“We want to share our secret: this is living.”

“We want to share our secret: this is living.”

May 1, 2015 —

Huge thanks to Ella for her story and photos! Hopefully this bit of inspiration will drive some of our readers to get out there this weekend, seek out some BAM!s, and embrace some crying/screaming/laughing/singing.


Even Outward Bound instructors get “Outward Bounded”. Even we get pushed beyond our limits; even we discover strength in ourselves we didn’t know we had. We have BAM!s (Beauty Appreciation Moments) that quench souls we hadn’t realized were so thirsty. We feel wild triumph on the top of a mountain and the unspoken gratitude shared between adventurers at that moment. We fail miserably and epically.

If we didn’t, if we never had those painful, exhausting, exalting, life-affirming experiences in our own lives, we would never do this work. For how could we express our love of these wild places better than by presenting our students with the same chance at struggle, glory and discovery? We want to share our secret: this is living. This is joy.

I seek out these Outward Bound-esque experiences in my own life on climbing trips. They’re similar to our courses: multiple days of sometimes terrifying fun in the most beautiful places in the world. I can almost guarantee these few things will happen: I will form stronger bonds with my fellow climbers; I will learn something new about the sport and myself; I will scare myself silly, and I will cry. For each climb there is a pattern: excitement, nervousness, focus, fear, relief and accomplishment. Wash, rinse and repeat four…five…eight times in one day and see that you’re not a little wrung out, too. Surround yourself with an incredibly supportive, psyched crew and the tears are bound to come.

A friend and fellow OB instructor, Annie, helped me better understand this rather unsettling trend on our most recent expedition—training and climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, California. She recalled a psychology professor’s tangent about three natural ways we have of expressing ourselves that we repress in our culture. The first two were screaming and crying. She couldn’t remember the third but my guess is it’s either laughing or singing. When I’m out in the wilds, exploring beautiful places with beautiful people, I have this habit of throwing my arms out and yelling, “I LOVE MY LIFE!” She pointed out that the same unbridled emotion that inspires me to playful shout, “MY WORK WEEK IS BETTER THAN YOUR WEEKENDS!” from the mountain tops allows me to cry more freely than I normally would.

And it’s true! I experienced this renewing release of tears first on an all-ladies climbing trip in Indian Creek, Utah, last September. I had just come off of four tough months. That May I had moved from Maryland to Colorado to intern at COBS. Not only were workdays long and breaks infrequent, everything was new and challenging. I spent most of my time bumbling around, not very sure of myself and certainly not very comfortable—I do not always handle being bad at things with humility and grace… The summer was also organized so that, although I lived and worked in very close proximity with many people, I didn’t know most of them very well. Oh, and I had nine roommates. All of these factors conspired to make me exhausted, overwhelmed and necessarily outwardly stoic about all of it.

That is, until I jumped on Super Crack*. It was the end of a long day so I told myself I’d make it to this small roof a third of the way up and then call it. I made it to the roof. My tape gloves were starting to give in some key spots and I was pretty sure I was down to eight and a half toes but I felt compelled to continue. I shoved and cursed my way up another five feet and that’s when it happened. I sniffed. My vision blurred. Through teary eyes I looked up, realizing the bliss and horror of crack climbing: it’s all the same. Which, in this case, meant it was going to be all the same pain for another sixty feet of climbing. And that’s when I asked myself: “When was the last time you left blood on the rock?” I was done for. Since I had successfully scaled the first forty feet, I knew I was physically capable of completing it. That question gave voice to my nagging suspicions that I had allowed the frustration and insecurity plaguing me all summer to diminish me. I had not been living my life with enough vulnerability, courage, or integrity. Finishing this climb would mean that I still could. So I climbed. Ten feet later I was climbing and sobbing. Weeping. Blood and tears and snot and weakness, all left on the rock. I left them at the top, too, because I finished it.

I descended and, still tied into the rope, wept in a way I had not allowed myself to for almost three years. By the time I felt complete—completely out of tears, completely exhausted, completely weightless—the sun had sunk below the rock faces on the other side of the valley. And I say faces because, as I looked at the cliffs in the evening shadows, I saw a dozen smiling faces in the rock. If that’s not an aggressive reminder that we see the world from the inside out, I don’t know what is.

jtree w annieSo now I know I’m going to cry on climbing trips. And I look forward to it! Pressure gathered over banal months dissipates and I return standing taller, laughing more freely than I was before. I need those hearty, snotty cries! We all do! Everyone needs that space in their life, whether an activity, a friend, a parent or a beautiful place opens it, in which they are inspired to cry, scream, laugh, and sing. Outward Bound often creates those cathartic spaces for our students. As a crew we form bonds, hear each other, work to be honest and kind in our interactions. We push the self-proclaimed limits of our crewmates and ourselves. We soak up the mountains, canyons, rivers and peaks until our hearts are bursting. We can’t help but feel free.

I have a scar on my right wrist from climbing Super Crack that I wear with pride. It is proof of my grit. It reminds me to challenge myself, to live my life with integrity and bravery in the face of even the most predictable, quotidian challenges. It reminds me how much more of myself I have to give to this world. Describing this experience has been a fastidious labor of love, and still I cannot completely capture its power. The only way to share it is to help others experience it. This scar reminds me why I work at Outward Bound.

* For those who aren’t climbers or familiar with Indian Creek: Super Crack is a classic climb. It is 100 feet of sustained, completely parallel sides. It’s an advanced climb, rated a 5.10 on a scale from 5.0-5.15, but with cracks that doesn’t mean much. Your hand size vs. the crack size will tell you much more about how challenging a particular climb will be. My hands like 1s and 2s. This crack was all 3s, baby.