Clinging to Rockface

“too scared of coming down,
too scared of going up,
too scared of rockface”
— from “Sugar” by Heather Nova

I spent the last week in Anchorage, Alaska, mostly visiting family, as well as spending a bit of time here and there going fishing and hiking. One of my favorite hikes near Anchorage is Flattop, a small (by Alaskan standards) mountain that is exactly as it’s name describes — flat on top. Every time I return to Anchorage, I try to fit in time to climb Flattop and last Tuesday, my mom, sister, and I took part in the hike together.

My sister gazes up at Flattop from the parking lot before the climb.

It was a gorgeous, sunny day in Anchorage when we set out for the hike. The air was cool, crisp, and fresh. My sister said that when she used to hike Flattop as a kid, she always felt like she had been whisked away to Ireland (a fair comparison.

The trail is steep at moments, with switchbacks and wood staircases that seemed to go on forever. We took it slow, breathing heavy and taking time to pause in order to look out and enjoy the scenery, which grew more and more impressive the higher we climbed.

About halfway through our hike we gazed out on a view of Anchorage with Mt. McKinley clearly seen in the distance.

Something that I somehow manage to forget since my last visit to Flattop is that the last portion of the hike grows steadily steeper and more rocky to the point of being just a shade away from actual vertical rock climbing. It’s an intimidating and difficult section of the hike, which is maybe why I’d blotted it out of my memory.

Scaling one rock after another with nothing but air and a steep fall at my back was a terrifying experience at times. Although I tried to focus just on the rocks, the next handhold, the next spot to place my foot, my peripheral vision still reveal the drop behind me or the dizzying steepness of the rocks above me still left to climb. When this awareness hit me with all its sense of vertigo, my chest would clench and my breaths would come in sudden gasps, fear began to nest in my skull and riot about causing moments of panic.

My sister, who is much braver than I, slowed her pace to stay with me, sending down soothing words and reassurances whenever she could see me starting to panic. I needed that to keep going, because there was a point where my fear would have overflowed and overwhelmed me and I would have found myself stuck there, clinging to the rocks, too scared to go up and too scared to go down. Eventually, I probably would have calmed myself and made it through, but it was incredibly helpful to have someone else there, telling me it would all be okay.

My sister and I looking rather tiny as we climb the final stretch of rocks to the top. (My mom declined to participate in this part of the hike.)

The moment of success, of reaching the top, and standing safely on solid ground was such a wonderful feeling. I had accomplished this THING, even though it had scared the sh!t out of me. I persevered and was able to discover new views as a result.

A hidden valley that can be seen once you reach the top of Flattop.
Me smiling from a top the mountain — prepping myself for the climb back down.

As I was coming back down the mountain — somehow a far less scary prospect — that I began to make comparisons to my experience of clinging to the rockface and to writing. I’ve had moments like this while facing the page (well, maybe not to the same level of life-threatening degree), moments during a draft or a rewrite when I felt at an impasse, when the mountain of work ahead seemed insurmountable and my fear damned up my ability to write even one more word down on the page — just as I had been terrified in clinging to the rocks to reach for the next handhold.

Whether hiking or writing, it’s important to trust in your abilities and to know when to stop, take a break, breathe. I had to trust that when I put my foot out the rock would hold and I would be able to pull myself up another foot, just as I need to trust in my ability to continue to put words on the page and find my way through to the end of the story/poem/draft.

It also helps to have companionship, a sister to call out from the rocks above or other writers to let you know that the path is clear and that it is possible to map your way through to the end.

And there is an incredible feeling of accomplishment when the mountain is scale, the hard work completed, the knowledge of stumbles and missteps but ultimately a job well done.