Out on a Ledge: Least Expected

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This story originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of our print edition.

The author, Katie Lambert.

The author, Katie Lambert.

For my third birthday, all I wanted was a chocolate cake. My mom promised me one, so I was excited for this grand delivery of layer upon layer of creamy chocolate covered in ribbons of icing. My whole family would come with presents and kisses, singing “Happy Birthday” amid the streamers and balloons filling the air. I would finally feel like the princess I was destined to be. When the big day came, my mom plopped a brown loaf with three tiny candles in front of me. There was no multi-tiered chocolate cake with towers of icing. There were no balloons, no streamers, no piles of gifts, and no one else in my family except my parents. In my 3-year-old mind, everything was ruined.

Thirty-three years later, I’m sitting in my van with tears running down my face, icing my ankle and lamenting my situation. It’s two days before my husband, Ben, and I leave for a five-week climbing trip to Slovenia. Six feet above the ground, I jumped off Change of Heart, a V6 in Bishop’s Buttermilks, landing perfectly on the pads in a crouched position. A second later, I lost my balance and tipped forward. My left foot twisted in an awkward direction, and I felt a pop on the inside of my ankle. I tried to walk it off, but something was wrong. Shock set in, then mourning, denial, and disappointment. Two years ago almost to the day, I broke my ankle (also bouldering in the Buttermilks) when my foot struck the ground between the pads, requiring three months of recovery.

To add insult to literal injury, this new sprain happened when I wasn’t even supposed to be climbing hard. I was in taper mode following a life-consuming training program. For two months, Ben and I trained at a gym in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for six hours a day. Monday through Thursday, we devoted ourselves to improving. Yoga, cardio, weightlifting, climbing, pull-ups, campusing, hangboarding, Frenchies, circuits, TRX, leg exercises, 4x4’s—all in a single session. We sacrificed prime conditions at the world-class Chattanooga crags to toil away inside. I even trained through a weeklong flu that should’ve had me bedridden and drinking soup and hot tea as my only form of activity.

My goal to dispatch projects on fantastic Slovenian limestone was slipping away. My ankle turned into a large purple onion while my mind filled with doubt. What if it’s broken? Will I be able to push off the glassy feet of Misja Pec? What would I do with my strongest body ever and a bum ankle? Should I stay in Bishop in our van, just limping along and waiting? Waiting for what exactly, I wasn’t sure.

Two days later, Ben pushed my wheelchair through three different airports (surprisingly the smoothest travel experience of my life). I was nervous about the trip and the goals we had set. I wanted to support Ben. He had trained as hard as me and was climbing strong, but I felt sorry for myself. We arrived to constant rain, but the thatched-roof villages and fog-covered pastures filled with sheep were enchanting. I tried keeping busy with yoga, writing, movies, cooking, and physical therapy, but life moved so slowly that after a week I felt disappointed by everything. I wanted to climb, but I could barely walk to the crag.

All those weeks of training, the anticipation, the excitement; it had all been for nothing. I thought about the missed opportunities, the what if’s. I dug myself a great dark hole of emptiness and gloom. I crawled in that hole, piled all my grief on top, and sat there, alone. I felt like a fool, like a brat. I was the same 3-year-old who denied her mom’s homemade bread.

A chance meeting between Ben and a shoulder surgeon at the crag led me to Slovenia’s top physiotherapist, who happened to live right down the street. I was doubtful—what on earth could make him so great—but I would do anything to escape this hell hole.

A large man examined my underwear-clad body while I limped around his office. Yanking on my inflamed ankle, he pressed and poked the most painful places.

“Just breathe,” he said. “Look at your breathing, calm your breathing.” Then he sat across from me and said, “Tell me, what is causing you stress? I could see it in your eyes when you first came in. Something has you unsatisfied beyond this injury.” Taking a deep breath and deciding to trust him not just with my physical body but my emotional one as well, I told him about the trials and tribulations of my marriage and the stress that resulted. He said that as an athlete my whole being needed to be 100% focused on climbing, that any slight irritation, any emotional trouble, anything that could wobble me would harm my climbing and my health. With this kind of trouble, a small injury can blow up into a big thing. Taking my hands, he told me I could climb as much as I wanted but warned me it would be painful.

“Don’t worry, though,” he said, “because it is only the mind and the mind lives in the past.” As I walked out, he called after me, “Do not live in fear and enjoy your life.”

I left his office a little looser both in my body and my mind. He had broken some of the stagnation in my ankle, and forced me to take responsibility for my feelings. I felt healed both physically and emotionally, something that is rare with U.S. doctors. Getting the OK from him helped me relax; he reassured me that my ankle wasn’t broken and that it would heal. That’s all I really needed. I just needed time and to let go of the preconceived ideas I had about performance and redpoints and onsights. I just needed to relax and enjoy.

Expectations set you up for failure. If you do not achieve the thing you desire, life can feel like a disaster, and you miss a larger piece of the puzzle: the greatness of the unexpected. Expectations make you rigid and closed off to other opportunities. They force you to demand a lot of yourself, of others, and of the universe. My expectations for this climbing trip, for all the routes I would prove myself on, blinded me to the path I was actually on.

I’ve always heard the saying “there is no success like failure,” and I’ve come to understand that it is in failure that we see ourselves for who we really are and what we’re made of. If I hadn’t hurt my ankle, I never would have met the Slovenian physiotherapist, I never would have understood myself that much more, and I never would have grasped the problems in my relationship that needed work. I learned the difference between a goal and an expectation. I strive, work, and build myself up for goals. With enough preparation and will, goals can be met. My expectation was that the goal would be met easily. Because I trained, I was guaranteed victory in my climbing. Having goals drives, motivates, and pushes you, but by expecting to meet or exceed goals, we set ourselves up to be unhappy. When expectations aren’t met, we’re left with disappointment, and life is too short and too precious for such frivolity.

Katie Lambert is a professional climber based out of a van in California’s Sierra Nevada with her husband and photographer, Ben Ditto. Lambert has climbed for more than 20 years on everything from boulders to big walls.