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West Coast Wild: Climbing to new heights

Natalie North tries her hand at scaling the walls at Crag X
West Coast Wild Climbing 3
Monday Magazine writer Natalie North learns she's not a natural at climbing at Crag X.

In the cinematic version of my life story, there are few opportunities in the film’s opening montage to pause just long enough for the narrator to explain how I got into this mess.

The voice of what could be a has-been star will warmly explain that although our anti-hero had no exceptional social or physical skills, she had a lot of heart, and man, when she was called to action, she took a lot of shit.

I experienced one such moment last weekend, when, harnessed to a stranger, I clung to a chalky hand-hold, high atop Crag X Indoor Climbing Centre. Splayed open and suctioned to the wall gecko-style in my maiden ascent, the scene and its key player frozen. The din of sounds below faded, replaced by an acute awareness of my heartbeat, quivering leg and memory of high school panic attacks, back when I still felt shame.

A voice breaks through: “Would you like to come down now?”

Enter my two amazing Jennifers: Jennifer Pearce, the unsuspecting new climber who was paired with me for my belay certification session, learning how to tie a knot and not fall off the rock; and Crag X instructor Jennifer Harmer, who is leading the six-person workshop. Both stand below me, craning their necks back and offering words of encouragement. Pearce had climbed a couple of times and wanted her belay certification. Neither her lack of said certification, relative size (much smaller than I) or reassurances that I’d be okay because she was a nurse, crossed my mind until she was at the helm of my safety equipment and I was engaged in some of the worst performance art since whatever Shia LaBoeuf has been up to with a bag on his head.

“Yes please,” I say.

I will my hands to release, wrap them around the rope at my belly and walk down the wall to cushiony comfort of the foam floor.

Only two more hours to go.

Not only was I in serious need of humbling after the last West Coast Wild ego-stroke that had me believing I was en route to becoming an Olympic archer, but several unfortunate factors combined to form an ideal environment in which my mediocrity could flourish. A list of excuses might include: over-extending my poor, soft body with too long spent in my running shoes the day prior, not stretching and not heeding the instructions to use my legs to push myself up, rather my arms to pull. It could include wielding a nerve-damaged, post-surgery foot in which I have zero confidence when it’s jammed up against a brightly-coloured shard of plastic protruding from a vertical wall that seems more like a heaven-sent stepping stone across a sun-soaked pathway to all the lithe bodies Spiderman-ing about, sporting more of an assured smile than a grimace. I could also simply say, I’m not exactly a natural.

So for someone like me to feel safe and comfortable to tie in and keep climbing up after the first stressful scramble, it’s a testament to the kind of relaxed, supportive environment, they’ve got going at Crag X. Harmer, a North Vancouver transplant and University of Victoria student, was an active climber on the mainland and, knowing how welcoming the community is, joined Crag X out of necessity to make new friends, she says, rather than a desire to climb.

I would think of this as I replayed the moment when she took the group of us into the abyss of death and rebirth, a room I imagine is meant to simulate a cave. With ease and grace my mentor climbed an angled wall, essentially upside down. The group watched politely as I took my turn, paralyzed on the first hand holds with all the core strength of a ripe banana. I crumbled off and considered myself lucky to have found other sources of friendship.

A shift in tone emerges halfway through this real life adventure dramady, when I ask Pearce if she had any trepidation over signing up for the course alone.

“I was nervous this morning for sure,” she says and almost in the next breath invites me to join her and a friend at the gym later in the week to practice our new belay skills.

Harmer shares anecdotes of strangers who take the same course and become regular climbing partners, a concept easy to grasp as issues of trust and fear are instantly exposed and you work together for a common goal. As the morning wore on, the adrenaline pulsating through my body waned and allowed me to focus solely on my next move and the unwavering positivity Pearce and Harmer were launching my way. Though far from excelling in technique or endurance, I had turned a corner: I wanted to do better.

As with any new challenge, its shape seems to shift once you’re on the inside. Things that seem so simple and straightforward often feel differently up close. Back on the ground with some distance, it’s easy to see what needs to happen, and the only way to do it is to tie in and try again.

“It’s very much a community where everybody wants to help everybody else,” Harmer says. “That’s why everybody’s willing to give advice.”

For those equipped with fabulous core strength and balance without any trepidation over heights, climbing will likely come easily and offer attainable challenges. For everyone else – expect a dose of accomplishment and to see the truth in the old adage: more risk, more reward.

Cue the blooper reel.