Steadying my body on the ledge, I let out a sigh of relief and scurried to place a cam or a nut to clip my rope to, something to hold me in case I slipped and fell down the 1,000-plus-foot cliff at my feet. But it wasn’t so much the image of myself in freefall that was messing with my mind—it was the one … no, two … no, three people delicately free soloing past me and my partner with no ropes at all. I was on the first technical pitch of the Owen-Spalding route on Wyoming’s Grand Teton and learning a lesson about courage and personal motivation.
A few minutes before, I’d taken a deep breath, placed my hands on the cold rock and smeared my feet along below me, traversing the most exposed section of the route in a harness, roped to my partner, Elizabeth. I’d been fearing that short section of the climb since we first started talking about attempting the Grand, months prior. It wasn’t difficult climbing, the crux going at 5.4. Just heady. Enough so, it took a moment of looking into myself and asking what I was made of as I racked up to move onto the rock. As I came to the end of the exposed section, my chest nearly burst with a rush of accomplishment. Until I saw the people coming up behind me. There’s nothing like having climbers pass you, free soloing something you feel proud of climbing with a rope, to help you swallow your pride.
This was beginning to feel like a pattern. Earlier that day, we’d taken off our bulky climbing packs and slid into our puffy jackets for a cold pizza break when a guy we knew jogged by in just shorts, running shoes and a running vest. With no rope, harness or climbing shoes, he was planning to free solo the same route we were heading to, an exposed 5.4, in his sneakers. We cheered him on, but inside I struggled to keep up my stoke, feeling we were so slow with all our technical climbing gear, and wondering if I could ever be fit—or brave—enough to do what he was doing.
We packed up and pushed onward. We’d been hiking since around 2 a.m., shooting to climb the Grand in a single day. Most guided climbs of the Grand take three to four days—and it had taken me a few practice climbs and several pep talks from my boyfriend to make me believe I might be capable of doing it car-to-car in a single day. Climbing the Grand in a day is a walk in the park for some folks, but it was feeling like the adventure of a lifetime to Elizabeth and me as we scrambled our way to the Upper Saddle. So, our spirits dropped when we reached the beginning of the technical climbing only to find a massive bottleneck of climbers waiting at the start the route, lining up in the cold shade where the wind ripped any warmth away immediately. Feeling thwarted by the long wait and humbled by the faster people who’d passed us, we sat in the sun around the corner eating snacks, looking at our watches and wondering if we should just turn around.
“Well, the Grand Teton isn’t going anywhere,” Elizabeth said. “I guess we could come back another time.”
I looked down toward the valley we’d hiked up from in the dark, now bathed in sunlight. I found a feeling of boldness I’m not sure I’d felt before.
“I think we should go for it,” I said. “We came all this way and the weather still looks super stable. Sure, we’ll have to wait a while to start and it will be super late when we get down. But do we really have a good reason to stop here?”
It wasn’t so much the choice to move forward physically, as it was the choice to be brave and lead the way.
Looking back, I realize that moment—not the exposed climbing—was actually the crux of the route for me, the part that took the most courage. For most of my relatively short climbing life, I’d been the less experienced climber on the rope. The one following, rarely the one calling the shots. Watching all the faster climbers sail by had taken its toll on my nerves. But as I scanned the nearly cloudless skies and took stock of our situation, something shifted and awakened inside me.
I realized, if I made the choice to be confident at that moment, we might just make it to the top after all. Sure, we wouldn’t be the fastest, but that didn’t matter. We all have different fitness levels and thresholds for risk. But I knew if I didn’t find the courage to stick it right then, I’d never know what we were actually capable of. It wasn’t so much the choice to move forward physically, as it was the choice to be brave and lead the way, something I was new to doing.
And we did go for it. We waited in line to climb. More free soloers passed us. We waited in line for rappels. We didn’t get back to the parking lot until after dark. We weren’t the fastest, and we weren’t the slowest. But we did it. On top of the Grand Teton, we scarfed down the mini peach pie we’d packed and toasted our cans of cold coffee. We learned that brave looks different for everyone—the important thing is that each of us learn to lean into our own courage when the moment comes.