Climbing Out of My Comfort Zone

New River Mountain Guides at New River Gorge National Park

By Punch Pulse Correspondent Lindsey Clark

There are certain times in my life when I have questioned my own sanity. Recently, I had just such a moment when I found myself leaning backwards off of a cliff that was over a hundred feet from the safety of the ground. Ever since I was a kid and I fell out of the trap door of my best friend’s tree house, I have been terrified of things I can fall off of, and, as my body was going into full-on panic mode over leaving solid ground to dangle from a rope the width of my finger, all I could think was “whose idea was this?!?!?!” Then I remembered it was mine.

A few months ago, I decided I wanted to try out a yoga retreat and started researching my options. I’ve been practicing yoga for about 8 years now, and while I do love my time on the mat, I also wanted a retreat that would offer more than down dogs and soul searching meditation time. I wanted to DO something, and I had my heart set on trying something I’d never done before. The choices out there are limitless – yoga and surfing, yoga and photography, yoga and horseback riding – but I randomly came across a retreat that offered yoga and rock climbing at New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia and I was instantly intrigued. I’ve never even so much as set foot in a climbing gym, and I can barely climb a ladder without going into full-body paralysis, but I resolved that I was not going to let fear stop me from doing the things I want to do. So I signed up. The retreat was run through New River Mountain Guides, and the owner, Elaina, couldn’t have been any nicer when I contacted her about it. She assured me that having zero climbing experience wouldn’t be a problem, and that there were other beginner-level climbers in the group that I’d be paired with. Sweet relief.

New River Mountain Guides at New River Gorge National Park

The drive from DC to the retreat spot is a solid 6 hours. As I inched out of the city via 66 West, I was thinking that in 6 hours, I could have flown from DC to London, or the Gulf side of Mexico, or gotten to San Francisco with 30 minutes to spare. But, I do love a good road trip, and once I put DC in my rearview and the traffic spread out and the road opened up, I realized what a great choice I had made. I had planned a stop in New Market, VA and another in Lexington (both based on random attractions I’d read about on roadsideamerica.com), and if you’ve ever driven out of the city and into the Shenandoah Valley, you know what an amazing drive it is. Being from Louisiana, anything higher than about 20 feet counts as a mountain in my book, and the farther I progressed down 81, the more I had trouble focusing on the road and not the stunning scenery. The moral of this part of my post is: don’t let the 6 hour drive stop you from making the trip out to New River. As far as I’m concerned, the drive is one of the reasons to go out there.

New River Mountain Guides at New River Gorge National Park

The retreat’s base camp was a comfy cabin in the woods, and the group of climbers on the retreat with me came from all over  – from Detroit to Tallahassee and Indianapolis to Long Island. Sharing a house with a group of strangers may not sound like an ideal way to pass a weekend, but it turns out that when you have 3 meals a day and spend an hour and a half practicing yoga with the same people, you actually end up trusting them a lot more when it comes time for you to be clipped into their belay device (a piece of climbing equipment that I did not know existed before this weekend) and start scaling a 40 foot wall of rock. After an amazing yoga session each morning (focusing on opening up our hips and shoulders for a day of climbing), we spent the whole day out on the rocks. Even though I knew less than nothing about what I was doing, Elaina and her staff patiently guided me through tying my knots properly (read: to ensure I didn’t fall and break my neck) and some basic climbing techniques, and within an hour of arriving at our climbing spot on the first day, I was on my way up. Literally.

One thing I learned about rock climbing is that – at least for me – it’s scary. It is completely outside of my comfort zone to be 40 feet above the ground, climbing something that I could very easily fall off of. One of Elaina’s guides, Jeff, kept telling me to “trust the system,” but I have to admit, even though I really wanted to let go of my fear, it’s very hard for my rational brain to explain to my panicked body that even if it lets go, everything will be fine. Letting go is the exact opposite of what your body wants to do when it’s so far off the ground, and I found I had a lot of moments during climbs where I couldn’t easily figure out where to put my hand or my foot next and I would start to panic and want to give up and come back down. Elaina, Jeff, and Erin (who was also our fantastical yoga instructor and our chef for the weekend!!) – as well as some of the other climbers – would all stop to reassure me that I just needed to mentally regroup, take a few deep breaths, stop holding on so hard, and try again. And what do you know…they were right, every time. I got to the top of all but one of the climbs I tried, and even though I am pretty sure I’ll never be a professional climber, I felt incredibly proud of myself for even trying something I was so scared of, and I walked away from each climb with a sense of having accomplished something that I worked really hard for. Despite my fears, I would absolutely go climbing again, and I would recommend a retreat like this one to anyone – I challenged myself both physically and mentally, I met some really great people that I never would have met otherwise, and I did something I never thought I would be able to do.  If ever in my life there has been a time when I wanted to write a “what I did over my Summer vacation” essay, it is NOW.

New River Mountain Guides offers climbing schools and retreats throughout the year. If you have even the slightest inclination to try rock climbing, or you love climbing and are looking for a beautiful place to climb outside of the city, this is the place to go. You won’t find better hands to be in when you do find yourself in that sanity-questioning moment. Just trust the system. You’ll be fine. And you might even enjoy it.

About Lindsey Clark:
As the Punch Premiere Correspondent, Lindsey covers all things film and theater related. When not writing for Pamela’s Punch, Lindsey serves as an Executive Assistant at the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (www.pcah.gov). Aside from writing and seeing as much theater as possible, Lindsey enjoys the arts, live music, spending QT with her dog, Lincoln, and being little sister to fellow Punch Correspondant Niki Clark. Follow her on twitter @lindseykayclark. Contact Lindsey at lindsey@pamelaspunch.com.
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