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By Laura Karlin (Invertigo Dance Theatre, Artistic Director)

On Sunday, I completed my first multi-pitch climb with Isak and our friend Ethan.  Both of them are outdoor educators and rock climbing guides. I am enthusiastic, inexperienced, and often somewhat reminiscent of a drunken squirrel scrabbling up a rock.

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A multi-pitch climb is the ascent of a climbing route so long that you have to stop multiple times along the way because it’s longer than the rope.  This climb in Joshua Tree is apparently not that hard for people like Isak and Ethan, but it’s long and it involves a lot of different kinds of climbing – face climbing (along the face of the rock), crack climbing (jamming your hands and toes into a long crevice), chimneying (inching up a narrow corridor of rock big enough for the whole body like in Emperor’s New Groove).

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(but with one person, not two)

Isak led the route, placing protective gear and setting up belay stations along the way.  Then I would climb and Ethan would come up a little bit behind me.  The first section was full of fun puzzle-solving and I clambered up the rock, feeling for the good holds and working muscles gloriously.  It was hard, but I did pretty well.  When I got to the top of that section, Isak and Ethan high-fived me and asked, “OK, do you want to go down now, or do you want to go all the way to the top?  It gets harder, and there is no turning back after this.”

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I wanted to get to the top.  There may be a metaphor in that, but honestly I just wanted to see the view and I’m not great at stopping midway into something.

The second section was mostly chimneying and involved quite a traverse through a canyon-type crack in the wall.  I had never chimneyed before and it involves all kinds of muscles and techniques that are foreign to me.  I inched up the wall, with Ethan encouraging me and pointing to good holds.  It took . . . let’s say a long time.  I looked down to see how far I’d come.  Sometimes when they say “don’t look down”, it’s not because the height is so great but because you feel you should be so much higher for the amount of work you’ve put in already.  I had more than halfway to go and I was really tired.

I kept it up, because sometimes you just have to get it done.  Then we hit this one spot that was so hard.  The nearest protection was about 20 feet away and it was along a traverse.  This means that if I fell, my belayer wouldn’t just catch me and I’d only fall a foot or two downwards.  This means that if I fell, my belayer would catch me and I’d fall a foot or two downwards and I’d swing twenty feet sideways through a rather narrow tunnel of rock, probably into that really big rock at the end over there.

So I was there at this one spot, with a really hard set of moves to navigate and a safety net that still involved a substantial fall.  It would have been just as hard to downclimb and there was no way out back there anyways.  I felt completely stuck, encompassed by the dizzying kind of fear that comes at you in waves.  I whispered something I almost never say.  “I can’t do this.”

The last time I felt like this was with Invertigo.  Running your own company is often like rock climbing.  It works muscles and skills in ways you can’t anticipate, you need way more gear than seems necessary, it’s much better done with a buddy and people who don't do it often think you're crazy for getting up there on that ledge. 

In January, at the beginning of this year, I received a phone call that an angel donor was no longer in a position to make good on their promise for funding through 2014.  It had nothing to do with us, but in one phone call, my company’s projected budget for the upcoming year of 2013 dropped by 65%.

I hung up, shell-shocked.  We have dancers to pay, amazing visions to realise, outreach programs to keep alive, my own livelihood, my company manager’s salary.  For five years, Invertigo had clambered up the mountain, from ambitious start-up to an active, vibrant dance company.  The angel donors’ contributions in the last year and a half had made extraordinary things possible for us.  It had been hard but not impossible.

And then that phone call happened and that wave of gut-deep, vertiginous fear washed over me.  I was in that spot, and I whispered something I almost never say.  “I can’t do this.”

In both cases, I was faced with a choice – to downclimb and start again, or to keep going with a huge fall ahead of me.  I wasn’t unprotected if I fell, but it would still hurt like hell.

Let’s start with the rock climbing part of the story.  It was whippingly windy, and I was cold, and I was lightheadedly afraid, and I whispered, “I can’t do this,”  and in that moment, I really believed it.

Ethan cut through it all and cheerfully said, “Yes you can.  Put your foot here.  Use those dancer legs and push.”  and I did.  and I slipped a little and cried out and he said, “You’re fine.  You got this.  Do it again, but push harder and reach up a little more.” I shut off the valve in my head that had allowed that steady trickle of fear, and I inched along for a few moves.

Then there was one place where I could continue to shuffle, or I could throw my arm out and grab for a strong hold.  So I threw arm out, gave a guttural cry and grabbed the tiny chunk of rock I was aiming for.

I didn’t fall.  I held on and I swung over to a better position.  and I kept climbing.  and I reached the top of the second pitch.  and eventually, I reached the top of the third pitch, the very top of the mountain.  and the view was amazing.

The story of Invertigo is not so neatly wrapped up, because it’s an ongoing story.  But the middle is very similar.  I was afraid and vulnerable and damn lucky.  I’m lucky because I had a lot of Ethans who cheerfully said, “Yes you can,” and together, we have navigated away from the hardest place.  When given the choice to go big or go home, we’ve gone big.  We kept paying dancers, we kept (and expanded) our outreach programming and we made strategic choices that needed to be made.

I run Invertigo very much the way I rock climb.  I set a goal, a pitch to climb, that is beyond my means.  I figure it out on the way up: in small increments, with equal measures of strategy and improvisation, and with people who support me the whole way up. I regularly feel that I am on a ledge far higher than one on which I would be comfortable, clinging with fingertips and toes to the smallest of holds. Fear becomes a sign that we're ready for the next step, a source of strength.

When given the choice to shuffle on or to throw ourselves at the next good hold, we hired our first Executive Director.  She begins exactly one year after I received that phone call.  We are raising the money somehow.  (There’s still room on the Executive Director Donor Circle, by the way.)

We will not fall.  and we will keep climbing.  and all along the way, the view will be amazing.

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