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What I learned from almost falling off a cliff

Over Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, I went to Pinnacles National Park with a few friends. I enjoy mild hiking. I don’t derive any great pleasure from the physical act of hiking itself, but I like being on top of a mountain and taking in the scenery. A 5-mile hike sounded like a great return on investment for spectacular views.

When I got in my friends’ car, they decided to inform me that the hike was actually 10 miles total. I found everyone equipped with CamelBaks, water packs and hiking shoes. I had a drawstring bag and a very ill-fitted pair of sneakers. I quickly realized that I was rather underprepared — at least relative to my peer group. But how bad could it be? I decided to take the calculated risk. Worst case, I slowed the group down or turned around.

I don’t know if you’re like me, but usually when I go hiking with my family or friends back home, our hikes are relatively low-stress. A medium-sized hike, sticking to the trail, completing it at a moderate pace. This experience was unusual with this set of friends. They were eager to complete a much longer hike, at a much faster pace than I was used to — but more notably, they loved to climb. I mean, they climbed everything. If there was a tall rock, or ledges hanging off a cliff, or a gulch/ravine/gully, they wanted to climb it — very freestyle. They were always up for the challenge — and coming down after scaling a steep rock was something they didn’t think about until they were already up there. It didn’t matter that there was no safety net. It was cool to be with such a different set of people and have such a different hike.

I like climbing things in general, so I decided to climb most of the things they did, which probably wasn’t the safest option, considering I didn’t have as much climbing experience as the rest of them. But there were multiple times when I legitimately thought I was going to die. In one of my most significant of these experiences, we were in the middle of climbing a ravine on the side of an extremely tall cliff. The uncertainty of this particular situation was exacerbated by the fact that we were freestyling — meaning we didn’t know if there’d be a way to get down, or even a way to climb all the way to the top. There were no safety nets and no directions. I would never have considered the possibility of doing this in a million years if it weren’t for them.

I decided to go with them and climb the gully by telling myself: “Well, if I don’t think I’m going to make it, I’ll just climb back down” — what I’d been telling myself all day. But midway through, I suddenly came across an extremely smooth and steep portion ahead — I could not see any footholds or handholds within my reach that I was mildly confident would support me and my oversized sneakers. I looked below me, thinking maybe this was the time to start going down. I gulped, realizing that we were already very, very high up; somehow, we had already scaled a steep portion of the cliff. Going down seemed like near-certain death for me.

I couldn’t see a way up, and I couldn’t see a way of going down. Paralysis took hold. Everyone says paralysis is supposed to be scary. But in paralysis, I found a disturbing sort of comfort. In staying in my current position, at least I would remain alive, right? I was scared, but comforted by my paralysis. I could stay “paused” like this, forever, until theoretically there was a somewhat better option (maybe someone could tell a park ranger to come get me, or call a helicopter to come pick me up?).

But it’s morbidly deceptive. The danger that I didn’t realize about paralysis is that while it seems like it has a net zero impact (better than the other alternatives), it is actually slowly, incredibly tiring, and there is no such thing as a true “pause” or net zero impact. I was wasting time, and eventually I would get tired. I couldn’t just stay put there forever, waiting for an indefinite amount of time for something better to come along; that wasn’t realistic. What kind of person would I be if I just stood there forever?

In that moment, I realized it was better to just look forward to all that I had to gain — like keeping my life, enjoying nice views at the top and a sense of accomplishment — rather than thinking about what I didn’t want to lose (a.k.a. my life). If I lost it, I lost it. Staying here wasn’t an option — so the only thing to do was take the risk. I forced myself to go on, stepping on what felt like a smooth vertical wall, somehow defying the laws of physics and disregarding the fact that I had absolutely zero trust that I would be supported, and willing my body upwards. Eventually, I did make it to the top, and I’m glad I did.

The thought process of assessing my options and what risks to take in that very precarious moment was an epiphany for me. My new outlook on the dangers of comfortable paralysis, and being risk-averse versus risk-prone, seemed applicable to my entire life. So despite nearly falling to my death a few times, I can honestly say I enjoyed my risky hiking experience — not because of the physical or external aspects, but because of the appreciation I gained for its contributions as a mental exercise and philosophical life framework.

 

Contact Sejal Jhawer at sejalj ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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