I knew a kid who saw another kid fall from a tree, thirty-five feet up.
He said a branch peeled off from the tree trunk under the kid’s foot.
He said that for a second it looked like the kid wouldn’t fall. He had a good grip with his hands. But then he did. There’s a lot to think about when climbing. You’ve got at least three different contact points at any moment, and you’re thinking about whether or not your grip is right, how to get a hold of the next branch, if your current branches will hold you. And the kid lost track or wasn’t paying attention in the first place.
I asked my friend if the kid lived.
“Yeah,” he said, “but he barely climbed anything ever again, barely even out of bed. That’s lucky. Forty feet up. Fifty feet is coffin zone. I read it in Reader’s Digest about professional tree climbers who use harnesses and stuff. You’re fifty feet up and you fall and it’s one hundred percent that you die.”
The next day I climbed fifty feet high up in a tree. I was eleven. I was curious to see if I would fall.
I paused several times, twenty feet, thirty feet, looked down and told myself a quick story about what happens if you place a hand wrong, or a foot wrong. You get thirty feet up and your palms sweat. Your brain releases this sweet sting into your blood, and electric pulses jab at your heart.
Every time you get a new hold it’s like you’re throwing out another handful of seeds. Only one of those seeds will take root. One seed is your hand slips. Another seed is the branch breaks. The best seed is a good grip on a strong branch. Then you throw out another handful of seeds.
Every new grip I asked myself why go higher? and the answer was always why tell a story of climbing two-thirds, four-fifths, ninety percent of the way? Every fraction you use is just a different way of saying that you didn’t do it.
In the branches at the top I felt like I could decide how much I weighed. Sixty-five pounds for that branch, seventy-three for that one, fifty-eight max, if I don’t want that one to break. If I didn’t believe that I could do that, I wouldn’t have kept climbing.
It does feel like you have that control when you distribute your weight on branches you know can’t hold you. You can feel that a little more pressure applied will peel away the branch’s hold on the tree, and your hold on the branch goes obsolete in an instant, and becomes a vestige of a previous belief system.
When that kid fell he must have looked back up on the previous version of himself, that primitive kid who believed that branches would hold him.
I got to the top. I felt like a weight stuck on top of a fishing-rod, because of the way the tree swayed underneath me. And then I climbed down, out of the coffin zone, and my palms stopped sweating, and my blood stopped stinging. I was happy not to have fallen, but still curious about falling.
Now I want to climb to the top of the tree, into the skinny branches, because I’ve learned that you don’t need to trust in branches, and keep climbing, even though there aren’t any branches.