Reaching Unprecedented Heights: My Unexpected Experience with IU Outdoor Adventures

I'm not afraid.

Those were my thoughts the last time I rode a roller coaster. It used to at least give me butterflies in my stomach. But not anymore. It was fun, but not very thrilling or challenging. I had been waiting for the day to feel those butterflies again. To feel that rush of excitement, pang of fear, and beauty of experiencing something completely unfamiliar. I finally found that this past fall in my IU Outdoor Adventures course. 

IU Outdoor Adventures is an amazing program with spring break and summer trips, equipment and gear rental, and one-credit hour courses. These one-credit hour courses meet over a three-week period with three evening classroom sessions and one weekend field experience trip. The course that changed my life by challenging my very being (dramatic, I know, but this is crazy stuff guys) is W144 Outdoor Rock Climbing.

My trip mates and I after completing our first climbs.

The weekend I spent rock climbing with my W144 friends at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky is one I won’t easily forget. We climbed. We camped. We didn't care about showering or makeup or our phones or TV. I was tested that weekend, both physically and mentally. I had indoor rock climbed several times before at Hoosier Heights facility in Bloomington. I thought I basically knew what rock climbing was all about. But I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Here I am, fearlessly indoor rock climbing my sophomore year, not a care in the world.

Rude awakening.

Climbing isn't just strapping yourself in and placing your limbs on plastic holds. Climbing is about focus. It’s about agility, precision, problem solving and strategy. It’s about faith, trust and courage. It’s about having fun, challenging yourself, and overcoming fears and anxieties. Climbing makes you look at situations in an entirely new way. It makes you (forces you) to believe in other climbers and in yourself. There are different levels of climbing, so many technical terms for equipment and techniques, and endless other things I knew nothing about before.

I can't really explain what I felt during my first outdoor climbs that weekend. Other than pure, wonderful fear. I remember looking at my first route and saying, "Ummm, where are the holds?" And our IUOA guide just laughed. There are no big, bulky, brightly colored jugs to hold on to out there. Just plain, pure, rock. I honestly don't know what I was expecting. Of course, outdoor rocks look different than indoor, plastic routes. But I couldn't believe how discreet these paths were when I first saw them. If you looked closely, you could make out chalk marks on the rock from previous climbers. This was key for a beginner like myself. I used these chalk marks at first as my lifeline for knowing where I should move up the route and what holds would be the best. Eventually, I didn't care so much about where the chalk ghost before me had climbed, and I was able to do the routes my own way.

This photo shows our first two routes.
Confused about where someone would even climb on these?
We were too. Look closely and see the chalk marks.

Another key challenge when first starting out was trusting your belayer (a.k.a. the person with your life in their hands). Belaying is hard work in and of itself. Your arms and neck get sore. You have the responsibility of making sure your climber is secure on the rope and won't fall to their death (NBD). Everyone on our trip learned to tie our own figure eight knots, feed the rope through the belay device, and belay other climbers. It was more than just rock climbing with friends. It was trusting some people we had just met with our own lives and being responsible for theirs as well. It was a bond like no other.

I think the absolutely most challenging climb for me the whole weekend was the 90 ft. route called Eureka. Eureka is by no means a hard climb in the climbing world. It's rated a 5.6, one of the easiest climbs. But that's in terms of holds. For new climbers, the mind-power and physical stamina it takes to climb 90 ft. is incredible. That climb felt like both the longest and fastest moment of my life. I remember getting to the top, and I couldn't believe I had actually made it the whole way. My extremities were shaking like noodles, angry at me for forcing them up the whole way. But I couldn't have been happier. I looked down over the beautiful greenery and tree tops of the Red River Gorge.

My W144 course was probably one of the best experiences of my entire life so far.

Here are the main lessons I took away from that weekend:

1. Focus on one task at a time and live in the moment.

Putting one’s whole attention on something doesn't happen very often these days. I am constantly thinking about a million different things at once. I sit down to type an essay, but every other paragraph I write, I look at my phone to check my text messages or scroll through Instagram. I put a TV show on, but I’m also eating my lunch and trying to do my reading for class and thinking about what my boyfriend and family members might be up to. When I was climbing, I could only think about climbing. My mind was freed from any other thoughts. All I could think about was where I was going to place my hands and feet next and how I was going to make it to the top of the route. The mental clarity climbing provided me with is what got me to the top of the climbs we did. If I had had any other thoughts going through my head, I probably would have fallen or not made it to the top. Just like with rock climbing, in my personal life I know that putting all my focus into one thing at a time will not only make each thing I do of better quality, but it will also help me to enjoy those things more and feel more relaxed afterward.

2. Do things that are out of your comfort zone and scare you a bit.

I love finding healthy ways to get my adrenaline going and butterflies in my stomach. I’m not afraid of heights, so it takes a lot for me to get that feeling. But rock climbing was able to bring it back for me. My adrenaline was going, I felt scared out of my mind at points when I was up there, and most importantly, I was excited about what I was doing. Life can often get mundane, especially as a college student with many courses, multiple jobs and involvement in student organizations. I’m always running around campus all day long, and I forget to do things that give me that feeling of excitement that I absolutely love. Rock climbing brought that back to me.

3. Find beauty in the little things.

Beauty is subjective. But sometimes people forget that. Being out in nature and climbing, it was easy to see the stunning landscape and remember how beauty can be everywhere if you open your eyes and choose to see it. Our trip also showed me the beauty of interacting with people. We were a group of mostly strangers, and we were able to bond and figure one another out so quickly. That was one of the most beautiful things about the trip in my eyes. I want to continue to find beauty in the little things, both in nature and in the people I interact with. If I’m open minded and open-hearted, I know I will find and appreciate more of the beauty in life.

In conclusion...

I learned that climbing is much more than strapping on a helmet, harness and some shoes and throwing yourself up a rock formation. Climbing influences the way you think, act and even see the world. I challenge everyone to go out and try something new and scary and get in touch with nature. You'll be surprised at what you might learn about yourself and this crazy life. 

P.S. Come back and learn about my next IU Outdoor Adventure (W134 Whitewater Rafting in North Carolina) some time in April!

About The Author
Alexea CandrevaJournalism and Communication & Culture major - Class of 2015 - Crown Point, IN

Dog lover. Adventure seeker. DD iced coffee aficionado. Peanut butter addict. Future PR pro.