“I agree that readers are often poorly served when an author writes as an act of catharsis, as I have done here. But I hoped something would be gained by spilling my soul in the calamity’s immediate aftermath, in the roil and torment of the moment. I wanted my account to have a raw, ruthless sort of honesty that seemed in danger of leaching away with the passage of time and the dissipation of anguish.” - Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air
When I thought of climbing, I often conjured images of those Everest dudes who spent time courting yak favors in Nepal. Over time, and after making rock-climbing friends, I thought of climbing as the daredevil impertinence of youth in a bronzed Greek form of man, a lean, muscled maniac who seemed to scream at God himself, “I will rise without you!”
It was impossible, then, to think of rock climbing without also thinking of immanent death. Climbing has been cast as a reckless sport for adrenaline junkies, extreme in its stakes and demands. It's accused of not being cerebral - smart people, critics claim, wouldn't take such risks for momentary pleasures. To the uninformed, the sport seems to be for those who reached a peak or level of boredom with "normal" fitness efforts, a parthenon for the athletic elite, the gods we worship but will never ourselves become.
Certainly, looking at the glossy photos in Rock and Ice magazine, one gets the sense that climbers are of a chosen genetic order with enviably low body fat percentages, and inherited DNA that makes them flexible, fierce, and fabulous. In some ways, the climbing physique represents the finest Grecian example of perfect formed and tone. No other sport I know builds such perfected bodies.
Which could explain why the sport itself has an undercurrent of delicious sexual tension. Even I, in my spectatorship, have known my fair share of these rocktastic specimens. I’d be lying if I claimed I had not, more than once, dreamed of climbing their crags and formidable inclines just to sit atop and admire the view.
Some rocks just beg to be climbed.
Rope tension aside, there’s more than the visceral physicality attracting me to the sport. Project Up, or “P’UP” is about reclaiming and redefining myself. By all accounts, I represent the stereotypical American physique: soft, white, lumpy, and sedentary. Though it’s true that I took up cycling three years ago, I cannot claim proper membership in that community. I am, despite my efforts and enthusiasm, a newbie amateur.
Somehow, in my years of questing intellectual excellence, I let my body fall into disrepair. Part of this, I suspect, has something to do with my self-esteem. I have been viciously unkind in my self-perception, and like many American women, I have paid too high of price. I cannot remember a time, even in my youth, when I did not hate my body, its swells and recesses, the very geography of self.
Like many women who loathe their physical selves, I too have embarked on many shortsighted and impatient diet adventures. I’ve been a member of a national diet mechanism, paid my dues, stood on the public scale, and counted every thing by its caloric number. I’ve wasted years treated food as the enemy, as something counter to what it truly is: gasoline for a great machine.
I’ve deprived myself, filled my soul with self-incrimination, blamed my failures on willpower instead of the dieting industry, and wept while standing on a bathroom scale. My measure as a human being, as a soulful woman with a vision of love beyond the bump-and-grind of lust and impulse, has always rested on what the numbers on the scale revealed.
To conjure spiritual deprivation, to unleash an evil of consuming and unrelenting ambition, all I had to do is weigh myself. The number was always the sign of the beast, and the desolate hell of self-loathing was inescapable. I have used my body as an excuse to deny myself optimism, opportunities, and even love. I have wasted years thinking that my appearance, and not my perspective, rendered me unlovable. I settled for less, and less always brought pain, but because I had decided I was worthless it all worked out. I got with every injustice and bruise, exactly what I secretly believed I deserved.
P’UP is my inquiry into an alternative perspective. It began as an extension of my daughter’s recovery. After her perpetrators were arrested, I took her to our local climbing wall to help her envision her violated body as a stronger, spiritually beautiful one. We learned from her exploration that climbing could unleash the sort of raw determination she needed to recover from being the victim of violence. The harder she worked at it, the more she learned to respect herself. It was an intense but captivating view of both her moxie and the exorcism of her past, breathtaking and spectacular.
Many in the local climbing community knew her story, and as I sat on the bench one day, one of them, Jon Cannon, asked, “When are you going to get up there?”
At the time, my demons wouldn’t let me see the possibility. I laughed at his question, thinking I was too old, too fat, too worthless, to even try.
“Oh, I don’t know, dude. I’ll just watch.”
I assumed my worn place on the sidelines, smiled to hide my self-loathing, and he, bless him, didn’t ask me that question again. Another year passed, another year of restlessness, of lies and self-abuse held firm.
Then, miracle of miracles, I turned forty. I didn’t throw a party. I opened mailed cards and packages in solitude. I didn’t toast my milestone, nor did I grieve my truly misspent youth. Instead, I sat at my kitchen table, writing in my journal, trying to forget Jon’s question.
“When are you going to get up there?” haunted me. And the more I thought about it, the more climbing became a metaphor for something else. I began to wonder when I was going to get off the sidelines, get out of my vicious cycle of self-loathing, and dare to re-imagine my life and potential.
As a teacher, I often lead students to take on metamorphosis as inquiry, to reconfigure their imaginations in order to embolden them to live richer, fuller lives. It’s passionate work, and I am committed to it. But in the silence of my apartment, in my imposed solitary existence, I began to wonder why it was so easy to help others to do the very thing I denied myself.
The nib of my pen bent beneath the pressure of my self-questioning. As ink pooled onto the page, I realized I didn’t want to live another year as I had spent the previous twenty. By the end of the night and a bottle of wine, I decided I deserved the right to unleash my moxie and exorcise my demons. I decided it was time to get UP.
And P’UP was born. For the next 365 days, I will invest my energy and mind into climbing as both sport and philosophy. Recording my progress and setbacks, my inquiries and discoveries on this blog, I will do my best to explore the sport and its potential for everyday folk, even those who think they’re too old, too fat, or just too settled to try something so new, and so difficult.
Like Krakauer, I’ve decided to track my journey and share my tribulations in real time, before the “roil and torment of the moment” has time to fade into introspection. I will share my process of becoming a climber, beginning with my work at an indoor climbing wall in Lincoln, Nebraska. As I learn about the sport and myself, I will share with unflinching, raw honesty. I want to prove that climbing is a multifaceted sport with tremendous personal and physical rewards. I want to see if it’s possible, as a washed-up forty year-old divorced mother of three in dubious physical health, to reclaim one’s body and mind.
I’m going to lead this climb, set the route, in the hope that others will follow. It ain’t gonna be pretty, but it will be earnest. I’m no expert, just a vagabond soul looking for a road back to myself. I hope you’ll join me on this journey. I hope we’ll someday see a vista that takes our breath away.