Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Road of Iron leads the Faint of Heart

A few weeks ago Margie had sent the gang an e-mail to see if we'd join her climbing on Via Ferrata, 2 vertical rock fins in WV. I'd studied the photos and taken a few days to decide, not really totally into this idea, but eventually agreed to climb with her, thinking, if I didn't do it now, then I never would. Everyone else declined. And as the weekend drew closer I fretted over the decision I'd made, chewing my fingers down and hoping an avalanche would reduce the mountain to a pile of rubble. But there was no escape. The weekend arrived and with the weather forecast looking perfect for outdoor activities, sunny with no humidity, I realized my end had come.
I'd always, and to some extent still am, a reckless and fearless person, always a thrill seeker, loving adventure and fast rides. Having ridden my motorcycles kneeling on the seat with arms outstretched, or hammering around corners at 70mph, my foot pegs throwing up sparks, or running to be the first on the tallest roller coaster, and then riding with arms in the air, or sitting in the front of a bi-plane while it corkscrewed to the ground, or fought blazing fires as a firefighter with flames licking up my legs, I've always relished and looked forward to these kind of events. But today was different. I've noticed as I've got older that my tolerance of heights has diminished considerably, and I never really enjoyed that rock climbing course many years ago, so why the hell had I agreed to this? I still don't have the answer except for maybe I saw Margie's offer as a little bit of a dare, or maybe I didn't want to regret not having done it after the event had passed.
But none of that mattered now. The terrifying moment had arrived, there was no backing out, unless I wanted to look a complete dork, so with my back and shoulders killing me from my night in the tent, and my eyelids only held open by sheer terror because I'd had virtually no sleep the night before, we drove away from the camp to look for coffee. We found a dear little diner at the bottom of the mountain, with a sign on the counter top, stating, "We do not have wi-fi...Talk to each other, pretend it's 1995." But I didn't want to talk, I wanted to try and lose myself in QVC shopping or a football game, anything to stop me thinking about my impending doom. I did want lots of coffee and was actually amazed that I tucked away an omelette and home fries. I sure hoped they'd stay down...
We arrived at the center and I lapsed into silence as we waited for the terror to begin. Then we were shown how to tug on harnesses with huge carabina clips and finally our helmet. I looked at the other 9 people in our group. They were all youngsters, none over 30, Margie and I were the oldest by far. We all introduced ourselves and I was amazed to find out that Megan was also celebrating her birthday on Monday, although she was a lot younger than me. We then left the center and instead of getting taken to our starting point in a van or bus, we had to hike uphill half a mile, (but it felt like 5), to the rock face.
And there it was, the Wall of Terror. Steep, formidable, and very high. Tom, one of our instructors, told us the 'do's and don'ts', ensuring we were fully aware of all the safety factors, because we could die! He didn't say that, but I knew it was what he meant. And off he went, slowly climbing up, showing us how to tackle the wall. A couple went in front of me, working their way up, also slowly, and then it was my turn. I took a deep breath and reached for the first rung, and then the next. On the fourth rung, I couldn't advance. The rung I needed to get my foot on was OK, I could just about reach that but I couldn't reach the rung for my left hand and there was nowhere to put my right hand. I was trembling all over, even my tummy inside. "I'm stuck." I whimpered feebly. Callan, our other instructor below, gave me encouraging words, convincing me that my reaction was normal and I could do it. I really didn't want to look like the world's biggest pussy and have to climb back down again, so I lunged for the rung and pulled myself up.
Despite feeling weak from my fear I managed to keep going, just focusing on the next rung and keeping my carabinas firmly clipped onto the steel cable that ran along the whole ascent. We had to keep clipping off and on, the cable was in lengths of 4ft or more, and we had to ensure one carabina was clipped to the cable before we unclipped the other. Focusing on this routine of ensuring that I was safely attached to the wall at all times helped to calm my nerves and I was amazed to realize that I was actually enjoying myself!
Up and up we ascended, and every so often I looked down at Margie to make sure she was behind me. We were progressing really well, the others behind her weren't even in sight. I was feeling quite pleased with myself and treated myself to a brief break to take a photo of the view. It was stunning and I didn't feel giddy in the slightest.
There was one moment when scuttling sideways on a narrow ledge of about 3", my fingers trying to find finger holds above me, when I heard Tom ahead of me cracking jokes and I giggled. But then I panicked, realizing I needed to have all my attention on the wall and not on him. Fear swept through me again as I looked down and realized how high up we were, and I thought, "What the hell am I doing here!" But I stared at the wall and regained control, concentrating on my next step and I was soon OK again. I met Tom perched on a ledge, guiding us around an outcrop, where the corner was so tight it was difficult to see where the rungs were. I was fine as I swung round and gripped tightly, suddenly finding myself having to lean back and hold all my weight with my arms as I was under an overhang.
But I worked my way through, feeling victorious once I put my feet down on a wider ledge and waited for Margie to arrive. And then looking ahead I could see the bridge. I knew we'd have a break once everyone had reached that plateau.
We all found a rock on sit on and supped a well earned drink. This was also the time for us to eat lunch but I was too euphoric for food. I had achieved something I had honestly doubted I could, and was on top of the world. Literally! I didn't ache or feel sore, or even feel worn out. I wanted to keep going. After about 10 minutes it was time to cross the bridge. This for me, was going to be the best part, the fun in our event. I was looking forward to it, and the photos I would take as I crossed.
Matt was the first to approach the bridge, and extremely slowly he made his way across. Gabe approached but he faltered. After just a short way onto the bridge, he turned back, resolutely refusing to cross. This was the second part of the ascent where people could leave the climb if they felt it was too much, and he chose to leave. Callan told us that about 50 percent of folk don't make the crossing. Megan then stood on the bridge and also faltered before turning back. And then it was my turn. 
I stood on the first narrow plank and then the second. Suddenly I felt my insides turn to ice and thought I was going to vomit and also burst into tears. I couldn't do it. I quickly backtracked and fled to my rock, sitting down quickly. For the first time in my life, I was unable to make myself do something. I felt incredibly weak, mentally and physically, but I couldn't go across that thing. The planks were so thin and narrow, so far apart, that I hadn't felt safe, even though I knew it had to be. I wasn't going to finish the ascent and that upset me. I had been so sure of completing this mission but I just couldn't move forward. Megan had another go at crossing but then returned, so the three of us had to climb and hike up to a trail where we would be picked up and taken back down to the center.
I took one last photo of the view and turned away, feeling like a complete failure. On the bus Megan berated herself and felt that after a couple of hours she'd want to try the crossing again. Not me. I knew I was beat, and that feeling lasted for a few days. Only then did I think that maybe I could have another go, but I just wondered if that was because my memory had softened over time. Gabe felt the same as me, he wasn't wanting to have another go that day, and likely not any other day either. I felt resigned but also disappointed, even a little shocked that my body had betrayed me like that. I've done some things in my life that people had said I was nuts to do and not once felt as sick or weak as I had on that bridge. I was feeling very sorry for myself but was delighted when Megan suggested getting beers to drink while we waited for the other to complete their climb. I readily agreed and we later sat on the porch of the climb center, supping our ales and relating our experience.
We'd passed this big rattler on the way back down, and I was glad to have something interesting to distract me from my sorrow, even though we weren't allowed to get near. I had really been hoping to hear that rattle...
Via Ferrata is Italian for 'iron road' referring to the metal rungs, posts and cables that are followed throughout the climb. This route was only laid less than 20 years ago. The center's full history and more information can be found here.
And while writing this, I ponder. Maybe I should have given that bridge another go....

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