One Step at a Time


Stretching, from tiptoes, precariously balanced, I extend upward, quickdraw in hand. The nose of the carabiner is just an inch away from the bolt. Slowly, my other hand begins to slip from its lichen filled slot. I let out a roar. Tightening my core, I dig deep, trying to maintain balance. 


The tiny purple C3 cam seems nauseatingly far below me. This fall would not end well.


Minutes before, I stood perched, some 30’ below, clipping the previous bolt. It had already been a fight to get that far. An unknowable path, through lichen-covered knobs. Staring at the chains, I had been unable to commit. Instead, I looked to the hopeful horizontal seams and on to the next bolt - maybe there was protection, maybe I could just get that much further. Just to the next protection, I coached myself.


Delicately, I tiptoed, pinching the tiny knobs between my fingers. Meticulously shifting my hips over pointed toes, I reached. One move at a time. 


At the horizontal, I paused. From a strenuously balanced pose, I scraped my fingertips through the lichen encrusted seam - desperately searching for a small pod that would take gear. I wriggled and fiddled with a tiny cam between two crystals. It was no use. I took a deep breath and looked down at my last bolt. And up into the distance to the next one. No. I wouldn’t go that far, not without gear. The pain in my toes was excruciating. I shifted my weight again - flexing and extending my foot, trying to shake out the cramps. I couldn’t think more about the gear or climbing until the blinding pain stopped. Shifting back a forth a couple more times, I cleared the pain and cleared my head. I looked downward again: down-climbing didn’t seem to be an option, and a fall from here could certainly result in a bad injury. And there was no way I could convince myself to keep going upward into uncertainty. 


I struggled against the rising panic.


I breathed deep and looked around. Seeing a slight variation in the rock to my left, I leaned out and again began scraping at the lichen. In a few moments, I’d found a tiny slot - with only a slight sense of relief, I slid in my smallest cam. And with another deep breath, I convinced myself to move towards the next bolt. One precise step after another, I eventually reached another small stance. The next bolt was right there! I tucked my left fingertips as securely as possible into another thin, lichen encrusted slot. I pulled a quickdraw from my harness and leaned right, reaching upward. The nose of the carabiner and my safety were within the one inch to the bolt. But my left fingers were begining to slip. 


Roar. Or maybe it was a whimper. Or a terror filled scream. 


My toes clutched at the stance. My core tightened. I didn’t want to - no couldn’t - take this whipper onto the tiny cam, in the horizontal, far below me. I could not. 


Somehow, miraculously, I regained my balance. 


Again, I looked down, examining the possibility of down climbing. Nope. 


The adrenaline was building. 


And again, the panic threatened to engulf me. I trembled. Cursed being short. But cursing would get me nowhere. 


In the depths of the struggle, there comes one relief - to run out of options.The going gets easier, when the only thing left is to just get going. 


The mantra drummed with my heart beat. I simply had to make one more move. I rehearse the awkward step-up in my brain. Just get going. I breathed. I put the draw in my mouth, quickly pulled through the move, clasped the draw in my hand and clank - into the bolt. Still clutching the draw hard, I pulled up the rope and clipped in. 


There wasn’t even a need to yell “take”, my belayer (quite in tune with my situation) was already pulling in the slack. My body flopped limply, into my harness as I looked up toward the anchor. More of the same. Still seemingly miles away. 


“Tuolumne.” I groaned. “This is a journey!” I yelled down to Bob. 


“I don’t doubt it.” Came the reply, 

as I summoned the courage to move toward the next bolt. One bolt at a time. Thinking of the anchor was still too much to handle. But, I thought, maybe I can get to the next bolt.


There was no glory in it. This style of climbing. But there was something about that battle - bolt to bolt - one step at a time, upward, into the unknown. 


And isn’t that just life?

Photo: Whitney Clark

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