I don’t recall his name, but his shy and diffident young face comes clearly to mind. He was smaller and heavier than the other boys in his team, and I remember the look of fatigue on his face as he straggled behind the rest as they approached my outpost.
I recognized the look. It reminded me of myself and how I must have looked to the staff at the Philmont Scout Center in New Mexico years ago: the same chubby kid, the same struggle to keep up with the more athletic boys. I continued to watch him, his adviser following along closely, urging him on.
“C’mon,” he said optimistically. “We’re almost there.”
The boy didn’t have enough breath to answer.
The team had just arrived at Alpine Climbers Outpost. I welcomed them to the camp, introduced myself as the outpost director and rock climbing instructor, and gave them some information about setting up the campsite. As they set about their chores, I wasn’t surprised to see the chubby kid bunking with the team leader, just like I used to have to.
After a sack lunch, the whole group of us, loaded with ropes and gear, headed for an afternoon of adventure on the nearby cliffs. All the boys talked wildly with one another, hyping themselves up for what promised to be the highlight of their weeklong trek. I was pleased to see that even the chubby kid was caught up in the bold talk and in the adventurous spirit of the moment. Unfortunately, it lasted only as long as the hike to the area where the climb would begin.
Soon we were standing at the base of the cliff—a 75-foot high volcanic wedge, vaulting straight up from the canyon floor. I pointed out to the group the climbing route we would use, watching as the courage of my young friend fizzled away. He retreated from the base of the rocks, repeating over and over that he wouldn’t be caught dead climbing on those cliffs. I had no choice but to leave him alone for a while, or at least until my aides and I had the other boys climbing and the program well underway. When I finally got back to him, he was sitting alone in the shade by the stream, quietly watching the other boys climb as he lethargically tossed pebbles into the bubbling water.
“Are you ready to give it a try?”
“I can’t do it,” he said quietly.
“I don’t want you to ‘do’ it. I just want you to get on the ropes and try.”
“I’m afraid I’ll fall,” he admitted, and he started to cry a little.
“Oh, that just means you’re normal,” I joked. “I’ll tell you what. You get on the ropes and give it your best, and I’ll belay you myself. You can trust me. I never drop anybody.”
Eventually he agreed to my conditions, and I put him next in line so that he wouldn’t have any time to change his mind. We quickly got him into a harness, and I climbed up to take my position at the belay station.
“Climber on belay,” he hesitantly yelled up.
“Belay on,” I called back reassuringly.
There was a moment’s pause.
“Climb on,” I replied.
Getting up the first 20 feet of this climb is easy, and though he was nervous and hesitant, he got to the first ledge just fine. Now he had reached the difficult part of the climb. At this point, hand and foot holds are scarce, and a slight overhang allows gravity to pull awkwardly at the body’s weight, making balance difficult and creating an illusion of instability. A person climbing this for the first time usually finds it quite a challenge, but one that can be overcome with a good attempt.
My young climber didn’t agree. He froze, and for a long time clung to the rock in fear, repeating over and over, “I can’t do it, I can’t do it,” despite my assurances that he could. At one point, he asked if I would let him back down, but I hesitated, hoping that he would somehow gather up enough courage to try harder.
Then, after a moment of what I remember to be complete silence, he called up to me in a tearful voice, “Are you sure you’ve got me?”
“I’ve got you,” I replied calmly. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere but up!”
I felt the rope move as the boy ascended a bit, and I pulled with all my strength, hoping to relieve his arms and legs of a portion of his weight. He pushed himself a little higher, and again I took up the slack. Suddenly there was a tug on the rope that unmistakably signaled a fall. I jammed my thumb into the rope and pulled it tightly around my waist in order to hold the weight of the boy, who was now dangling safely below.
“You caught me,” he cried, thanking me over and over as he regained his hold on the rock.
“I told you I would.” And I added, “Piece of cake.”
I then remembered the conditions we had set before he started, and now that he had tried his hardest, I thought I’d better let him down.
“Okay,” I said. “Are you ready to go back down now?”
His answer delighted me.
“No, I’ll keep going.”
With renewed faith in the rope and a fresh burst of adrenalin, he resumed his climb. I’ve never seen anyone, before or since, work so hard and with such driving desire to get up that rock. It was still difficult for him, and he lost his hold again and again, but he persisted, encouraged on by the cheers of everyone around. After a long, hard struggle he made it to the top, and we helped him to a position away from the edge before he and I unfastened the rope that held us together. Relaxing in the shade of a nearby aspen, we sat together and caught our breath, reveling in the joy and the thrill of his accomplishment.
Then he said something that amazed me. “Let’s do it again.”
I learned the power of self-confidence from a small, chubby young man who at first doubted his abilities, then wouldn’t give up. I belayed him as he came up the second time, calm and full of confidence that he could overcome the obstacle. He made it to the top, of course, but without a single fall and without any help from me. I never would have believed that it was the same person coming up that second time, and yet there he was, poking his head up over the top. I guess in a way he really was a different person. He climbed knowing that he could make it. He learned to try when he was afraid of failure, and this ability would help him overcome more challenges in life than just a rock cliff.