I’m dangling off a rock face in the Apuan Alps of northwestern Tuscany, Italy. I don’t dare look up or down. The sky seems impossibly distant. The ground looms far below. I’d like to say I’m just focused on my breath but — though it sounds good — it’s not quite true.
My focus is entirely on the rock I’m facing. For once, my constant stream of a thousand thoughts is quiet. The rock is coarse, gray and uneven enough to keep me on all fours, stretched vertically. I don’t think about the top of the rock that I’m aiming for, nor the bottom. I think only about what my eyes can see and what my body can touch.
I recognize this clench, this determination to make it through. Two years ago, I became a single mother. I’ve since been battling the fear of failing at it, and in my effort not to fail, I’ve clenched. Now, I am on a rock that I chose to climb, and in my effort to climb it, I clench.
None of this was on my mind when I signed up to tackle this via ferrata (Italian for “iron way”), one of a series of protected climbing routes found across the Alps (and elsewhere around the globe). I had come to Tuscany for the Adventure Travel World Summit, an annual gathering of adventure travel outfitters, writers and enthusiasts, and this seemed like the perfect add-on. “Experience required: None,” claimed the trip description, which went on to describe the four-hour climb as “easy grade.”
Our group of seven met at 7 a.m. After a bouncy minivan ride on mountain roads, we set out for a hike through shady forests toward Mount Procinto. Our goal was to reach the plateau at its top. When our guide pointed to the pillar in the distance, I chuckled out loud: “Ha! There’s no way I can do that.”
But I’m not one to give up without at least trying. So, strapped in and secured to a steel cable that runs along the rock, I started climbing.
It was November when my son’s father and partner of 10 years moved to another country, and my son and I moved to another, smaller apartment. I knew it was coming — we had spent months talking about it — but I didn’t expect the depth of the loneliness and fear that struck on my first night alone with our then 2-year-old. Sitting upright on the tattered coffee-brown sofa of our new rental, surrounded by unpacked boxes, I kept thinking: “There’s no way I can do this."
I was frozen by panic. Would I be able to take care of my son? Could I alone give him security, love and a boundless sense of possibility? How would I, a freelance writer with unsteady income, make enough to support us? So many questions piled into the room that night they formed a mountain that felt insurmountable. I sat there petrified, my son’s breathing next door as my only anchor.
At daybreak, I started up that mountain.
Two years later, I slowly ascended the rock face in Italy using two spring-gate karabiners on slings attached to my harness and to a wire rope placed on the side of the route. With my helmet on and a guide to talk me through the climb, I was pretty safe. Having two clips ensured that one is always secured, softening any potential tumble.
But fear remained my trusty sidekick. Scrambling for the next place for my hands and feet, I remembered stories of people getting stuck on cliff faces, stiffened by panic. You can fall and hurt yourself gravely, but the real danger lurks in working yourself up into such a state of terror that you halt, unable to move up or down.
On that rock, I sensed how easy it was to yield to the fear. It nearly happened on my way down, as I took an uncertain backstep and realized there was no solid footing. I panicked and found myself swaying off the rock, holding the wire rope with both arms. It was so terrifying that I made sure it didn’t happen again.
There's no flailing on a via ferrata, just as there's no flailing with a toddler in tow — and no partner to tap for help when things run amok.
Raising a child alone is the ultimate climb.
With my son, I’ve learned to focus on the minutia of our life together instead of obsessing over the anxiety-inducing big picture. If on any given morning he eats his banana, yogurt and cereal; drinks his tea with lemon and honey; takes his spoon of cod liver oil; dresses for the weather and we make it to preschool by 9 a.m., I’ve climbed Everest.
If a tantrum catches me unprepared on a bad day and I manage not to have one myself, I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro. Sure, there may be some altitude sickness, some acclimatizing to do — like pacing between rooms of our apartment to catch my breath instead of screaming — but we get there.
When you parent alone, there is no harness, or that other clip that always has you secured. It’s just you: your patience, dexterity and grit. And at times, when all of those things vanish, all I want is to curl up on the floor and pretend I was never born.
But of course, I don’t. I keep going. I am roped in by an invisible thread. Bound by a love that has doggedly carved new paths in my soul, I keep climbing.
Earlier this winter, my son’s fever ran over 102 degrees, but he refused to take medicine. He had me climbing the walls. I used every method known to persuade him — from coaxing and bribing to huffing and puffing and threatening and screaming and nearly crying. Until I just gave up and let myself dangle off that rock.
His fever subsided after three days and the spark returned to his eyes. And even in that moment of tension over medicine, I was his rock. I am his rock.
The older my son gets and the more I ease into my role of single mother, the more I see how we are ultimately the ones who craft the story lines of our lives. Over time, “I can’t do this” shape-shifted into: “I am doing it, and it feels all right.”
Later that October day in the Alps, as I stood atop Mount Procinto taking in 360-degree panoramas of craggy wooded peaks, I felt a curious relief. As if that clench of the past two years finally released.
There are challenges we choose in life, and there are those that are foisted upon us. I didn’t choose to parent my son alone. Yet on that mountaintop, I felt immense gratitude for him, this journey and what I’ve learned. And for the first time in a while I felt on top of things, though I knew descending would be a feat. (I’m looking at you, teenage tantrums 10 years down the line). After all, I chose to climb that rock.
In the meantime: Clip in, clip out. I got this.
Anja Mutic is a New York-based travel and lifestyle writer who has lived, worked and traveled on all the continents, except Antarctica. Find her on Twitter at @everthenomad.
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