Climbing my Dawn Wall

As I move along my grief journey, I continue to find the days unpredictable. Every once in a while I fall apart for no discernable reason, sobbing when driving by myself, yelling when I’m alone in the house, spent from raw emotion, struggling to pull myself together for phone calls and outings to the grocery store. Other days I feel calmer. I exercise, I rest, I get work done. On these more functional days, I often find myself moving deliberately and methodically through the hours. I ponder what I want to do until options come to mind, then I choose one, then I actually do it, then I take a moment to acknowledge what I’ve done, then I consider the next thing, and so on.

I keep thinking about Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, the men who free-climbed El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park in California in 2015. Free climbing means the climber uses no rope to aid stability or make upward progress, relying only on hands, feet, and body to move ahead. Unlike free soloing, where climbers have no safety gear at all, free climbers have a rope attached to catch a fall. When Caldwell and Jorgeson were not climbing they ate and slept in a portaledge, a tent sort of contraption hanging off the cliff.

These men made their way up a wall of granite the height of three Empire State Buildings stacked on top of one another, a sheer rock face featuring only the occasional dimple to try to get a rubber-shoed toe or tape-wrapped finger into. It took 19 days of excruciating work, much of which they had to repeat when they could not complete a given pitch (section of the climb). One climber had to attempt a particular sideways pitch ten times, over the course of seven days, before he could make it through.

The quest to climb the Dawn Wall closely resembles the way I work through grief, or cancer, or any life challenge that puts me in front of a seemingly insurmountable wall of rock. No matter how many maps and images I have of the terrain, I can’t make an exact plan for how to proceed. Instead I make decisions in the moment, based on what the moment demands. One foot in this dent, one hand in that: Now, where do I put my other foot, where can I place my other hand? I stop, look, and ponder before I move. Each moment, and each move, changes the game.

One difference stands out. When climbing the Dawn Wall, the goal is to reach the top. However, grief, metastatic cancer, chronic illness, and many other life challenges don’t have a “top” to reach. The goal, then, becomes to keep going, and perhaps also to find some kind of meaning or fulfillment in the journey. At least that’s true for me. With no particular destination in mind, I move ahead however I can, using whatever dent in the rock I can grab with a hand, getting a foothold on whatever tiny bump I can use to shift my weight over to prepare for the next step.

Observers gazing up at the rock face may have opinions about choices and trajectory. They might think a climber – or a griever, or anyone tackling a challenge – could have moved faster, or put a hand or foot in a different location, or gone more vertical instead of sideways. As useful and well-intentioned as such ideas may be, they aren’t necessarily relevant to those with their lives in their hands up on the pitch. Survival depends on finding the foothold that works in the moment, one that may or may not match a directive coming from someone an Empire State Building or two away on the ground.

After reaching the summit, Jorgeson said of their climb: “I hope it inspires people to find their own Dawn Wall, if you will. We’ve been working on this thing a long time, slowly and surely. I think everyone has their own secret Dawn Wall to complete one day, and maybe they can put this project in their own context.”

I’ve found my Dawn Wall – or rather it reared up in front of me, in a most un-secret way. Unlike El Capitan, mine doesn’t have a perceivable summit, but that doesn’t prevent me from climbing. I move deliberately, pausing between steps to survey the landscape. I try to make choices that work, whether or not they take me in the same direction I’ve moved so far that day, whether or not they match how a map or another person would direct me.

Have you found your Dawn Wall? Or has it found you? Either way, consider taking Kevin Jorgeson’s words to heart, giving yourself time and permission to work on it slowly and surely. Identify your own portaledge – a safe place you can retreat to for rest. Decide what forms your safety rope could take – a person who cares for you, an action that soothes you, an album of music, a food, anything that helps more than it harms. When the falls happen, as they almost surely will, rely on your safety rope to catch you. I’ll be over here on my own Dawn Wall, in solidarity with you every step of the way.

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