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Playing the Edge

A seasoned rock climber conquers her fear of falling with yoga.

By Kasey Cordell

"Roxanna? Are you there? Rox?" I shout. The words fracture and dissolve two feet from my mouth as the gusting Nevada wind whips them away before they have a chance to reach the ears of my climbing guide.

I squint up at the rock formation above me, looking for signs of Roxanna. The rope connecting us stopped traveling swiftly upward what seems like ages before, but I haven't received any signal from Roxanna that she has reached the top of the route.

I return my gaze to the anchor system into which I am clipped, reminding myself for the umpteenth time that I am perfectly safe. Even after years of climbing, hanging belays make me nervous; trusting your life to a few pieces of metal is no small thing. Roxanna and I had started up Red Rock's two-pitch classic, the Great Red Book, late in the afternoon, hoping to get in one more route before nightfall chased us back to our campsite. An hour later, 130 feet above the valley floor, I wistfully watch miniature backpack-toting figures head for the parking lot across an otherworldly landscape: a tapestry of sand, boulders, and blackened cacti, scarred from a 2005 wildfire.

"Be present in the moment," I remind myself, recollecting the counsel of my yoga instructors. I cast one last gaze at the retreating climbers before I look up again for Roxanna. There is no sign of her petite figure, only dark clouds blowing across the sky. I hear the roar of an approaching desert storm echo in my ears.

"I am present in the moment," I say aloud. And I'm very much alone in it.

I had signed up for the Wild Women Workshops' climbing and yoga weekend in Red Rock, Nevada, hoping to improve my "climbing head." A climber of several years and many travels, I'd yet to outgrow the paralyzing fear that comes with exposure, no matter how easy or difficult the route. Some days even the easiest of routes left me terror stricken and shuddering; more than a few of these experiences had ended in tears. A friend recommended that I try the reflection-focused Wild Women Workshops. Having tried yoga informally a few times, I was none too impressed with what I considered its slow pace and apparent lack of purpose. For me a sport required points, movement, a goal—like the top of a climb—to be fulfilling. I grew impatient with yoga's long-held poses and lack of rules, preferring more traditional endorphin-charged activities. While I wasn't convinced yoga could improve my climbing, nothing else had worked, so I signed up.

So it was that I arrived as a curious skeptic to what would be my home for three days: a campsite just beyond the glow of the Las Vegas Strip. Two tall, healthily tanned women sat at the picnic table, preparing a breakfast of pastries, fruit, and other sumptuous treats. Heather Sullivan, 33, and Jen Brown, 30, introduced themselves as the ladies of the Wild Women Workshops. Heather would be our yoga instructor, Jen our general support. Once climbing instructor Roxanna Brock and client April Gafni had joined us, we headed for the hills.

A brisk 30-minute hike delivered us to a flat area among the top of the rocks—the perfect perch for a morning yoga session. As we moved into our first Down Dog, I marveled at how much more I enjoyed yoga once the studio walls were stripped away. Outside, the practice felt much more natural.

"Be sure to breathe, Kasey," Heather instructed as I fought for balance in Tree Pose. I inhaled deeply, and my quaking left foot steadied. Incredulous that such a simple act had actually worked, I looked down, forgot about my breathing, and promptly fell over. I chuckled to myself as I regained the pose, noting the lesson: Misdirected focus leads to falling.

As we proceeded through the session, I paid closer attention to my breathing—or, rather, my lack thereof. When I was taxed, I often abandoned my lungs' steady rhythm, opting instead to hold my breath until the hard part was over. More often than not, I couldn't hold my breath long enough, and I fell out of the pose. Light dawned: No doubt the same thing happened when I was climbing, only I was generally too scared to notice my irregular gasping.

We moved into Savasana, and Heather instructed us to "be present in the moment." To feel the (barely there) sunlight on our faces, to feel each contour of the rock beneath our backs. John Gill, the father of American bouldering, often called climbing "moving meditation," and as I lay atop the sandstone sculpture, feeling its fine grit beneath my splayed fingers, I began to understand the comparison.

Moments later, we traded our yoga mats for climbing gear and got set to scamper up the stone in front of us. The hourlong yoga session had warmed up my muscles and gave me time to sink into a comfortable head space, something I had rarely done while climbing outside. I passed the afternoon moving calmly and smoothly up the rock; in difficult sections, when I felt my hands begin to overgrip, I remembered Heather's advice: "Breathe." Amazingly, each time I acknowledged my breath, my body relaxed and the route opened right up. On top of an easy but exposed route, I thought about how such a simple thing as breathing could improve my climbing experience so immensely.

Back at the hanging belay on the Great Red Book, that cheerful moment has been overshadowed by chattering teeth and cold hands. I open my mouth to shout again to Roxanna when I feel a tug on the rope. And another. And another. Yes! Roxanna is safe, and I'll soon be halfway up the climb and closer to the warmth of a waiting campfire. I am already roasting marshmallows in my mind when I realize I've scampered up several yards of stone and am facing the crux.

To my right runs a comfortable, if somewhat overhanging, crack—all I have to do is wedge my hands and arms in and walk my feet up the face to the left. But as I lift my left foot to place it on a narrow ledge, I catch a glimpse of the valley floor hundreds of feet below, and suddenly the all-too-familiar fear is back. All I can focus on is the airy nothingness of exposure. Never mind the fact that I am on a top rope and totally safe: My primal instincts blot out rational thought and send me scurrying upward with a single thought: "Hurry up! Hurry up!" my brain screams. "If you wait, you'll fall!" I claw and scrape at the rock face with all the elegance of a hippopotamus in high heels, grabbing at anything that resembles a hold, wishing I were already at the top.

And then I am falling.

I bounce onto the end of the rope with an audible exhalation—the breath I'd been holding as I tried to race my way up the rock in a frenzy of fear.

"Breathe," I hear Heather say. "Be present." I close my eyes and regroup, allowing myself five long, calm breaths before opening my eyes again. Then I start back up. As I lift my foot again to find purchase on the tiniest of ledges, I focus my attention on the detail of the rock in front of me, seeing the rubber of my shoe bite into the smooth sandstone edges. Inhale. Stand up. Exhale. My right hand reaches up and discovers an incut hold. Inhale. My right foot finds purchase inside the crack. Exhale. Inch by inch I watch my hands and feet unravel the route, becoming almost a third party to my own appendages. Then, Roxanna's voice sounds softly, only a few feet away.

"Good job," she tells me. "You're just about there."

I look up for the first time in a few minutes and realize I am a mere six feet from the top. I stop and stare down at the stone I've just ascended, then past it to the long shadows spreading across the darkening valley floor. The first plumes of campfire smoke begin to drift upward, mingling with the musty, metallic smell of an approaching rainstorm.

"Are you OK?" Roxanna queries.

"Yeah," I say, eyes glued to the horizon. "I'm just taking a moment."

Kasey Cordell works as a staff writer for "Portland Monthly" magazine. Her writing credits include "National Geographic Adventure", "Rock and Ice", and "5280" magazines.
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Reader Comments

Nicole

Great article, as a climber, I know where you are coming from. I recently decided I needed to do something to get over my fear of falling. I've been doing yoga consistently since December. I look forward to my first sport leads this spring!

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