The Breaking Point – Account for the Ego

The Breaking Point – Account for the Ego

“Sometimes the body keeps the ego in check.” Andrew Middlebrook

It was a hot July day. We had just finished our first climb. He was rappelling. I was sitting in the shade of 100-foot trees, planning the next route. A few moments later – ones that I will play over and over in my mind – I began coordinating my husband’s rescue.

We had both been climbing for over 25 years. We had taught climbing. We had guided people up mountains all over the world. How could this happen to us?

Technically, one end of the rope was too short and the other too long. For 10 years, we have bought bi-weave ropes. At the end of last year, we bought a single pattern rope with a middle mark. At the top of the climb, he was looking for the weave to change.

We were at our local crag. We had climbed the route four times. There was plenty of rope – a 70-meter rope for a 100 ft. climb. About 10 ft. of rope was left over on each end when we were swapping laps.

Last year in mid-August, 15 miles into the back country, we climbed Mt. Goode, the most technically complicated approach and descent that either of us had ever done – the climbing part was easy. We walked out sore, but safe.

I had the ground to trust his skills. There had never been a reason not to. We always came home safe. Yet, in July, after a 50-foot ground fall, he was carried out in a litter – to an ambulance – to a trauma center. Alive, but clearly not safe.

We teach leadership and communication to organizations and people all over the world. We get praise from many at work and in our community for being life, climbing, and business partners – “How do you do it?” they ask. We communicate. We check our egos. We know we are fallible. We understand we are human just like every one of the individuals we know and work with. And, yet, we all have our “things.”

I am bossy with climbing. It’s my razzle dazzle. I give advice on gear placement, systems, and route choices. My partner is the mountain climber. He’s a genius on glaciers and with route finding.

He’s also a man. Our culture says he is supposed to know better. I am a woman. I must fight to be heard. I must prove my knowledge to be respected. At a crag or in the mountains, people defer to him as the leader. Even though on rock, I am the subject matter expert.

So why, on that day, did I choose not to be bossy? The crag was crowded. Did I not want to emasculate him by giving advice?

I looked. I saw two ropes reaching a ledge. Ropes get stuck on ledges – happens all the time. You fix it on the way down. I assumed he was pulling up more rope to even out the ends.

When we climb with our kids we always check safety. Always. This time, even though he sensed something was up as there was a lot of rope out, he chose not to call out, “Are both ends down?” He wondered, “Is there a knot in the other end?” but he didn’t ask. He didn’t want to bother me. He didn’t want my advice.

I chose not to say something because I trusted him. And his experience. All things indicated I could – the gear, our communication, the easy climb, the beautiful day.

As mountain people, being strong and bold is vital – or we would never get out of the parking lot. But identifying this way can get in the path of safety. It can thwart our respect for our own fallibility. Our ego gets hung up on the words strong and bold and forgets that we are also fragile and dependent. That these too are gifts of being human.

On Mt. Goode, the terrain and remoteness reminded us that we were dependent on each other – our combined skills and the practice of being partners. We had disagreements on the mountain. There was no choice but to talk about them.

At Index, we did not voice what was in our heads. I didn’t want to be bossy – like I knew better than my experienced partner. He didn’t want to seem inexperienced – like he needed my help.

In the span of our lives, we are all dependent. On other people – at the beginning and end of our life, on creatures and plants for food, and trees for oxygen. We often forget this is a symbiotic relationship. A tacit pact of accountability.

Accountability is uncomfortable. We must let go of our own importance and remember our connection. We must be grateful for what we receive and give back in equal measure. We must struggle to be humble.

I did not say something. I did not hold up my part of the accountability pact – the trust of partnership. For that, I am truly sorry. Life is a gift. It is fragile. The ego can withstand a fall, the body cannot.

Now it’s October. As I watch my husband roll around in his wheel chair – still unable to walk – I tear up. I am reminded – we are human – bold and strong, fragile and dependent.

