Being landlocked a majority of the time, I forget about how much I have always loved the ocean. My high school sweetheart and I spent many times over the summer at the beach, and I’ve always equated it with a place of peace and love. The ocean can be described in an endless number of ways–it’s both beautiful and humbling, and its vastness makes it mysterious and terrifying.
When we first arrived at the island, we dove into the sea during a lightning storm, bare and buoyant and free. There was a happiness there and we all shared it, separately and together at the same time. It almost felt as if each wave we went under healed certain parts of us.
That night, everything felt good. We were refreshed and well fed and feeling ready for the weeks ahead. Despite obstacles, when we got to the base of the climb, the moment that Tiny and Gaz started putting on their harnesses, everyone was feeling good. The first day, Tiny bolted about twelve meters and my job was to belay, send Tiny gear as needed, watch and learn.
There are so few formations in the world like this, and we were climbing one of the most remote ones. Pico Cão Grande is perhaps even more impressive than the Devils Tower in Wyoming, surrounded by jungle and hidden in a constant thick fog of clouds. Words couldn’t express how beyond lucky I was feeling.
Below the peak, the roots beneath the earth overtook the jungle floor and because I was afraid of fumbling (and I did, often), I kept my eyes to the ground. I collected small mementos along the trail as we went. I hated that I was missing somebody deeply from back home. I’d overheard Gaz telling José, one of the plantation managers, about his girlfriend in Mexico. He said that it takes a strong and independent woman to be able to support someone on a big trip like this, and I suddenly felt too needy. I wanted to be fuerte (strong), like the women on the island.
I began to jug pitches faster but was still slow in comparison to the rest of the team. Tiny and Gaz were basically jugging hundreds and hundreds of feet and I could not keep up. I tried to be meticulous with scrubbing (having never done this before, I wanted everything to be perfect that I took too long). Everything I did was slow. Everything I did was stupid. I felt stupid. I felt awkward. I was inadequate, and I knew it, and the guys knew it; everybody knew it. Every day felt like I wasn’t doing enough, despite being fully exhausted. I stayed positive, though. Every night, I closed my eyes and kept telling myself: with a little extra sleep and a little more determination in the morning, tomorrow will be a better day.
When I was uncertain of the lower out, someone explained to me quickly and then jugged away, out of sight. The voices of both Gaz and Tiny were suddenly gone and I sat at the belay, shaking and almost in tears. I didn’t want to cry, to panic, but it was so hard to get rid of the fear of cutting a rope if I wasn’t careful. Matt came down and sat with me for a few moments, which felt comforting. He advised me not to make any decisions when I was that upset.
One day later, I went back and did the lower out. All of the mechanics of each piece worked, just as Gaz had explained they would. We ate breadfruit that the porters hiked in for us with olive oil and honey. As I munched the sweet, sticky bread, an isolated feeling within me kept creeping in and this time, would not leave.
One morning, I sat at the base for a very long time, before jugging up. I simply sat there. It was the first time I wanted to give up. I wanted more than anything to go home. I was aching to leave, aching for comfort. I had never felt so alone in my life—as if I might as well have still been up on that wall.
The next day, the team believed to be three or so pitches from the top. I was silently cheering them on but selfishly wanted it to be done so we could go home. It was completely apparent to me what a failure I was. One day, I said to Gaz that it was the hardest I had ever worked, and I will never forget the look on his face. I immediately felt ashamed.
They summited on May 29th, 2016 around five o’clock in the evening. The plan was to resupply at base camp, take the rest day, and then go back to try and redpoint the hard pitches. There was still much to do now that the climb had been fully bolted. I began counting down to myself: six days until I can go home.
We were treated to a shower by Guillaume Taufflieb, the plantation manager. An actual hot shower! I let the water run down my filthy skin, trying to let the tears out but they never came. I hadn’t cried yet. I wanted to—but just couldn’t.
When we returned to the jungle for what would be my last hike in, I walked alone. Then, I cried, blindly fumbling through the jungle with hot tears blurring my vision. I had come with the intention to work hard and to learn new things, and all I’d discovered was that I was a failure.
They didn’t rappel down until very late in the evening. That entire day and night, I didn’t sleep until everyone was back on the ground. I couldn’t sleep. I would just lay silently, like most days, restlessly shifting in feelings of sadness, exhaustion, and loneliness. Just taking breaths—low and deep, with no expectation of real sleep. When I was alone, I found myself revisiting key moments. What did I do wrong? How could I have done it better? I don’t know which one was weaker, my physical or mental abilities. Ultimately, it didn’t even matter.
I apologized to the team for letting them down, because I truly had. I said that I had a deep respect for what wall climbers do, and thanked Gaz, telling him that every time I spent time with him, he gave me an experience that gives me thicker skin.
I’ve always believed that there’s an important lesson to take away in trying something and being really bad at it—and I was really bad at something. But you can’t always be good at everything right away. Any experience that reveals some part of the human spirit will be worth the hard trials, perhaps not in that moment, but eventually.
Gaz said that people don’t climb big walls because there is too much suffering involved. I had to ask myself why I wanted to try it in the first place. Maybe it was going to be self-satisfying to know that I could do it.
Except that I didn’t; I had failed. But I walked away a with an important lesson.
I have learned that a big wall is very much like the ocean—it is unrelenting and will take absolutely everything you physically have to give, unremittingly swallowing you whole. It will give you nothing back. The entire experience is humbling.
During our goodbyes, I was asked if I would go back to nannying. Gaz said, “You should. It’s easier.” Those words carved something out of me, and it cut, deep and slow.
It would be so much easier to say yes, and I will never do this again. But that would be a mistake. His words, sharp and somewhat cruel, gave life to the voice that was already inside of my head, loudly telling me what I couldn’t accomplish, what I’d failed so miserably at. Gaz told me, in the beginning, to be prepared to be hungry, all of the time. I think that the point is to stay hungry; the meaning of life is not simply to exist. Never be completely full, and let that hunger be the thing that pushes you onto the next thing, and then the next.
Cover photograph courtesy of Matthew Parent.