Taking the First Step

Words and Photos by Emma NordThick chunks of quartz, fallen from spheres of monzonite, crunched under the weight of our movement. My partner Bernard and I ran between Joshua Trees and toward the sun racing with us toward the desert horizon. Step by step, we moved through the beauty surrounding us as lightly as the wind itself. Yucca and cacti tried to hold us back by grasping our dirty shirts and bare legs, but we continued through the discomfort with only a few minor cuts on the surface.

In previous visits to this ethereal land, I found comfort in scrambling up the huge rock piles, following more experienced climbers up moderate crack climbs, and leading the few sport climbs/top-ropes in the Park—yelling, “take” if the climbing got too difficult or the beta too obscure. In my comfort-zone I stayed, dwelling in the known, often making up excuses to avoid discomfort.

“I’m not strong enough.”


“My fingers hurt.”


“I’m tired.”


“I can’t reach it.”


“My shoes are dull.”

During my time living in Montana, I learned that these all translate to: “I am scared to push through the comfort zone.” The climbing pioneers never relied on excuses. Instead, they moved through beautiful routes with prototype gear (or no gear at all), often wearing hiking boots and tattered clothing. They worked with the strengths they did have and carried the sport to where it is today.

Exploring new areas, leading routes, and experimenting with our abilities, requires a shift—and this shift doesn’t always require a physical push. Moving through mental discomfort might be the most difficult move we make on a climb—but it’s a shift that will allow us to gain from new experiences. The familiar old foe, comfort, will only bring stagnation.

The more comforts we keep with us when we move, the more that weighs us down. So, why is it so difficult to leave them behind? We know comfort will still be there when we return. To take that first step into the unknown—to climb outside, above your gear, or above your usual grade—is scary, especially the first time. But when we make the decision to leave behind the familiar, we awaken the potential that sits still, awaiting our attention. And we can enjoy life’s comforts, even more, when we return from our adventures.

The Coarse and Buggy called me out of my comfort zone. This beautiful 5.11 once covered in coarse, chossy rock, stood nobly near the other roadside rocks. This was the last JTree climb I did before I moved to Bozeman, and I did it on top-rope because it seemed beyond my limit. A year later, it still felt beyond what I was comfortable with, but I knew I could do the moves and I knew the gear placements were good. This time on the sharp-end, I knew the crux would be my own mind.

Before the sunshine and other campers arose, we packed our gear and dashed back over to the roadside rocks. There was no reason to delay our day—no time to sit still and cozy when our goal was right around the corner. We could always return to hot coffee and breakfast, but we could not lose momentum.

The sun shined behind the face, creating an alluring glow around our climb. I clipped the gear on my harness and tied a figure eight below my waist. With a safety check and a little dance, I dipped my hands into a bag of chalk and took my first step into the corner.

Right toe in. Right-hand pinch. Left-hand jam. Right-hand jam. Left-hand crimp. High foot. Left-hand gaston. Lean left. Reach the jug. Rock over. One step after the other until I entered a small ledge just before the crux.

I placed a purple TCU and a number 3 nut to protect myself on the low angle dihedral above me. There I was, on the climb I had visualized for the past month—staring at the tiny feet, a crimp just beyond my reach, and a fingertip-seam that rested on the crack like a mischievous smirk, taunting me.

Moving from the comfortable ledge and into the dihedral, I gave the moves at least a half-dozen semi-tries. But after each time, I returned to my comfortable ledge. I fumbled for another nut and tried to wedge it in the crack, but it was too big and I was losing energy fast. The protection was there already, but my commitment to the moves was not.

In a moment of fear to move beyond, I hesitated. In a few seconds of idleness, my legs began to shake. My mind wouldn’t let me move up, even though I knew a fall would be protected. I considered climbing down to my beloved ledge—willing to fall into old habits of comfort, rather than do what I needed to: trust my feet, stem, and move. Either way, I had to move. Commit to that first step, one foot and then the other. The movement calmed my muscles and I was able to climb past the thin seam and into great hands and larger gear.

When we’re given a choice, we can trust our feet, stay balanced, and move through the unknown—or we can let our doubts take hold, and return to comfort. We must consider whether our challenge requires a physical movement, a mental shift, or both. Once we understand what has a grip on us, we can take the first step to overcoming it.

Taking the first step to achieving goals doesn’t always require pushing our physical limits. There’s a time to try hard and a time to rest, and both of these actions have the ability to help us enjoy the comfortably uncomfortable motion of life.


Check out more climbing adventures by Coarse and Buggy:

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