful views of the forest and the Bay I saw that day. I remember looking close for handholds. But mostly I remember the accomplishment I felt, knowing that I had used my body to get where I wanted to go. I had used the strength of my muscles and mind to climb up that rock, and not taken the path alongside it.

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