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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Strube

Climb On ’til Insomnia

I prefer days sunny days where I don’t almost die. Really, is that too much to ask?

I know the spiritual path is an arduous one. I’ve examined the shroud and walked the Buddha steps into the mystery. But I haven’t climbed the sheer cliff faces of Hong Kong.

Until today. 

Now, I’m an adventurous girl. I love hiking and biking and kayaking and I’ll stop there, before this sounds like a creepy personal ad. But activities where one wrong move can send you, not only into the oblivion of the sea, but crashing down through the top floor of world class skyscrapers is frankly beyond my skill set. Give me jungle trekking yes, where your brow is sweaty from 98% humidity and you may step on a millipede. Big deal. But urban crawling over boulders up the side of a sprawling city is a whole another experience.  

It all began with a bad 80’s cover band. I told you before, I’m secretly obsessed with Asian singers who perfect the lyrics of “Move Like Jagger.” In the hidden trellises of Hong Kong lies the most perfectly constructed venue for such bands. It’s aptly called Insomnia because (a) it never closes and (b) the timelessness of its schedule allows the band to play hits from 30 years ago and you can’t tell because, frankly, you’re just too tired. It’s hand-tailored for people like me, who are too short to go dancing at model clubs like Dragon-i because I’m a foot and a half shorter than anyone else. I’m not that posh. I’m just a small town girl, living in a lonely world…

Now, dancing is a sport I’m good at. Let me clarify — wailing along to cheesy cover bands where the neon lit dance stage becomes more of a Breakfast Club sing-a-long mosh pit — is a sport I’m good at. And here, under the foot stomping ballads of Lady Gaga and Journey, I met a group of Singaporean expats who felt the same. They burned off the evening’s dinner with me, bouncing along to “Baby You’re a Firework” until our ankles gave way. It was way better than the gym.

And then, they invited me rock climbing. Where I learned that they were real athletes and good at sports other than cover band bouncing. And I learned that only half of them are from Singapore – the rest were from India, Poland, France, and what have you…

Never learn to climb with the French. I swear babies born under the Alpine glow were never fully cut from their umbilical chords and have been belaying on a strand since the womb. To them, rocky crags are the sensual female figure that must be climbed limb over limb. They make it look as easy as carving Brie cheese. As frankly, do these Singaporean climbers. I mistakenly took their lean frames for girly frailty. No, that’s my issue — these women climbed up the crags before I could even make up excuses on why I really prefer the ground to air suspension. I swear their fingers had suction cups. I saw no finger holds on these sheer mountain faces. And I saw only fearlessness on their own smiling visages.

As for me? I was exhausted before we even harnessed in. The path to our two climbs lead us shimmying sideways along the ocean bluffs on a 5 inch pathway, holding only a bendy rope. 

“Don’t worry. The next hike in will be easier,” I was told, as we fjorded up a restricted area on the backside of Hong Kong’s peak, jetting over wet boulders that hovered over the skyline, pulling ourselves up hand over hand on a stretchy line of 45 degree boulders. Skyscrapers beneath us, the resting path at the base of the climbing area only a cubic meter wide for all 8 of us to rest, I harnessed myself to a nearby root, hoping that the carabiner would be enough to stabilize my vertigo.

“How do we get out of here?”

“The same way we came in.”

I tried not to look down on the cityscape beneath me or my trembling calves. I knew I must go up, but I didn’t really see any nice finger holds like I’ve seen in the climbing gym. 

“You have to wait on the rock until your hands find the best options to pull you up. There are always options — some of them are just better than others,” one of the climbers told me.

I never knew becoming a cliff-hanging Spiderwoman could be so spiritual. I prefer my back supported, most often by cushy poolside lounge chairs. I’m not used to finding my balance with my front body, using my core and my heart to navigate a straight up venture. But the only way out is up.

“But what if you make a mistake?” I asked one of the climbers, trying not to whimper as I gaped at the near vertical cliffs. 

“If you are the lead climber, you aren’t roped in fully yet. So you have to be confident. You have to trust yourself and know your limits.”

“And then…”

“Well, you just have to know you will be OK. And if not, you have to be OK with the fall.”

I’m not OK with the fall. I don’t have Freud’s death instinct and I have no fascination with life on the other side. I like my life. But all these people did too. In fact, they were the kindest, most alive group I’ve stumbled upon since crossing into the far East. They had so much life to ingest, so much laughter to risk, and nothing was stopping them from reaching the top.

I have a lot to learn about rock climbing. But harnessed in to a rope, one toe push followed by the next, I became less afraid. I’m no stellar climber for sure, but freedom that doesn’t push up against a freefall perhaps isn’t liberty at all. And while I’ll perhaps spend most Friday night’s singing along to Tom Petty’s freefalling hits, I think there’s something to magical mirage we call stability. 

“Now I’m free…” sing it Mr. Petty. And we all will sing along.

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