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My cynical mind and the bright light of Alex Honnold

alex

We got our tickets to see Alex Honnold a month in advance. It seemed like a cool little event worth attending, not because of Alex’s climbing ability, which is incredible, but because Alex seemed like a thoughtful person who had something to say. I was more interested in him as a person than him as a climber. Did he have something to say, and more importantly, did he have something to say worth listening to?

As the date of the event grew nigh, I realized he would be in town the day I returned from work related travel. I didn’t feel well on the drive home and started to question whether I would attend the book signing and even the presentation later in the evening – which was what I really wanted to attend.

How badly did I really want to go to this thing? I asked myself.

My climbing days were lean at best and non-existent at worse. I can’t even call myself a weekend warrior as work and kids suck up most of my time and every choice invariably requires giving up one thing for another. I had also lost touch with those in the climbing community as our lives seemed to go in different directions and I felt like a poser calling myself a part of it anymore. So with 30 minutes between getting home and the book signing started, I was still up in the air, but the family wanted to go and so I hurried over. How bad could it be, right?

When we opened the door to The Desert Rat we were greeted to a line snaking its way around the small outdoor store. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was and felt a little discombobulated as we meandered through the crowd to the end of the line. We stopped and visited with friends we had not seen in what seemed like ages and I felt a twinge of remorse for the lost time because it great to see them again.

As I stood in line I realized I didn’t know anything about Honnold’s book and wasn’t sure I wanted to buy a copy just for the hell of it. What was it about? I thought. Is it just about climbing? I finally asked a guy behind me if I could look at his copy to see what the book was about.

“In Alone on the Wall, Honnold recounts the seven most astonishing climbing achievements so far in his meteoric and still-evolving career.”

It sounded okay but along with not having time to climb, I don’t have a lot of time to read, so I choose my books carefully. I didn’t want to waste my time reading a book that just recounted climbing stories. I handed the book back to the guy.

Do I really want to spend my money on this? I thought. I honestly just wanted to hear him speak. That being said, I also didn’t want to spend an hour in line just to get up there and shake the guy’s hand – how weird would that be? So I bought a copy of the book and got my obligatory signature and photo, chatted with some more friends and then headed home for dinner.

We had time to kill after eating so we sat down to watch a TV show and again I found myself up in the air about attending the presentation. I was home, it was warm and cozy, and I was relaxed and weary. It was raining and cold outside and I didn’t want to leave again. But my curiosity won out. I wanted to hear what Alex, the guy I had seen in so many Reel Rock films, had to say, because in the films he came across as someone who could stand alone and think for himself, who lived by his own code seemingly humbly and with humor, and who was not afraid to put his opinion out there. That was who I came to see and that was who I hoped to read about in the book.

In other words, I wanted to listen to Alex because I liked him.

So I bundled up and headed out again. The auditorium was packed with excited fans and when Jason Hurst finally introduced Alex, the crowd burst into applause and anticipatory cheering.

Right off the bat I was stoked about his presentation because he told us he was going to talk about his recent trip to Kenya. He was relatable, funny, witty, humble, snarky, and the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed guy I had seen in the films. It was a pleasure to walk through his adventures with him. But the best parts were those when he wandered off into the world of ethics and morality.

Honnold spoke about dying glaciers, mourning elephants, and the struggle between conservation and destruction as if in wide-eyed wonder at what he had stumbled upon. His words and emotion were a mixture of awe and dismay, of sincerity and conviction and at times he seemed to be thinking out loud – and we the audience could hear him as he formed thoughts about what he had discovered.

It was refreshingly genuine. He wasn’t regurgitating what he had heard from others and he wasn’t promoting environmental tag lines that revealed the cool club he belonged to. He spoke clearly and honestly about what he saw.

Being of like mind I thought, if there was ever an effective spokesman for the moral crises that humanity faces in regard to our disregard of the earth’s systems and life and our intimate place in them, however reluctantly he may be, he is it.

Honnold did not pitch a movie about environmentalism and then spend the whole film showcasing his climbing. He went on a climbing trip and tripped into something significant that impacted him – and then it impacted us. He did not state any absolutes or try to convince the audience of anything, he stated simply what he saw and invited us to see and experience it with him. It was compelling.

At the end of his presentation I discovered that all of the proceeds from his book are going to his foundation to give to people who need it the most. I work hard for my money and have precious little of it, so I was thrilled to find out that my hard earned $20 was going to more than shaking a man’s hand, and more importantly, going toward something I care deeply about.

Mary Oliver, in describing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism said, “All the world is taken in through the eye, to reach the soul, where it becomes more, representative of a realm deeper than appearances: a realm ideal and sublime, the deep stillness that is, whose whole proclamation is the silence and the lack of material instance in which, patiently and radiantly, the universe exists.”

Emerson said, “Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the higher point of view.” And I think that is what Honnold shared. He climbed, but while he did, he took in the world where it reached his soul and was transformed into something more. It was about more than climbing. It was about what climbing invites you into, what you can see, and what you become through it – if you choose. I saw Honnold using his climbing wealth to give back.

And perhaps therein lies the greatest responsibility of those who contemplate and think and are moved to act: to let the world penetrate the soul and then open one’s mouth and speak authentically about it.

