Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Courage on the Heights

June 17, 2024

Amelia Freidline

“I don’t think I can make it all the way,” I called over my shoulder.

“. . . What?” came a voice from far below.

“I don’t think I can make it,” I repeated. And I was ready to give up.

At that moment I was hovering against a bulging outcrop in a climbing wall about three-and-a-half stories above the nice solid ground, held there by nothing more than a harness, a climbing rope, and the friend who was attached to the other end to ensure I didn’t go plummeting into oblivion. I’d climbed this far without too much difficulty, but now, arms and legs burning from exertion, I had to admit I was stuck.

I also happened to be extremely, irrationally afraid of heights. Which was why I was here in the first place.

A few weeks before, in a rousing group discussion about phobias, my friend Kimberly and I had both admitted to being afraid of heights—very afraid. Kimberly’s brother-in-law Paul, a seemingly fearless climber of trees, cliffs, mountains, and other impossibly tall things, asked if we’d ever been rock climbing at an indoor gym. Kimberly had, and had loved it despite her fear, but I’m not sure whether I had ever even entertained the idea of rock climbing. Paul said he’d be willing to teach me sometime, if I was interested. I said I’d keep it in mind.

My parents and I were planning a vacation that year to Mesa Verde, Colorado, and a ride on the steam train to the old mining town of Silverton. The Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings that made Mesa Verde famous were built at an elevation of 7,000 feet. Silverton is perched more than 9,000 feet above sea level. Heights were looming in my future whether I liked them or not. So, a couple of days after the gathering, I texted Paul and asked whether his offer was serious. “Yes!” he replied. “I’d love to teach you.”

To be honest, when our Thursday-night rendezvous rolled around, it took some courage to even make it through the doors of the climbing gym. I’ve never been a particularly athletic person, and at that point in the year I’d spent more time exercising the “little gray cells” of my brain, as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot says, than my muscles. But I’d said I would show up—so in I slinked, and soon I found myself trotting after Paul with a climbing harness and chalk bag in one hand and a funny-looking pair of shoes in the other. 

After a quick lesson on the basics of indoor rock climbing, I started a beginner’s path on the bouldering course—an area of 10- to 15-foot walls with plenty of padding at ground level. To my surprise, I made it to the top of the course without incident and with only a few helpful hints from Paul. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so hard after all, I thought, once I was safely back down and catching my breath. I started the next path, climbed about halfway up . . . and got stuck. Then I fell off the wall and discovered what the padding was for. I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and got back to climbing. This time, I figured out how to shift my weight so that I wouldn’t get stuck, and, after a bit more straining and stretching, I made it to the top and down again, to many cheers and high-fives from Paul.

It was time to tackle the really big wall. 

We walked out to where the 50-foot courses stretched to the ceiling, and, as Paul scouted a route appropriate for my experience level, I watched all the cool, rugged-looking climbers who were navigating paths of precariously placed hand- and footholds with seeming ease. I gulped. A 15-foot wall was one thing, but this was so . . . high. True, I’d be secured to a harness and a belay rope that Paul would be anchoring on the ground. The course he’d picked seemed fairly straightforward . . . but it went all the way to the top of the wall. Could I? 

There was only one way to find out. I put my left foot on the first blocky grip and carefully shifted to give myself the momentum to reach the next hold and climb up. Made it. Whew. Cautiously I navigated the next set of holds, and the set beyond, and a few above that . . . I was quite high now, I realized, looking at the woman on the next course over, who was laughing and swearing and taking a rest in mid-air before resuming her climb. 

This wasn’t so bad . . . except that my arms were really getting tired and my muscles were starting to shake. Then, I hit the bulge in the wall—a sort of faux outcrop—and just could not get the momentum to reach the next handhold, no matter how hard I tried. I clung there, arms trembling, and then called over my shoulder, “I don’t think I can make it all the way.”

“… What?” Paul’s voice wafted up, fainter than I’d expected. I turned slightly and squinted down at him, then repeated myself.

“I don’t think I can make it.” 

“Sure you can! Just take a break and rest for a while—relax, let go of the wall. And then try again. I won’t let you come down ’til you do.”

Let go of the wall? Seriously? Had our friendship of more than three decades not taught him that I was hardly the type to let go of walls when suspended in mid-air, let alone relax in that situation? I looked over at the woman next to me again; she was back at it, seemingly refreshed after her rest. 

Slowly, I let go. I hung there in my harness, feet pushing my body out from the wall, and let myself relax. I looked around at the other climbers. I listened to the unfocused burble and hum of conversation from below. I tried not to think about how vulnerable I felt at the moment, a blob of olive green and black against the big stone-gray wall. And I tried not to look down; as long as I kept my eyes fixed in front of me or above me, I could ignore the part of my brain that would normally be paralyzed with fear. As long as I kept my eyes fixed . . . I thought about the time Jesus walked on the water, scaring the storm-beset disciples out of their minds, but then quickly reassured them: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter responded and said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water, and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and when he began to sink, he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out with His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:27b-31 NASB)

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Peter hadn’t taken his eyes off Jesus. If, when he had seen the wind, he had instead locked his gaze on the eyes of the Ruler of the Winds. How often did I forget that Jesus was my sure and solid Rock, spiritually and circumstantially, and instead panic about how high off the ground I seemed to be? But still He remained, hand outstretched, saying “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” As I thought about this, I began to evaluate the remaining hand- and footholds on my course. What if I put my foot there, shifted my weight like this, then reached up and . . .

“OK, I’m ready to start,” I hollered.

“You can do it, Amelia!” Paul yelled back.

This time, my foot made it to the next hold, I pushed up, reached my hand up . . . and before I knew it, I was climbing over the dreaded bulge and working my way to the very top. When I reached the last handhold and touched the top of the wall, signifying I’d completed the course, I couldn’t keep from grinning, tired as I was. “You made it, you made it! Well done!” Paul was shouting. 

Thank goodness that meant he’d let me come back down now.

Rock climbing did not cure my fear of heights that evening, and it probably never will. What it did show me was the value of being afraid but taking the risk of doing something terrifying anyway. And it reminded me that a story never has to stop with failure. We might—we will—fall, get stuck, or start sinking hundreds of times along the way. But even then, when our hearts and faith are failing, Jesus reaches out His hand and says, “Take courage, it is I. Do not be afraid.”

The featured image, “Lamp by Day – Oxford Wall,” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her glad permission for Cultivating.


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