Boldly Bouldering

I have a dog who delights in bouldering.

Oxford Dictionary: bouldering (noun) climbing on large boulders, either for practice or as a sport in its own right.

I noticed Conall’s affinity for climbing downed trees and boulders soon after bringing him home as a puppy. I chose Conall and his breeder when she shared that all her puppies are exposed to logs and boulders in their outdoor enclosure, to help build motor skills and confidence in their first few weeks of life. That resonated, and made such sense. As a small child, I appreciated the gift of testing my physical abilities without someone saying, “Don’t do that; it’s dangerous!”

[An aside: Yes, I got Conall from a breeder. Having had three Alaskan Malamutes in my life, I knew I wanted another. I needed their innate confidence in my newest trail companion. Having a rescue in my life (Finn, the Aussie), I also knew I wanted a puppy I could properly socialize. Malamute puppies rarely come through rescues or shelters. I was director of a regional animal shelter for two years. I know all the arguments of rescue versus purchase, pro and con. Ultimately, the decision to bring a dog into one’s life, and the way that happens, is deeply personal, rather like choosing when and how to have a child. So please, don’t hate on me for getting a puppy from a responsible breeder.]

As Conall grew and we spent more time in the forest, he gained more agility and confidence keeping up with Finn, who is seven years older and quite athletic. I let Conall follow his head and heart when it came to climbing things. He got braver and better with each attempt.

Did I occasionally hold my breath as I watched him climb a huge boulder, concerned he’d slide off? Absolutely. Has that ever happened? Not yet – he’s four now – but it could. And that’s okay. Life is about taking calculated risks, and I trust Conall to know his strengths and weaknesses better than I do. How can we learn if we aren’t allowed to try? How can we improve if we don’t practice?

And I admit: I love watching Conall test himself. He knows that if I say, “Up up!” that’s his cue to climb a familiar boulder. I praise him, taking photos or video of him atop a boulder or walking along a downed tree trunk. He happily poses for me. Clearly, he basks in the positive reinforcement, just as I did as a child when my father took home movies of me learning to water ski or snow skiing. When I was in college and met a group of rock climbers, my father wholeheartedly encouraged my learning that new sport, even going so far as to buy me rock shoes and a climbing harness (he always made sure I had the correct equipment for any sport in order to be safe). Watching Conall test his skill and confidence, I have a greater understanding and appreciation for how my father must have felt, watching me, and why he encouraged me.

dog on boulder
Conall plays on boulders in a scree field during a recent morning trail run.

Bouldering, and climbing in general, have seen robust growth in recent decades. That’s great, because the two activities are perfect for building confidence and boldness. They require physical and mental strength and agility. It’s you against the boulder or rock face, overcoming fears of heights or falling, solving movement puzzles that allow you to ultimately succeed in reaching your goal.

I haven’t climbed in 35 years, but I remember the sense of accomplishment, and continue utilizing the lessons I learned from climbing.

Taking Risks: Confidence and Boldness

Running with Conall and Finn in the forest, following them as they lead the way, watching for movement and surveying their surroundings, Conall frequently detouring to climb a boulder, I often reflect on the concepts of confidence and boldness. Both come from experience, from testing yourself in small increments, each new experience and lesson learned building upon those that came before, allowing for greater skill and confidence heading into each new foray. Physical confidence comes from intimately knowing your body and what it’s capable of on any given day, making subtle adjustments for injury, tiredness or aging. (Finn and I are intimately aware of the latter adjustments!) Mental boldness comes from pulling all your experiences together until you can say, I’ve got this, I can make this choice, reach this goal, meet this challenge. When confidence and boldness are in balance, they free you from self-doubt, drown out negative self-talk, and propel you toward new adventures, toward life. You take calculated risks, knowing it’s not so much about succeeding or failing but taking the journey to see what happens. You never know until you try.

Many people, upon learning I spend most mornings running or walking trails in the forest with just my dogs for company, think I’m taking a terrible risk. What if I was attacked by a wild animal? What if I got injured? Aren’t I afraid to be out there alone? Do I carry a gun to protect myself? Their questions expose their own fears.

My answers: I’m only afraid of negative encounters with other humans; the chances of attack by wildlife are so small as to not cause me worry (primarily because I don’t live where grizzlies have made a comeback, yet). Injuries are a calculated risk I’m willing to take and prepared to face. No, I’m not afraid of being alone; I prefer it as there’s lots to think about out there. And no, I don’t carry a gun; if I did, it would be to protect me from two-legged idiots, not wildlife.

I’ve often wondered why I’m so comfortable in the outdoors when so many others are afraid? I think the answer is the foundation and encouragement I was given as a child.

While I don’t consider myself overtly bold – I definitely have my fears, and I’m certainly cautious – I was raised by a test pilot father who knew all about risk-taking (and surviving). He taught me how to take calculated risks, pushing myself while always having a back-up plan, thinking through in advance the likely outcomes and options, keeping contingencies in mind.1

My confidence in myself and my ability to deal with the risks I’m willing to take translates into what others might consider boldness. Much of that confidence comes from decades of pushing myself in the outdoors – skiing, rock climbing, white water kayaking, triathlons, marathoning, ultra-distance trail running. Each new sport required new skill sets, both physical and mental, building confidence in all aspects of life. Finishing Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in 1994 made my day job of facing opposing counsel in a courtroom a whole lot less daunting. It was like having a super power only I knew about: mental toughness.

