This is a post about friendship. Not the sort that we casually blab about in our daily conversation, but the sort that you cannot understand unless you have known it.
Last week I took a fall on a lead climb. It wasn’t a big fall, but as I dangled there in mid-air, hanging on a 9mm rope 15 metres up in the void something spoke to me. I turned my gaze down to my friend down below straining tenaciously on the other end of that rope and felt an overwhelming peace.
I have been rock climbing on and off for many years and two years ago, almost to the day, I climbed with a work colleague who decided to try the sport. At that time there were three of us, myself, Katherine and Craig who climbed together on occasion, usually at the gym, and, all too rarely, outdoors. Katherine and I took our lead courses together but we didn’t lead climb very much at all, though she did catch me, and I she, the few times when we did. I certainly trusted her to do the right thing, and she did, and still does on those rare occasions when we’ve ventured out. But such sporadic experience doesn’t lead to where this post is headed, so I will continue.
Our colleague, Rebecca, joined us and pretty rapidly she and I established a regular routine. Climbing was our past time, we shared it intensely, and celebrated it with an after climb meal and beer every now and again.
Indoor gym climbing led to outdoor lead climbing and it was there where I found something unique. You see every time we climbed outdoors we put our life in the other’s hands. Literally.
It’s not important to understand the detail of outdoor climbing, though it helps to know that when high up on a vertical slab of rock my foothold may only be a millimetre of contact and my hand hold a pinch between finger and thumb. And so, sometimes we make mistakes, the foot slips or our finger cannot hold on any longer, and we fall. And when this happens it is our partner on the other end of the rope who has to catch the fall.
Perspective is important here. I weigh about 88kg and my climbing partner weighs about 52kg. When she falls, I am burly enough to be able to catch her without too much trouble other than some jammed fingers, but I still have to be fully alert, for if she hits the deck it could be nasty. She could die, or worse still find herself incapacitated and/or in chronic pain for the rest of her life.
I have fallen previously and it was a short one, maybe from 2.5 metres to the solid ground I landed on. This resulted in 5 titanium plates and 48 screws in my right ankle. It still hurts.
And when I fall, and this is not a big fall by any means, by the time the rope actually takes I could be travelling at about 25km per hour. You can guess what happens to my slight friend on the other end.
And I have fallen, many times. And each time I have plummeted to the ground my partner has caught me and held tight. There have been times when she has been pulled metres up into the air on the other end of the rope, times when she has been slammed into the rock, times when she has been jammed into the hardware up high. Regardless of pain, fear, blood, she never let go.
I trust her with my life and she trusts me with hers. And we both carry the scars proudly.
I know many cannot hope to understand the type of bond that is built when this sort of trust is built, for they have not experienced it.
And so they look from the outside in, from within their own common picture of what a friendship might be, and get it dead wrong. I wish they could know for real. I wish they could experience the gravity of literally putting their life into another’s hands over and over and over, and they doing the same for their partner. Then they might just have some awareness of what it is like, and what this bond can be.
And while I am now leaving this place and I cannot climb with her any more at this time, the friendship that we have built remains.
And for this I am ever grateful.