Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Conquering the Rock

I have tried many new things while in Guatemala, but I wasn’t sure rock climbing would ever be one of them.  I had a rather irrational fear of it.  I’d tried indoor rock climbing once or twice, and the last time I tried, I didn’t get very high before a paralyzing fear froze me in place on the wall, unable to move.  And if I was that scared inside, why on earth would I want to try it on an actual rock?!

Still, seeing as some of my best friends here love the sport, when they said they wanted to plan a trip to rock climb, I knew I couldn’t be left behind and that I would join them and push myself to overcome the fear.  And so I signed on to Saturday’s rock climbing trip in Xela with 7 others.  We left Guatemala City at 4:00am in order to reach the Quetzaltrekkers office in Xela as early as possible to check in, eat the delicious breakfast they provided, and pick up gear. 

Shortly after 9am, we were equipped with climbing shoes (which I thought were clearly too small until I was informed they’re supposed to fit like that), well fed, and our way to Cerro Quemado where we would climb for the day.

Walking through Xela to meet the chicken bus that would take us up to our
 rock climbing location.

Quetzaltrekkers is an amazing organization which we have used several times before.  It’s the only nonprofit trekking company that I know of in Guatemala.  The price of each trek is a donation, 100% of which goes to fund schooling and housing for local children.  The guides receive only the tips that clients choose to leave at the end of the trek.  Quetzaltrekkers is also great because their prices are reasonable and usually include all meals, and if you don’t have the gear you need, they have everything and will gladly lend it to you—from backpacks and sleeping bags to rain jackets and climbing shoes.  They really take care of you, and their trips also tend to give a clearer picture of real life in the villages as they include homestays, the use of local transportation, or walks through tiny towns. 

So anyway, Quetzaltrekkers is great.  Moving on.  We arrived at Cerro Quemado (translated to “the burned peak”) and climbed up through the boulders and past all of the Evangelicals who come there to pray and perform ceremonies to the climbing spot.  The rock faces loomed above us in an overly intimidating way.  Of the 8 people in our group, 5 of us were beginners, and 3 of us (me included) had never rock climbed before.  We were petrified.  I don’t know what we were expecting, exactly, but the walls looked tall, flat, and quite nearly vertical. 

The harder of the 2 climbing sites.

Despite the intimidating rock walls, though, the view was undoubtedly impressive.  In fact, as we arrived, I thought to myself that even if I didn’t attempt the climb (though I knew I would), I would be happy to have come just for the view.

The view from Cerro Quemado

Our guide, Marissa, divided us into two groups—beginners and not-so-beginners—and left the more advanced climbers with Victor Sr., a Guatemalan climber who had set up all of the routes.  Amy, Nadine, and Juanjo would start at the 5.9 pitch route, while the rest of us moved to a wall that began at 5.6 and moved to 5.8 near the top.  (If you’re like me and have no idea what the climbing rankings mean, Amy explained them this way, “5.5 and 5.6 are pretty easy, 5.8 and 5.9 get harder, and I can’t climb 5.10.”  (And then she proved herself wrong and climbed a 5.11 that day)). 

So, we beginners moved to the easier route and began taking turns attempting the climb.  After two people got stuck in nearly the same spot (probably where the pitch changed to a 5.8), Marissa decided to solo (climb without a rope) up so she could guide us as to where to place our feet, leaving Victor Jr. (the son of Victor Sr.) to belay us at the bottom.  With Marissa’s guidance, Sara made it to the top of the route.  After she came down, it was my turn. 

Jen rappelling back down the rock face.

I think with rock climbing, the key is to not overthink it.  I made the mistake early on of stopping, unsure where to put my feet next, and rather than just trusting the rope and my feet and attempting the next step, I halted and started thinking that I couldn’t do it.  I knew I couldn’t stop there, so I finally made it up, and soon I was past the bush that marked the barrier between “easy” and “hard.”  Step 1. 

Stuck the 1st time.

From that point on, Marissa was there to guide me.  “Okay, where your hands are now?  That’s where your feet need to end up.  So, there’s a handhold to your left.  Oops, I mean to my left.  See it?  Yes, there!  Then just stand up on your left leg.” 

Marissa relaxing with no rope as I struggle
to climb up.

I didn’t magically overcome my fear by being on the rock. But being up there gave me a chance to evaluate it.  What, exactly, was I scared of?  Before I climbed, I thought I was afraid of falling.  But that’s not really it.  I could look down, and it didn’t freak me out to see my friends far below me.  I trusted the rope, and I trusted Victor to hold me in place if I slipped. 

But the fear was there.  More than once, I clung to the rock wall, drawing in shuddering breaths, near not only to tears but to sobs.  I think my fear was due to a lack of trust in my own abilities.  Climbing a rock face like that shouldn’t be possible, so it probably isn’t, and I probably can’t do it.  Marissa, though, was absolutely wonderful.  She is the single reason I didn’t give up way before I did.  She was always calm, always confident, always helpful.  It took some getting used to, the realization that, even if I had only a toehold, my foot would stay in place and balance me on the rock (rock climbing shoes—all I have to say is wow).  I slowly learned, after a time or two, that I had to simply trust that my foot would stay in place and push off on it to find the next foothold. 

When I finally gave up, it was not because I thought I couldn’t do it.  I reached a point where I knew that Marissa was right when she said I could make it to the top.  But I was at a point where I needed to put all my weight on my right foot, which was solidly lodged, and push up, but each time I eased weight off of my left to pull it up, it moved only a few inches (perhaps the rock jutted out ever so slightly over my ankle and my foot needed to move around that).  I lacked the trust in myself to put the needed momentum into it.  After two half-hearted tries from that spot, I leaned back and rappelled down the mountain.  I didn’t try again that day.  After nearly breaking down multiple times on my climb, I felt I had had enough for the day. 

I didn't make it all the way up, but I did get pretty high.

That’s not to say, though, that I’m done with rock climbing.  I’m so glad we went on this trip.  And October’s long weekend may just include another rock climbing excursion and a chance to take another chip out of my fear.  I may just whittle it down and learn to trust myself on the rock eventually. 

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