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What motivates someone to bungee jump head-first off bridges, crawl through rock tunnels miles below the surface of the earth, or tackle the white crags of Mount Everest? Not everyone escapes these experiences unscathed, leaving many questioning why people are willing to risk life and limb for daring stunts, but the answer is clear to me—the struggle entices those who want to test their limits, but these tests are as much a test of mental endurance as they are physical feats of strength.
I didn’t always understand the appeal of testing my mental endurance. As my seven-year-old self looked at a wall of over-sized, multi-colored rocks at the local climbing gym, I wanted a reward that was a little more tangible. I was motivated to finish my first climb by a box of tootsie rolls at the top of the rock wall.
Tootsie rolls aside, I became an adrenaline junkie over the next few years because of climbing. I loved nothing better than getting my feet off the ground, using whatever means necessary. Unfortunately, my newfound craving for height led to some sticky situations. One adventure in my grandparents’ oak trees left my grandmother sprinting for the ladder to help me before I broke a bone. But, no matter how many times I slipped, stuck, or scraped, there was always someone to catch me. I was fearless climbing on the rocks, because I knew that I could try anything and someone would make sure I only fell a few feet if I made a mistake.
When amateur climbing was no longer enough of an adrenaline rush, I decided to learn how to lead routes, which is where the climber is less dependent on and supported by the rope. Lead climbing was a little more hazardous than anything else I had tried, and I eagerly anticipated my class at a place aptly named “Hospital Flats.”
Leading was a whole new experience because, if I were to make a mistake, I would fall more than just a few feet. For the first time, I had to assess my ability and decide, “Can I finish this climb, or is it a foolish risk to try?” Each time I was forced to make this decision, I found myself lacking in self-confidence. I was known for an unflagging determination to conquer the rocks, but I didn’t finish a single climb that day. My former illusion of confidence had been a sham because someone else had always taken up the slack for my mistakes.
The next day, I returned to Hospital Flats to try again. I stood at the bottom of the first climb of the morning, barely hearing my instructor’s litany of reasons as to why lead-climbing is so difficult. Only his last words caught my attention: knowing you can finish is half the battle. We then exchanged the series of commands by rote, and I began.
The route was tough, with only half-inch finger holds to support the entire weight of my body. By the time I was half-way to the top, my fingers were bleeding and my limbs shaking from the physical exertion. My instructor called for me to slow as I reached a no-fall zone on the rock—the last place before the top of the climb where I could be safely lowered without severe injury. The choice was clear: I had to finish, or descend. The ten feet above me were bare, with almost no purchase for my hands and feet, and I was already exhausted, but remembering the previous day’s bitter disappointment, I refused to tighten the rope and prepare for descent. I continued the route without a thought toward my fingers, fatigued legs, or how far I would fall if I missed a hold.
My climb at Hospital Flats was no Mount Everest, but now I understand why people are willing to take a risk. I finished the climb that day, but even if I had fallen, I would not have dismissed it as failure. The physical battle was merely an afterthought, because I had won the mental war.
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