Uncaging the tiger

“Hey, why don’t you lead that next pitch? I think you should because you have bigger balls than the three of us combined!”

I was just about to finish following Kris on the second pitch of Rattenpissoir on the first day of our ice climbing trip to Kandersteg and the shout came from the fellow climber on the same route. I was following with a top rope again, as it almost always used to be. Too many excuses, too little courage, or whatever else it was that stopped me from believing I actually could be more than just a self-propelled belay device when ice climbing. A simple question from a guy I barely knew changed it all.

I knew I was not going to find any excuse for backing off this time. Tempting as it was, the thought of rappelling down and getting a glass of hot wine in the fancy Randez-Vous restaurant, as Kris suggested, had just lost meaning. I wanted to lead for the first time in my ice climbing career. I actually wanted to lead a pitch, and it felt like the only right thing to do.

“Yeah, why not..?” I murmured, seeing from the corner of my eye the most startled look on Kris’s face. He wasn’t used to me taking charge.

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Me leading the first steep pitch of Namenlos, WI4.

I was not scared. Not for a second. All of a sudden I knew I was able to climb it without a problem. For the last several years, I had been climbing on many grade six ice pitches – following of course, but still doing pretty fine (except for the first trip to Kandersteg five years before, when Kris had taken me on a grade six route on my first ever day of ice climbing. I’m pretty sure the cute little Kandersteg valley has never heard so much Polish cursing as they did on that memorable day).

Still, I had never dared to lead more than perhaps three or four pitches during all those years of ice climbing. Leading ice routes used to scare the shit out of me, for no good reason. I guess it was always easier to be scared and give up than try and succeed. Or fail. This time was different though. This time changed everything.

The third pitch on Rattenpissoir is easy; most parties climb only the first two because the upper part is full of snow-covered ledges. It wasn’t hard, but it was enough to remind me of a Tibetan maxim that I chose to be my one and only life philosophy a long time ago.

Better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep.”

Most of us live as sheep these days. We eat, drink, sleep, and follow our shepherd, whoever or whatever the hell he is. I chose this maxim to be mine because I wanted to be wild and free like a tiger instead of going through life on autopilot. I chose to follow these words, and then I forgot about them. Pathetic and ridiculous, but it actually happened. Why? Because it was easier to be just growing wool like a sheep than being fierce and self-sufficient like a tiger. Now, however, I was slowly gaining courage and uncaging the tiger that had been slumbering inside me for too damn long.

Was it that simple? I guess so, because all that happened after that first fully-aware lead only proved it. I became a real climbing partner, willing and even demanding to always lead the first pitch on each route. This led me to sending the hardest pitch I had ever done before – the first grade six pitch on Rubezahl. I couldn’t describe how special and magical this moment was and how much it meant to me, even if I tried for a hundred years. There are times in your life when you feel truly alive without even trying, and that was one of them.

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Following the second crux pitch on Rubezahl WI6. My lead on the first crux pitch was my hardest to date.

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On top of Rubezahl WI6.

My tiger is awake now, and I am well aware of the fact that life begins at the end of your comfort zone. You just have to get your ass off your comfy chair, deal with the consequences and move on. Stop simply existing and start living. Even if – as the proverb says – that life lasts for just one day.

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