I stared up at the one-inch-wide crack snaking up the vertical rhyolitic lava face. At Palisade Head, you begin a rock climb by rappelling from the top of the cliff down to the rocky talus shores of Lake Superior. Because there are no bolts, no anchors, no chains, no chalk, you are truly going on two things: you go on your gear and you just go on your nerve. I didn’t come up with that idea, a New York School poet did fifty years ago. In rough summary of Frank O’Hara: life should not be lofty and contrived, but rather immediate and instinctive.
I felt the green rope sliding through my hands as I lowered myself to the ground. There isn’t a hike-around, so it’s unvisited by everyone except climbers, or perhaps a kayaker having a very bad day. At sea level there is only wind and water (and large rocks ripped down by wind and water).
I scrambled up the boulders and mapped out a line to the top, the route I intended to climb. Climbers spot a route by mentally linking weaknesses in the rock: cracks, rough spots, ledges, bumps, breaks, scars, flaws, faults. That’s what you climb. Those imperfections become the holds and protection required to balance yourself and pull yourself to the top. Pretty apposite idea to living in my book.
This is how I came to be facing a smooth, slightly overhung face with a fingercrack start, praying to find a quarter to stand on (the left wall is seemingly blank). The slant of this particular corner encourages you to both peel backward out of the wall and barndoor open to your left. At best, it’s uncomfortable. The route tests your endurance; you will burn quickly if you have to take time to fumble finding holds for your hands and feet without rest.
Recently I’ve found myself isolated on the rocky shores of my own life, looking up and seeing a few tiny heads looking back down. I’ve had pretty sizeable urge-waves to go off-belay. The Yosemite Decimal system ranks routes according to difficulty: a 5.4 might be a rough day at work or a misunderstanding. 5.10 is more like potentially losing your job, admitting a painful break up, or a hard time in life that makes you seriously question whether it is worth the effort to the top.
Disclaimer: the top is not, as my brother taught me, “looking good and feeling good.” I agree with him that most people run in hamster wheels to keep looking good and feeling good, even if it shackles them to lies or poor choices. For me, the top is an integrity move (also a phrase I coined from my bro). The top: when your values, your behavior and your thoughts synchronize and snap in place. The top is the result earned from the struggle: acting with greater personal integrity, fueling a fiercer determination, cultivating a deeper faith, pruning a relationship, even just simply multiplying gratitude. The top is not a photogenic feeling of self-esteem.
I have spent too much time on the secluded rocky shore. The people whom I love most have spent enough of their time peering down at the small dot of my existence. It’s a waste of time to yearn (that’s that idea of lofty thinking again) or wish for what could be when you are standing at the base of the cliff.
There is a call to action whenever there is insight: it is time to tie in, step up to the weakness, and just go on your nerve.