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Fear of God – part 2, kind of…

–NOTE–  (This section was supposed to go in the middle of the last essay, but it did not work out as planned.  This section is more fun anyways.)

Yet even with such a firm admonition, the mind falls short.  It is simply impossible to keep a perfect balance of fear and boldness. Ah, but this is when it becomes exciting.  It is in such a moment I found myself several years ago.

My friend Brandon and I were out for a day of aid and free climbing.  The outing was planned as a preparatory climb for an upcoming trip to Yosemite.  I was in my early twenties at the time, that brilliant and precarious moment when brash confidence steps across the line and convinces the mind there are no real consequences.

In the midst of such youthful hubris we convinced ourselves the sensible thing to do was try a multi-pitch aid route. Multi-pitch routes were nothing new, we both had plenty of experience on long free routes.  The aid climbing, however, was very new.

An explanation.  Aid climbing was originally invented as a technique to cross small sections of a long route too difficult to climb by human power alone.  Often these are sections of very thin cracks, too narrow to fit your fingers, but wide enough to accept tiny pieces of metal.

Small steel wedges, no larger than your fingernail are wedged into constrictions in the crack.  If well placed, they technically can provide enough strength to easily hold the weight of a climber. When the cracks become larger, a different device is employed.  For anything wider than the width of your finger, a climber uses an aluminum cam.  These spring loaded devices expand and contract to fit the contours of the granite walls.

Aid climbing sounds very easy.  After all, you’re not even using your own strength to hold onto the rock wall.  Again youthful pride spouts its foolish assumptions.  I was now perhaps 200 feet up the route.  Movement was slow and arduous.  If free climbing is a pure and aesthetic pursuit, aid climbing is a mechanical slog of tedious drudgery.  But on we go.

The pitch was taking it’s toll on my enthusiasm.  Over the last 15-20 ft the climb had changed character and I begun to entertain the possibility I had gotten ‘off route’.  The colloquial term for simply lost.  In retrospect there were subtle clues, a bit more lichen on the granite, no evidence of chalk marks from previous climbers.  But the suspicions died beneath the stronger desire to maintain upward momentum.

By now the crack had become ridiculously small.  Digging around my harness I searched for the smallest device on my rack.  Pushing aside the more legitimately sized pieces, I unclipped it from my harness and studied it for a moment.  A #3 Black Diamond Micro Nut, forged from an alloy of steel and copper, a soft compound designed to mold into the sharp crystals of a granite crack.

It looked pathetic.  No wider than Lincoln’s head on a penny and about as thick as the cover on a hard bound book.  Hardly confidence inspiring.  But the alternatives were not pleasant.  Retreat was theoretically an option, though looking back over the traverse I had just crossed, it looked no less frightful.

No, upward was always superior.  Slipping the slice of steel into the crack, I gingerly transferred my weight onto the piece.  It held.  I consoled myself with thoughts of the wider crack awaiting me above. The next few movements passed surprisingly well.  After 8-10 feet the crack opened up enough to accept a full sized cam.  With immeasurable relief, I quickly stuffed a #2 cam into the perfect hand crack.

Eying the route above, my heart quickened.  No more than 35 feet up I could see the bright red webbing signaling the end of the pitch.  Safety would soon again be my companion.  With renewed confidence and a surge of energy I quickly switched from aid climbing to free climbing.

Though buoyed by the fresh hope of success, the transition to free climbing is not simple.  The biggest problem is simply the gear.  While aid climbing, you must carry an enormous quantity of carabiners, cams, nuts and webbing.  There is no easy place to store the equipment, every piece must be accessible at any given moment.  The only solution is to hang it in heavy loops, dangling awkwardly from the shoulder and harness, giving the distinct sensation of climbing with a chandelier strapped to your chest.

These delightful accoutrements also have the terrible habit of dangling in just the right position to catch on a flake of rock below.  Without fail, this occurs just as you are lunging for a handhold, the harness snapping tight inches before the fingers reach their destination.

No matter, the goal was in sight and I was relieved to simply free climb once again.  Placing two more cams in the crack I moved higher, the confidence continuing to rise.  Looking up again, I caught site of the anchors, now only 10 ft or so away.  An easy finish.

The first sign of peril my mind simply dismissed. Pieces of rock this large do not move. Yes, certainly a climber must occasionally contend with small loose boulders but this block was 15 feet wide and 25 ft tall.  Yet it moved again.  This time it was unmistakable, the shifting matched with a terrible grating sound of crystals crushing under thousands of pounds of weight.

