Updated: May 27
I had been there a few times-- to its base, that is, a small space on the side of a winding, bucolic road, and large enough to fit only a few cars.
I had even gotten out of my car once to inspect the trail entrance that is obscured by brush and stone. With visions of Free Solo, I struggled through the once simple, now a test of will, process of putting on my hiking boots. But, as Alex Honnold did a few times in his lead-up to his attempt on El Capitan, I aborted before I even began. My gut told me that it was too risky. "Ugghh." I clumsily undid my laces, removed my boots and carefully made my way to my car's front door, both hands on the vehicle, always leaning into the car.
I felt called to Gibbett Hill; to its rolling hills, lush with overgrown, green grass and surrounded by a full palette of Fall colors; to be among the cows grazing effortlessly from the earth's pantry, and to be amidst its stillness and quiet, interrupted occasionally by only a soft breeze rustling its way through a birch or maple. This is how I imagined it as I gazed from afar.
October 10, 2020. I woke to a glorious, New England Fall day-- the kind perfect for summiting Gibbett. Just as Everest climbers must wait for an ideal window of weather to attempt their feat, I had to do the same. This is the day, I thought. This attempt, however, would be different...because I had a secret weapon...Kim!!!
We arrived at base camp, strapped on our carabiners and tied into our safety rope. Well, not really, but you get the idea. Kim scouted out the entrance to the trail as I pensively went through my hiking boot routine...
"You can do it," she returned to base camp..."You got this." It was just the confidence-booster I needed to get me over the edge from tentative to full confidence, from hope to commitment. And if we get to a section that is too dangerous, too risky? We pull the plug; we always must leave room, however slight, for that possibility...
Like much of life, my attempt would be one step at a time. With laser-like focus on each step, we started our ascent. I look down, speed-studying and speed-analyzing every millimeter of Earth's contour before me. But it is against everything I have ever been taught:
"Head up!" my dad would say enthusiastically, skating beside me on a glassy pond as he taught me to play hockey. (think Currier & Ives)
"Look across the ring in the direction you want to go," my riding instructor (horse) would encourage.
Riding a bike, driving a car, skiing...same thing. For me, to look down with every step is to constantly resist decades of learned behavior. On top of that, the temptation to observe every other part of the world around me-- the sky, trees, birds, sounds, people-- is ever-present, building with each step.
The path soon turned a corner. I stopped, stabilized myself with my poles and Kim, and looked up. "More aggressive than I thought," I muttered, "Let's go...I'll need your arm." The first steps after a standstill are the most difficult and tenuous for me. Rocks, undulations, changes in density of the trail's surface-- each one can take me down, even the smallest stone. I quickly begin to breathe heavily and gasp for air, but press on to the top of this pitch. To stop and rest means having to restart, a proposition with too much risk on this terrain. One foot in front of the other, the incline eventually relents. Thanks to Kim's unwavering, steady support and bottomless reservoir of patience, we clear this hurdle.
Aside from a few more stops to lift my head and enjoy my place in the universe, we soldier on and reach the lush peak (kind of like Everest).
And how about the descent? Our experience at the top was sublime. And when we were ready,I forcefully mustered my energy-- more like my will, to start down. We were off.
Down is always more difficult for me, the spasticity constantly wreaking havoc with my body, playing games with my mind. My sensations are hard for me to describe, but it is like what I imagine would be trying to walk on stilts for the first time-- stilts that have cue balls for feet, and trying to navigate blindfolded through an undulating pasture of grease.
The top of the steep section came quickly; I paused in mental and physical preparation. "Okay," I confirm. Minutes later, we had delicately but solidly made our way down, albeit with my trying Kim's patience a few times, which is a few times too many. One of the things I've noticed over the last few months is the onset of another PLS symptom, 'emotional lability,' i.e., strong emotions that are sometimes expressed in a way that is greater than the actual emotion. It has to do with changes in parts of the brain that help regulate emotion, often resulting in lower frustration tolerance, exacerbated by fatigue and stress. There is medication for it, but I'll do my best to stay ahead of it and manage it as opposed to vice versa. [It took us months to figure out this piece of the puzzle; it also has to do with my inability to control my laughter and smiling...]
Tip: Watch that Free Solo trailer here. What does it make you feel?
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