I was in my mid-30s, and still doing it alone. But was I as strong, capable, independent, and self-sufficient as I wanted to believe I was? The 10-day Outward Bound Wilderness expedition would be proof, I thought – to myself and to others.
It was grueling! We hiked forever through dense bush, with heavy packs strapped to our backs, and tormented by black flies that even penetrated our clothing. How is it possible for such tiny insects to create such large weeping wounds!? We paddled canoes across choppy and seemingly endless lakes. When the paddling ended, long after our arms and backs had begun aching, we carried those heavy canoes over our heads, above our packs, through dense bush and through fields of huge boulders. At day’s end, already thoroughly exhausted from our day’s exertions, we still had to make camp, gather firewood, cook dinner, and prepare for the next day.
For some though, it was not the physical challenges that were most difficult. It was the 24-hour “solo”. Each camper was paddled off and left alone on an isolated campsite, equipped with only the most basic materials for shelter, with only journals for company, and only GORP for sustenance. For the uninitiated, that’s “good old raisins and peanuts”. Some couldn’t bear that time alone with no one to talk to and nothing to do. For me though, it was no problem! Personally, after several days of very close living with people I had only just met, a 24-hour solo wasn’t long enough!
But Outward Bound did teach me more about “survival” than I had anticipated. The revelation occurred on a rock-climb called “Jacob’s Ladder”. Starting out bravely, I had made good progress, with fingers and toes carefully exploring the texture of the rock face, feeling for any holds, however tenuous, that I could cling to, even momentarily, as I climbed upward.
Half-way up I reached a narrow ledge where I could actually plant both feet flat, and where I was able to pause and look around to see where I was. Suddenly I realized that where I was didn’t look so good! The way ahead was much more difficult than what I had already covered; and below me was a very steep drop! After a brief rest, it was time to get moving again. But as I tried - again and again - to resume the climb, somehow the brain’s message didn’t reach my limbs. I had known challenges before, and I had experienced fear, but I had always been able to overcome them. Where was that mental determination now? Where was that brave front I had always counted on? I was paralyzed by fear!
I could feel the eyes of my fellow brigade members as I stood on that ledge - for what seemed like hours. They were patient, and offered only encouragement. I had options, they told me: I could go back down, or I could continue. But I could not stay where I was. Go back down!? That would be too humiliating! Besides, that didn’t look any easier than going up! I had to finish this climb. Finally, as I began to move, everyone cheered. But, having stood so anxiously on that narrow ledge, in the hot sun, and for so long, by now my legs were “jello”. Moving on, with nothing to hold on to, I fell.
Of course, every precaution had been taken before the climb. “Trust exercises” had taught us to have confidence in our equipment, and in each other. Being well-harnessed, and with my team-mates well-rehearsed in safety procedures, they supported me with ease. Although I was hanging from a high and jagged cliff, 30 meters off the ground, I suddenly felt relieved and surprisingly safe. Shaking out my tired limbs, I asked my team if they could please hold me just a minute longer while I rested. “Of course!” came the reply, “Take your time.” Before long, I resumed the climb and soon I was j-u-s-t within reach of the top. But as our instructor peered at me over the edge, she did not extend her hand as I had anticipated. Instead, she let me do it myself – and I did – triumphantly!
I conquered more than the rock face that day. I conquered myself. But I did it with the help of friends; and all I had to do was ask.