by Rebecca Parker
Abandoning the first climb three metres up, I suggest my problem is a lack of upper body strength. You shouldn’t pull yourself up with your hands anyway, he says, unknotting the figure of eight at my stomach. You need to put your weight over your feet. I shake my arms to dispel the adrenaline that is rushing through them, trying to turn them into wings.
Twice more starting up, twice more stopping at the crux, acutely aware of high levels of pathetic in my system, legs quivering like a fence in a storm, arms burning, I suggest that my problem isn’t upper body strength: it’s that I’m short, and my feet are too big, and I’m a bit shit on the whole, and maybe this was a mistake.
He hands me the belay rope and grazes up the wall so fast I can hardly keep up, rising and dropping on my toes as I take in the line, terrified by the physics of the arrangement, that it’s only my weight in this gravity and the harness biting into my inner thigh that stands between him and a seven metre fall. He says I have to trust the equipment. Bomb-proof, he calls it. I’ll slip, it’s normal, you can’t panic. I’m not sure which part is more frightening: leaving the ground myself or standing there looking up, holding his continued well-being in my hands tighter than I need to. My grip leaves red rope burns on the soft pads of my palms that will stick around for days, even though he shows me how I can hold it with two fingers and still keep him safe. But I can’t trust just two of my fingers to do that; I can barely trust all ten.
He hands me the rope again and I tie myself up, my arms still like overcooked pasta from the last attempt. The handholds are pink, fresh globs of chewing gum pressed onto the underside of a table with teeth marks still showing. The way the slab leans away from me makes it more natural to rely on the long bones and muscles of my legs rather than the thin ribbon tendons of my arms and fingers. I am so surprised by how swiftly I am moving upwards that I stop dead only slightly higher than on every other ascent.
Keep climbing, he urges.
My legs are shaking again – Elvis leg, he called it before. Cute name for something that feels so horrendous, uncontrollable, like a possession by a smaller, weaker you. My head shakes of its own accord, No no no, my hand turning into a rigor mortis claw around this one sweaty hold. He’s still calling from too far away, taking in the rope hopefully as though to physically hoist me out of this psychological swamp.
Climb, now, go.
There’s no reason why I should have stopped. I can’t will my legs to stop shaking, can’t summon them to the next hold, can’t do anything except glance to my left where the windows of the mezzanine viewing platform sits level with my knees. I think: Maybe I’m scared of heights? and start to feel almost hopeful that I can blame this humiliating inadequacy on something as reliable as a phobia. Not that I’ve ever been frightened of heights before. Not that this is even particularly high. I’m not scared of heights. I’m a joke is what I am.
I’ve got you. You can’t fall. Keep climbing.
I want to be on the ground. On the ground trust is an ornamental luxury I can indulge in. On the ground you can say I don’t mind, you choose, I trust you and right then you can, with stakes so low they’re no more than mossy mounds to step over. You can lean back, close your eyes, trust the hands you’re in, trust the weight will hold you steady and never crush the breath from you. This height, the one that keeps halting me, maybe this is the ceiling, the trust ceiling, as high as I can go without giving the last inch of slack in the rope.
I’m thinking of a time I felt the same as now, a chain walk on the coast and I’m leaning over the lapping, grasping sea at my overhanging heels, elbow hooked around a loop of iron and I can’t move an inch. And he edges out to me, manoeuvres himself around my back and holds me to the rock like a net, and we make our way along together.
I start climbing again, chanting The ground is just there, it’s just there, and the rope jogs as he starts to take in again, a Whoop! following me up and up. When I get to the top I hold on, still too aware of my gravity, too conscious of impact and fragility, until he shouts Lean back, come down. And I do.
Rebecca Parker |@r_arker
Rebecca is a writer and proofreader from Greater Manchester, now based on the delightful Fife coast. Her writing has most recently been published in RAUM, Severine, Octavius, and Idle.