“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.