Conquering Fear: In which I climb a 75 meter high tree with my teens

February 14, 2013 in Australia, Oceania, Travelogue

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The view from the top is spectacular, but it’s one heck of a climb.

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75 meters straight up, in a spiral, around, and around a giant Karri tree. This particular tree, the Bicentennial Tree, was pegged in 1988 as part of the bicentennial celebration, as its name suggests. It’s located in the Warren National Forest, in Western Australia and is one of three remaining fire tower trees used as look outs to monitor the forests as far as the eye can see in every direction; which in the case of this tree is about 40 km.

Gabe gave a celebratory gibbon shriek from the highest platform. Hannah wished for a slide to get down. It was 100% worth the effort, and the mild terror of the climb. Gabe was right, once we reached the safety of the branches, at about 50 meters up, the climb got less scary.

Of course what goes up, must come down… and down is always harder.

Mostly, I just looked at the rung my hands were on, felt gingerly for the one below my feet and tried to remember to breathe. There’s a weird vertigo in which your eyes don’t quite focus on the rungs, and aren’t focused on the trees beyond either. The world spins just a little faster and the only way to slow it is to focus on each breath, each rung, each step.

I looked down between the re-bar between my feet to see Gabriel, 10 meters or so below, struggling to keep hold of a piece of bark he’d peeled from a branch on his way down. Naturally, I shouted at him to drop the stinkin’ bark and focus on his climb. He dropped it, watched it fall… straight on to a traveler’s head… and then marked where it lay so he could collect it at the bottom. Hannah was laughing at him while she climbed. The beauty of youth is certainly found in it’s lack of appreciation for the gravity of a set of circumstances. I focused on my orange toenail paint to bring myself out of the world of worrying about them, and into my own head so I could continue the climb.

Breathe in: Move my hands.

Breathe out: Move my feet.

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I spent the climb, up and down, thinking about fears.

We all have them. They keep us alive. They keep some of us from doing stupid things, like climbing the equivalent of a 25 story building with our bare hands. There are rational fears that we should listen to if we want to live long and prosper.

But then there are the other kind: the vast majority of our fears, I’d wager, are irrational “what if” type fears that keep us from living the lives we dream of. They keep us standing on the sidelines cheering instead of stumbling through the finish line streaked with mud and sweat, with tears in our eyes. It’s the conquering of those fears that is the difference between ordinary and extraordinary, much of the time.

I stood on the almost-half-way platform and debated the remainder of the climb. My palms were sweaty. My knees a bit shaky. I knew I wasn’t yet half way. The teens were keen to climb and took off ahead of me. Tony, not so great with heights, happily accompanied Elisha, who was solidly not ready for the big climb back to the ground where Ez was waiting. Even the first platform was beyond his reach, and he’d given it a solid try. Anyone who knows the intrepid Ezra will gain some sense of the serious nature of the task when I tell you that he decided on his own that twenty rungs was plenty for him. Climbing on 18 inch long rebar pegs, with no net, over 100 ft to the first platform, is no joke, to say nothing of the remainder of the climb.

My Dad would have told me to get down immediately, and I thought of him as I watched half of my precious cargo head up as the other half headed down. I’ve never been much on following sensible advice, so I turned my back and started to climb. It occurred to me somewhere around 70 meters that the second, scarier half of the climb is exactly like the first twenty rungs (with the slight exception of the fact that a fall from the first 20 rungs wouldn’t kill a guy.) The difference is 100% in my own head.

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Climbing to the first platform was frightening. But it was just out of reach, something anyone could do and most people would do if given the chance. The view is spectacular from there. There’s a just pride in standing where few people have, in the grand scheme of things. At 70 meters I realized that life is like that too. We set low goals for ourselves, things that are a little scary, but doable and we reach out for them. Most of us who try don’t fall. Most of us stand on the platform, proud of ourselves, and point to how we’ve done a great thing, stood above the crowd, and then… we climb back down.

By the time I emerged in the little cabin in the treetop (still four stories from the tip top viewing platform, with four ladders to finish the climb) I’d remembered a very important life lesson: That the really tough part of the climb, is exactly like the really easy part: you simply keep going. One foot in front of the other, eyes on the next thing, paying attention to the details. This is how the truly great things are done in life. Climbing a tree is just an afternoon’s bit of fun, I need to apply that to the bigger projects and do something that really matters.

The children chattered to me as we worked our way down.

“Don’t talk to me right now!” I chirped at them, “This is the same kind of breathing that brought you into this world, and it requires concentration!” 

Actually, I just wanted the quiet to think, to feel the fear coursing through my veins, turning my muscles to jelly, and to conquer it, one rung at a time.