Looking up at the height of the ropes, stretching some 25 feet from the ground, I could clearly see how I would die. I wasn’t having any of it. I was 12 years old, fat, and confident enough to tell the adult in charge of this high-ropes challenge (forced upon me by an evil camp director), “I’m not going to climb it.”
“But all the other kids are doing it,” he said.
Let them die, I thought. I didn’t like them anyway. After a few more moments of this adult all but pleading with a child — perhaps they get a bonus for every kid that climbs? — he gave up, and I took my seat on the bench, defiantly (and craving a Pop-Tart).
Ever since then I’ve actively avoided situations with a high, or even high-ish, chance of death.
The one exception to this was in Costa Rica, where I went along with a friend to go zip-lining. If you’ve never been zip-lining, don’t do it. It’s not scary; it’s just not special. You get strapped into an unflattering harness and are pushed across a line high above the ground. As I glided through the sky, I couldn’t help but think that I could get the same experience standing on a deck on a particularly windy day. And it’s not just one zip-line; it’s multiple ones. I was done after two but had to zip through 13 lines before I was rewarded with a much-deserved glass of wine and a (less-deserved) rash from where the harness was.
You see, it’s not that I fear death, I just think it’s dumb to actively participate in something that could result in death.
Sure, you could die crossing the street, or driving your car, or eating a shady piece of meat, but those things are largely out of your control. Willingly climbing a rope or zipping through the sky or jumping from a plane — these are all things where it’s your fault if you die. Dumbass.
So then I got a little cancer and had to go through a lot of chemo. All out of my control. I suppose I could have decided to skip chemo, but that’s idiotic and no different from the aforementioned dumbass death moves. Despite what it does for most people, chemo wasn’t the miracle diet I had hoped it would be. I gained weight and morphed back into the fat 12-year-old I had once been.
So after that little beating-cancer thing, I joined CrossFit Mindset in Los Angeles to get back in shape. Still firmly in the “no death” camp, I approached the process lightly. Unlike the CrossFit douchebags who take on too much too soon because they have to prove their masculinity, I stayed at comfortable lower weight levels. I had zero shame in saying no to activities, or moving at a slower pace. I was still that little shit saying “no” to the ropes back in camp, just in cuter clothes surrounded by men with intimidating muscles.
“… followed by three rope climbs,” says Jeff, one of the trainers at the box (CrossFit’s cool guy term for “gym”), explaining the day’s workout. He explains how to do it and then gives an alternative way for people who can’t climb the rope, involving inching your way to the ground and back up using the rope. This is how I am gonna do it, I think, all but ignoring the possibility of climbing.
As the workout begins, I grow jealous of the people climbing up the rope. Sure they’re all super athletes, but like, I know I could probably do it. Do they know they could easily fall, hit their head on a bar and die? Probably — but they’re still doing it.
During the first round I do the alternative workout, feeling like the frumpy housewife who decides to get physical from every movie ever. I hate myself.
During the second round I attempt to understand how people are actually climbing up the rope. There’s a move they’re doing with their feet, almost as if they’re creating a ladder, only pulling themselves up when necessary. Still, nothing happens, so I do the alternative.
I can’t do it. So what if I can’t do it? I’ve already beaten death once, why do something that could only bring it on sooner? Or am I just avoiding this because that’s easy, or because maybe I actually am scared?
I approach the rope. I call Jeff over and whisper, “I’m going to try this, but you’ll catch me if I fall, right?” He says he will, which kinda gives me a semi because he’s straight and muscly and, like, it would be hot to die in his arms.
The rope is scratchy, tightly woven, and firmly tied to the ceiling. I place the rope so it’s in a perfect line from the ground to the ceiling. It feels higher than its 15 feet. I move my leg into what Jeff calls a Captain Morgan, but I call a Rockette with a limp, my right leg slightly slanted. I move the rope around my leg and under my other foot, setting up the process to use it like a ladder. Then I pull, as Jeff explains what to do with my feet.
I want to jump off after that first pull, but I can’t. I have to touch the ceiling. I can feel the anxiety coursing through me, but I know I can’t turn back, can’t say “no” anymore. Again I pull, and I hear applause. Not even halfway up and people are noticing — clearly I’m viewed as a “special case.” Another pull, then another, and I’m almost there. The ceiling is within reach, and I grow more uncomfortable the closer it gets. I can slide down from here. Nobody would hold it against me. But I would. With one last pull I touch the ceiling, and the box erupts in applause, as if I were the disabled kid that managed to make it across the graduation stage without tripping.
I slide down, cutting my leg and ruining my shoe, but it doesn’t matter. I feel happy, uncomfortable and embarrassed. I try to hide the shakes that come over me, but my body won’t let me shield the years of fear that suddenly get the release they’ve been looking for.
If fat 12-year-old me could have seen this, he probably would have thought “show-off” and gone right back to his Pop-Tart. A little part of me still does that. But with life, and maybe a little cancer, I’ve learned that sometimes you gotta tempt fate to grow a little bit. But, like, don’t think you can now invite me zip-lining, because that’s still dumb as fuck.