When the safety cord hooks onto my belt, I should feel relief. But the 60-foot cliff face behind me causes my stomach to churn and my heart to race, trumping any comfort the rappelling instructor tries to give. I know the rock above is a solid anchor, but the thought of falling to the jagged terrain below just will not disappear. Hands and feet shaking, palms sweating, I grip the rope even tighter and slowly lean my body back. Despite all the terror pulsing through my veins, I know there is no turning back, the only way to go is down.
A couple weeks ago, I took a camping trip with some of my best girlfriends up in Devils Lake Wisconsin. But the main goal of the weekend was not just sitting around a campfire slinging back beers, making s’mores and chatting the night away. No, there was more to this little adventure of ours. We were going rappelling, and, for many, it was a chance to face our biggest fears.
I never thought I was afraid of heights. I always wanted to be in the first row on the rollercoasters, never blinked an eye when standing hundreds of stories above ground in some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, and eagerly jumped out of an airplane flying 15,000 feet in the air. And yet, rappelling somehow brought this unnerving fear to the surface.
Our guides, Nick and Calvin from Devils Lake Climbing Guides, led us through a quick training and a short test run (only about 10 feet), before we headed up the trail to prove our bravery. Standing on the ledge, I started to feel a little nervous, and I wasn’t the only one. True emotions shined through the other girls cool demeanors as they shook slightly glancing down the steep cliff.
When it was my turn, I stepped up, attached the anchor to my belt, looped the rope through my carabiner to create a solid knot, and secured my stopper (the backup system in case your hand slips due to sweaty palms). My legs and arms were shaking, my heart pounding so hard I was sure everyone could hear it. Calvin stepped toward me and saw the fear in my eyes. He smiled, squeezed my hand told me to breathe. “You’re going to be fine, you just need to relax.”
I focused on slowing my breathing, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Surprisingly, it helped, and my nerves started to subside. But then it was time to sit back and trust the rope to hold me. I didn’t want to move. What if the anchor broke? What if I slipped? What if I hit a rock? All these questions rushed through my head and for a split second I thought about quitting. It would be so easy to untie the cord, step away from the ledge and take the path back down. But nothing worth doing in life is ever easy. And what do you really learn about yourself if you avoid challenges and take the path of least resistance?
My right foot slowly moved over the ledge, followed by the left. The pattern continued tediously until my legs were parallel to the ground. My eyes focused on the rock face in front of me, and the rope I clung to with all my might. I was doing it. I was rappelling. A huge smile spread across my face, and I started to laugh. In that moment I had enough courage to look out over the trees to see the rippling waves of the lake shimmering in the setting sun. Cheers from my friends on the ground reached my ears, and a sense of thrill and pride surged through me. Yep…definitely worth it.