Oxford Dictionary: bold – showing an ability to take risks; confident and courageous. Synonyms: daring, intrepid, courageous, brave, valiant, fearless, unafraid, undaunted, dauntless. Informal synonyms: gutsy, spunky, ballsy, game, feisty.

I’m good with being called spunky or feisty.

Venturing out into the forest, knowing I’m on my own, provides an odd yet wonderful sort of freedom. I don’t worry that someone else is worrying about me. I have abundant time to think – creativity enhanced by movement – in an awesome, quiet environment. I take my time, capture scenes in photos, play with the dogs.

As we wander through the forest, my dogs provide me a great deal of comfort and protection, more than most people would, if I’m honest. I consider my biggest risk to be killers with rifles mistaking Conall for a wolf. Otherwise, I feel safe in this forest. That wouldn’t be true for other places, other forests. When I lived in western Washington and spent time running in forests there, too often I encountered truly sketchy men who I’m sure would have been more willing to harass me had I not been accompanied by two Alaskan Malamutes. My rule of thumb is to never get so far from my vehicle that I couldn’t crawl back to it, even if it took me hours. If something truly catastrophic does happen, well, c’est la vie, although I certainly don’t want my dogs to suffer. (I’ve made provisions for them should I die, whether in the forest or under more normal and mundane circs.) 

Oxford Dictionary: confident (adjective) – feeling or showing confidence in oneself; self-assured. Synonyms: self-possessed, believing in oneself, self-reliant, poised, coolheaded, calm, levelheaded, composed, unruffled, impassive, serene, tranquil, relaxed, at ease, unflappable, together, unfazed, laid-back.

Another thing my father taught me: there’s a difference between confidence and arrogance. The former is based on experience and skill, the later on imagined skill and inflated ego. Sadly, many confuse the two, considering someone with confidence to be arrogant, or even worse, believing the arrogant person actually has the skill they boast of.

Oxford Dictionary: arrogant (adjective) – having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities. Synonyms: haughty, conceited, hubristic, self-important, opinionated, egotistic, full of oneself, superior; feeling or showing certainty about something.

The other day while Conall was bouldering, he showed uncharacteristic hesitation in returning to the trail. He carefully puzzled out his best move, then took it. It was a perfect example of a lack of arrogance or hubris on his part; he knows his strengths and limits, and rather than showing off, he chose the safe route. Smart boy.

I won’t stop living this lifestyle, enjoying the forest every day, just because something bad might happen. I consider the risks, take reasonable precautions (e.g. a bright orange vest on Conall whenever we’re in the forest), and trust myself to make the right choices in any given set of circumstances. Safety comes first. I want to still be venturing in the forest when I’m 90! I’m far more likely to die in a car crash than in the forest.

I’m lucky, raised by a father who believed kids obtained skill and confidence by playing, so he provided abundant opportunities. Play is practice and you only learn and get better if you practice. Hide-and-seek, riding a bike, board games, shooting baskets, water and snow skiing. My brothers and I had no idea we were being taught self-confidence; we were just having fun. My confident father raised a confident daughter, also admonishing her to never get full of herself. I carried those lessons and sense of fun forward into all the sports I took up as an adult, and how I let my dogs interact naturally – and boldly – with the world around them.

I eventually discovered ultra-distance trail running. That sport, and all the races I entered over a period of twenty years, gave me with the skills and confidence I rely on now every time I “boldly” venture into the forest with my dogs, laughing with delight every time Conall boulders.

Boldness be my friend.

William Shakespeare

***

Footnote 1. I learned to climb – and take risks – early. This anecdote is included in my book, Growing Up Boeing. I was about five when this took place. It perfectly illustrates my father’s approach to kids and play.

One summer evening, a neighbor knocked on our front door. When Dad answered, he was greeted with a question. “Do you realize your daughter is up in that tree?” the neighbor asked, pointing at the maple.

Dad stepped into the yard and looked up to see me sitting casually on a branch high up in the tree. I probably waved and smiled at him. Dad acknowledged to the neighbor that yes, indeed, there I was.

“Aren’t you going to do anything?” the man asked, concerned and apparently a bit scandalized.

Dad shrugged. “No. She’ll come down when she gets hungry or it gets dark.”

Featured image: Conall off trail atop a boulder field for the best view, July 2019.

5 thoughts on “Boldly Bouldering”

  1. “Men that hazard all do it in hope of fair advantages”. Merchant of Venice, Act II, scene 7.

    All literature concerning the Grizzly bear ( Ursus Arctos Horribilis ) describes them as unpredictable, yet that is my consistent experience with homo sapiens. Encounters with these bears are rare, yet we encounter people everywhere.

    There are things that happen here on the streets of Seattle that make your trail running seem abundantly secure. Yet I do admire your confidence.

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    1. Exactly. Context is everything. Cities scare me; wilderness calms me. In my experience, wildlife wants nothing to do with we humans (showing their intelligence), and if given half a chance, will head the other way and avoid us altogether.

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