Enlightenment on the Edge
Stuck in the fear zone in the midst of a fall-and-die climb, a free soloist learns how to truly practice yoga
By Mark-Francis Mullen
Photos by John Lloyd
I learned yoga on the side of a cliff. Oh, I knew all about “yoga” before that. I’d gone to countless classes and read countless books. Yet I truly learned it, lived it, and became it when I was solo climbing. Good thing, too, I think
There I was, halfway up a serious route on a canyon near Boulder. I was frozen. Above me, the route looked difficult, extending to the sky. Instead of the minimum three points of contact climbers normally like to have, I had only two. Beneath me, everything fell away into a sea of sandstone. It was hundreds of feet to the miniature-looking trees at the bottom. Above me, the rock face extended into the sky, the top unseen. The holds? I didn’t see them. Maybe that indentation there…is that a microscopic horn above it? Would any of it hold my weight?
Too scared to go up, too scared to go down, I clung like a fly on the wall. The two holds I was on were rapidly diminishing into just one, at which point I would surely, eventually peel off.
I could taste it. I was far above safety, in the zone where a fall would mean death. My rope? It sat safely in my pack, waiting for the rappel off the summit. All that was between me and this looming death was a rubber toe lodged tentatively in a small crack and the friction of my two palms against the smooth cliff face. I had to move—soon—or I was going to become another statistic in Accidents in North American Mountaineering.
On cue, the sun disappeared and the wind picked up, making the situation even more dire. I felt the strength going from my leg. Do or… die. My options were extremely limited; staying put was not one of them. I could feel the sick sweat of fear. I could almost see it all happening: Calling out “stuck” to my partner, who was ascending above me, I explained there were no holds. His soft, confident Southern accent carried down to me. “Aw, Mull, it’s riddled with holds up here… just go the left a bit, grab onto that horn, just above the bulge.”
Great. It was a hard move, across an outward-bulging wave of rock. It would be even more difficult thanks to the sketchy two-point stance in which I was stuck. It seemed… impossible. Still, I did not want to die, and I struggled to summon my strength and determination for the move. I’d have to dyne—put all my power into an explosive, vulnerable grab upwards. I would get just one try.
I took a deep, slow breath… and the the yoga began. I focused my concentration on the present moment, that square foot of rock above me. Breathe. Deep. Nothing else. Just me, the moment, the rock. All the rest simply fell away. I became focused and calm. B reath swept through me like a broom, driving out fear and worries, and the rest of the universe.
That’s where my yoga began.
It wasn’t theoretical out here. It wasn’t in some studio with no real consequences. It was essential to my life. Focus, breathe, let go. This wasn’t just the recipe for inner peace, it was the recipe for survival, for continued life. I gathered myself.
The rest of the climb was not without moments, but nothing close to that crux. After a few more scary and adrenaline-filled moments, we were on the summit, laughing about it, exhilarated to be alive, on top a pinnacle in the Colorado Rockies.
Still, as I looked down, I knew how close it had been. Without the practice of continually getting hold of myself in difficult or uncomfortable situations, I’d have never been able to pull off that move. Half-dehydrated, a couple hundred calories in the red, no longer a youthful, fearless climber in my prime, that move was almost impossible.
No, let me be clear; that move was impossible…for me, without yoga.
So there it is, yoga saved my life. No blue-colored, many-armed Hindu goddesses appeared above me and carried me to safety. No magic powers. I didn’t need to get my body in any special contortion for yoga to be there. In that one saving moment, I was yoga. I was the breath. I was the rock and the sky and the void below me. I was the wind blowing and the sun. Yoga helped me gather all these elements into one harvest. The harvest was not the dyno, the move itself. It was the letting go, the allowing the possibility for that move to exist and manifest in my life right in that moment.