While I admire Alex Honnold the climber, and I know it is that which got him the platform from which to speak in the first place, his climbing is not what moved me. He moved me. I am a fan of the man and I hope that his experiences compel him to speak more, to share more of the internal make-up of who he is, because beautiful form in a person of substance is an inspiring combination the likes of which lit up my cynical mind. And the best part? He inspired my kids. That alone was worth the price of five books- and every minute it takes to read my copy.

The Fine Line Between Being Safe and Living in Fear

Crawford Arch, Zion National Park

Crawford Arch, Zion National Park

Originally published by the Philadelphia Rock Gym

Crawford Arch is a thin spindle of an arch. From the valley floor it looks like a toothpick leaning against the massive rock formation it stems from. Until someone told me you could hike to it, it never occurred to me that it was possible to see it up close. But from that moment on, I wanted to see it for myself.

That day came in March. A group of us met up in the pre-dawn of a cold morning and set out on what would be a 12 hour day hike up to the arch and back down. We made our way in the warm glow of the morning sun, enjoying the solitude and beauty of the backcounty. Upon arriving, the arch was even more spectacular than I had imagined. It looked like the rock wall just sprouted a root. The arch looks delicate, fragile – but when you get to the top of it, it’s a good 10 feet across. I made my way out to where the arch starts to curve and sat down, the first of the group to perch atop it. I waved to my husband to join me for a photo.

Crawford Arch

View upon arrival

He climbed up and then hunched down, not sure he wanted to join me out there questioning whether it would hold his weight. My friend who was taking the photo for us, not realizing that all he had to do was touch the screen of my phone for a photo, and the fact that the sound was off and it doesn’t show a screen shot once a photo has been taken, caught the entire sequence of me cajoling my husband out next to me.

There is a somewhat funny shot of me pointing at the spot next to me and him looking at me with doubt. I posted this photo on Facebook, joking that he was a chicken. A friend of mine responded with a comment that two of her friends had suffered accidents at this arch; one had died and the other suffered body crushing injuries after falling. She then said, “Not worth it.”

I have many fears, but fear of heights is not one of them. This lack of fear comes in handy for outdoor adventure that includes high elevations and sheer drop-offs like climbing, canyoneering, and peak bagging. But I do have different fears and a healthy sense of danger. If something makes me nervous, I will not push it. At no time was I nervous on that arch. As I read my friend’s comment I couldn’t help wondering what her friends had been doing the moment before they fell. Were they goofing around or doing something risky? It’s possible. In my mind, the only thing that would make the arch dangerous is a lack of humility and safety.

Life is inherently risky. It is easy to assign danger and risk to activities like climbing because it “looks” dangerous, but we could die in a car accident on the way to the crag. Obviously my friend suffered from these accidents and has determined that hiking to Crawford Arch is not worth it. And maybe it’s not. But in my mind, there is a fine line between being safe and living in fear. Life is a delicate and exquisite thing, but the pay off comes in spending it. A spider would never catch its prey without the intricate workmanship of its fragile, yet strong web.

We will all die someday, that’s 100 percent guaranteed. No one escapes death. We can live in mortal fear of how that death with come about or we can choose to focus on what we want and live while we can. As William Wallace said in Braveheart, “Everyone dies. But not everyone really lives.”

Life amounts to the decisions we make. Will I climb or decline to try because I might look stupid if I can’t do it? Will I go for that peak or just look at it from the ground? One decision is not better than the other, but your life will amount to the decisions you made; and that culmination will not matter to the world, but to you. In the secret recess of your mind will you wonder, “What if I had tried?” Not everyone has a burning desire to test their limits, but some do, and if that is you, answer the nagging question, “Do I have what it takes?” Swallow your pride and try. Be willing to change who you are now for who you want to become tomorrow.

It’s such a cliché to say that life is short, but if you are older like I am, that phrase has taken on some real meaning, and if you are young, you will discover just how true it is in time. We never know how long we have. If you have an aching desire to try something, take the steps to achieve it. No one climbed Half Dome before learning how to climb first. Overcoming fear is a process like anything else, but as you learn and grow and become stronger, the fear abates and turns into knowledge, confidence, and possibly expertise.

In order to achieve great things we must dare great things, even if the beginning step is putting on a harness and climbing a wall at the climbing gym, because each step is a personal victory. Everyone has to start somewhere. For me, it was getting over my fear of looking stupid. My first time climbing I climbed with a 5.14 climber that I didn’t know very well. I was sweating and nervous and terrified. But I did it. I was 36. That decision changed my life.

Ultimately the worth of attempting something challenging or dangerous is personal. My friend decided that the risks of seeing an arch 2,000 feet up the side of a mountain are not worth it. It was worth it to me. The climb to that arch, the 300 foot rappel to get down, the wind whipping through my hair and an entire golden canyon beneath my feet are the moments I live for. For me, life is most beautiful in those moments of decision when I dare to live.

This is a guest blog I wrote for the Philadelphia Rock Gym. If you are ever in the Philadelphia area, check’m out: http://www.philarockgym.com/

First view

First view

Looking down

Looking down

Blown away

Blown away

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