The discomfort of revealing this story to the world reminds me of my humanness. Watching him struggle to get over an uneven part of a street with wheels spinning reminds me of our dependency. Waiting for a grown man to take his first steps is humbling.

I still trust my partner, our skills and experience, and the systems. We will climb again. But next time, my voice will be heard. I am accountable to balance being bold and strong AND fragile and dependent. I will remember. I won’t ever forget.

May we all be safe in our chosen activities.

How to Show you Care

Four Suggestions on Caring for Others in Crisis

When my Uncle Pete was sick with brain cancer in the early 90’s, I was scared to see him. I was not sure who he would be. I knew he would not be the same. I didn’t want him to see the response on my face that told him I knew he was different. I didn’t want to do the wrong thing. I didn’t want to cause harm.

When my friend was involved in a climbing accident where one person died. Again, I was uncertain how to be in that relationship. Should I make myself scarce or show up every day? Or somewhere in between. I baked cookies.

When my partner was in a climbing accident recently, I had the first-hand experience of what it is like to be on the receiving end of others generosity with time, food, and skills.

Some dropped everything in their lives to tend to ours – showing up at the trauma hospital, flying – or offering to fly across the country, making us food, building wheel chair ramps and moving computers, and sitting with me as I cried. Others were afraid to visit – these were mostly children – who struggled to see him transformed from an active, competent athlete to a guy in a hospital bed with a neck brace. They echo what most adults feel but don’t say.

It is hard to see real time the fragility of this human body. Hard to acknowledge we can break.

As a caring human, wanting to do the right thing, I am writing this to all the other caring humans out there as a short guide on how to show you care. As I get older the likelihood of these incidents happening more frequently – cancer, accidents, deaths – is high. Here are my suggestions on how to respond in these situations. Feel free to add yours in the comments section.

  1. Let the person know you know they are laid up.
    • The cards to my partner, the emails, letters, and texts are all welcome. They extend the love in perpetuity!
    • These days, at least for the caregiver, phone calls are tough to make or answer – time is condensed between care for the injured, kids, dog, and oh yeah, a bit of self-care!
    • Phone calls for the injured are welcome depending on their situation – cancer, maybe not, brain injury probably not, but just laid up with two broken legs – a phone call is just the thing to cheer him up.
    • And call or text more than once – continued care is needed even when the immediate trauma is over.
    • Check out this Parker Palmer article on being present for people.
  2. Ask before you bring or send food.
    • Food is how people show their love. Food is amazing. We have had some delicious food.
    • Call, text, or email to see if food or shopping is needed before you bring or send food. Sometimes, especially at first, I found myself managing the beautiful food arriving from our community. With no time, I felt overwhelmed. I was appreciative, but had to work overtime to eat the food that arrived before it went bad!
    • A friend set up a Meal Train. That was a beautiful way to manage food without extra work.
    • Lastly, if you bring food, build into your plan a way to pick up your dishes later!
  3. Come visit.
    • If you get turned away at the door, do not take it personally. Just come.
    • People need you at these times. They do not know they need you, but they do. Maybe not at this moment, but at some point. AND they will likely not reach out or know the moment when they need you most. They are busy and barely know what they need as they have had no time for self-care!
    • Some of the best friendships are formed with the people that just show up – and do not take it personally if you are shown the door.
  4. Don”t ask what they need. They do not know.
    • As the caregiver, people keep asking me what I need. I do not know sometimes, and  it is uncomfortable to ask as I am getting so much help. Just jump in and do dishes, or mow the lawn, or weed the garden, or be a sounding board for me to vent to, or listen as I talk of all my “shoulds” and reality check with me what are legitimate things I need to do and what I can let go of.
    • Take the kids (or dog…) or caregiver on adventures. Or at least offer. Our kids have had some pretty cool adventures since the accident. And again, do not be offended if they do not go. They sometimes want to stick around and be together as a family.

Do you have anything to add? I invite YOUR perspective for a change. What have you found that worked for you in these times? We all have wisdom to share.