My mind raced through the possibilities, jumping between logical and irrational conclusions.  This is impossible.  How is the mere force of my hands expanding in the crack sufficient to teeter a mass of rock the size of a suburban? And if so, what could possibly keep the side of the cliff from falling off completely.  Quickly I thought of my belayer below and wondered if he could avoid the crashing monolith.  Doubtful.  I even briefly pondered who would fall faster, me or the rock, and if it were the latter, could I somehow land on top?

The theoretical questions were quickly broken by the sound of the cam popping out from the crack below.  Looking down, the alarming sound was met with an equally terrifying site.  As the crack slowly widened under the movement of the rock, the camming device stretched to it’s widest perch and then, as if echoing the fate to soon befall me, it fell.

The second and third cams popped in quick succession, leaving an uninterrupted line between me and the tiny wedge of steel placed 35 feet below.  The crack continued it’s outward march.  Within seconds the width would be too far to hold.  In horror, I searched in desperate glances at the surrounding rock.  A small hold, an adjacent crack, a foothold perhaps.  Nothing.  The featureless granite stretched out every direction in a cruel polished shine.

Within seconds my hands followed the fate of the cams from moments earlier.  A final desperate attempt.  A flurry of hand movements, anything to hold a crack now far wider than my fist. But it was not enough.

Gravity soon arrived, following a pace it had practiced countless times before. It begins with a jerk and quickly settles into perfect consistency.  10, 20, 30 ft. pass in quick succession. 5 more feet and the rope snaps tight.  The nut held.

The relief, while welcome, was quickly replaced by the fearful waiting for the falling boulder.  Instinctively I hunched my shoulders, the way you might brace yourself when someone yells ‘fore’ on a golf course. Somehow I imagined this would be helpful when a 20,000lb stone fell upon my head.

Silence.  I ventured a look upward.  Unbelievably, the boulder was still there.  Quiet and dreadful, it lay with a calm composure belying it’s sinister potential. I would not die today.

We did not finish the route.  Quietly, I retrieved the gear and lowered to the ground.  We packed our bags and went home.  There are moments to persevere and moments to recognize defeat.  This event was comfortably placed in the latter.

Walking down the trail towards our car, I felt a subtle change.  Perhaps a more sensible person would respond in complete aversion.  But no, I was too young and brash to let this mark the conclusion of my climbing career. The feeling was more of respect.  A renewed appreciation for the harsh consequences at hand when fear goes unheeded.

With the adrenaline finally leaving my system, I made a silent vow.  To God, to my family, to myself.  I will learn to fear.


Comment from Elizabeth K
Time February 3, 2009 at 12:32 pm

This is a fabulous (middle) ending! Concerning your analogy, if I understand it correctly, the Non-christian has much to fear… eternal death… and it’s not a pleasant message, but imperative, and extreme care should be taken by all to avoid the consequences. For the Believer, however, our fear of falling, and of death is, or should be, much different. Christ is now our eternal safety. There is no punishment for those in Christ. Even during consequences for our mistakes, God is present with us and uses them for divine purposes. We no longer fear death for we have been saved from it and have obtained a much higher meaning in life. Jesus seemed like more of a risk-taker to me, always defying convention, taking the route less traveled, willing to sacrifice His life and for his own righteous pleasure. But a sheltered and comfortable way of living typifies the American Christian today. We are so faithless, so afraid of sin, and sinners…. We grasp the “safety and security” of our church traditions (Evangelicals are guilty too) so tight that we never know the inner joy and eternal reward of giving up our lives, of feeling the pain of sin and sinners and possibly saving them. If we are not taking very real risks then there is something wrong with our Christianity. Those that doubt and fear are the ones that never realize God’s calling, or they are the ones that fall. It is in losing our lives that we find them, or as you stated in part 1, it is in fearing God that our fears dissolve.. but I believe that fear has been completely conquered by God’s righteous love and we are free to live in it.

Comment from jrmallory
Time February 8, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Yeah, and how powerful would it be if the same reckless abandon were applied to our faith. It is funny how fearless we can be in secular areas of life and utterly timid when it comes to sharing our faith.

Comment from melissa
Time December 8, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Good stuff. I’m gonna link your page to my fb so others may enjoy.

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