Early in the writing of A Strange Companion, I realized that Gabe would die in a climbing accident. I had a vision of Kat and Gabe climbing together, of Kat scrambling ahead of him, showing off, and of Gabe falling. The details of that particular scene have changed over the various rewrites, but I always knew that Kat would be a climber.
The problem was, I knew very little about climbing. My nephew is an accomplished climber, but as such, he is always off hanging from rock faces around the world and therefore hard to pin down for research. So when a coworker mentioned that her daughter climbed, I asked if she’d be willing to (pardon the terrible pun) show me the ropes.
But to really understand Kat, I knew I had to try it for myself. So, the following week, I signed a waiver holding the gym blameless for anything untoward that might happen, rented a pair of shoes, and took to the wall.
Ordinarily, you’d climb with a partner, one of you climbing, the other “belaying”—holding the rope in case you fall. As I was alone, I had to use what’s called an autobelay. Were I to fall, this nifty device would engage, grabbing the rope, and lowering me safely to the ground.
One of the gym trainers explained how it works. He had me climb to a height just above his head and demonstrated the move.
“Just let go of the wall, lean backwards, keep your arms and legs out, and let yourself fall.”
I peered down at him. “Just let go? You’re kidding.”
“Try it,” he said. “You’ll be fine.”
I was not fine. I did not relax as instructed. I did not let go of the wall and consequently I ended up in a most ungraceful heap at his feet.
We tried it again and the next time I landed, but I still wasn’t entirely convinced.
Regardless, off I went, reaching for handholds, following the pre-set route, and making my way up the wall. It was exhilarating. I could see how people become addicted to the sport. It’s like a ballet, a combination of agility, grace, strength, and strategy. It’s also a bit of a rush. Before long, I found myself at the top of the wall, about 30 feet above the ground. With the autobelay, all I had to do was let go, fall backwards, and allow the mechanism to lower me down.
I glanced over my shoulder at the wall opposite, where a fellow climber reached the top of his route, leaned back, and sailed in a perfect arc to the ground. He made it look easy. I checked below me to make sure there was no one in my landing zone. I took a deep breath, and then…
…There is no frigging way I am jumping off this wall.
I couldn’t do it. I had visions of not jumping back with sufficient conviction and slamming against the wall, or getting my foot tangled in the rope and descending head first, or of the trusty autobelay malfunctioning and me plummeting to the ground in a tangled, broken heap.
So, I climbed back down the way I’d come up, and spent the remainder of my hour happily climbing up and down the same patch of wall and hoping nobody noticed.
But my research mission gave me a lot more than I had bargained for. I’d gone to learn how to climb, but I came out with a new understanding of my story. My fear and lack of trust changed the trajectory of my book and made me understand what I was really writing about: how important it is, in climbing, and in life, to have the courage to let go.