Sunday, May 20, 2007

Facing their fears, one step at a time

The Daily Record

October 25, 2006

The time was 7:48 a.m., and it was cold.

Justine Trinidad, wearing glasses and a black coat, parked her car at the edge of the road, stepped out, and shivered. She was cold, yes, but she was also thinking about how, for the first time in her life, she was about to scale a cliff.

“I’m here to challenge myself and get past some fears,” she said.
Trinidad was in Allamuchy State Park at the Riverview Adventure Clinic, a group started to help women find out truths about themselves through self-discovery and teamwork. The founder of the group, Mary-Michel Levitt, who has been in charge of the Riverview Marriage and Family Council for 21 years, organized this event and was set to act as their support for the day.

Fellow adventurer Jessie Martinet said she was “expecting to have a good time and hopefully find some self-discovery.”

“I want to learn something new, and you learn to trust people (when you climb mountains),” said Susan Slaton, who clumber her first mountain when she was still in high school.

When Mary-Michael arrived, she told the women to start up the hill that led to the mountain; she was going to wait at the bottom for other women to show up.

Martinet led the group up a steep hill, bypassing some sharp orange rocks and yellow leaves. After moving the last dangling branch from her path, Martinet and the others saw “the practice wall,” a 40-foot climb straight up, what the Rock Climbing New Jersey guidebook calls “Salty Tears.”

Some of the women looked up at it remotely, others nervously. Above, a man with yellow sleeves was throwing ropes down from the top to his son, Stephen Rusnock. This was Barry Rusnock, the trainer for the day and also Mary’s husband. Stephen Rusnock was already setting up some of the harnesses they would be attached to for the climb.

Through the rest of the day, he would be “invaluable,” said Mary-Michael, who believes everything went as smoothly as it did because of him.

The women sat down on cold rocks. The time was now 8:45, and four more women showed up. Mary-Michael walked over to them with sheets of paper that crinkled in the wind.

“The scariest part of this climb is signing your liability forms,” Mary-Michael joked, and added for those who weren’t laughing, “We promise no death and mayhem, just fun.” And with that, the women signed, some continuously looking up at the mountain as they scribbled.

Normally with rock climbing, it might take two whole classes before an individual would actually scale their first cliff, but with Barry around, an Eagle Scout who was awarded the vigil award, the highest honor one can receive in the order of the arrow, and also a climber since he was 15, everything was secure and ready for them to scale right away.

Mary-Michael also knew what she was doing, having climbed a multitude of mountains herself, even scaling the brutal Mount Washington in New Hampshire, which has some of the worst weather conditions in the world.

The aim for the day was to get all the women on the cliff at least once, and that they did.

“As a good husband, I decided to do it,” said Barry. While the women waited, he leapt backward down the face of the cliff while holding onto the rope with only one hand. Mountaineers call this technique rappelling.

After teaching the techniques of belaying (one person staying at the bottom slackening and tightening the rope while the other climbs the mountain), the women began their ascent.

Martinet scaled almost the whole thing but got stuck at a tree; she went backwards down the mountain with her life in the hands of her partner. At the nadir, her eyes ecstatic, she said, “It was exciting, scary, but a lot of fun, very liberating.”

She blamed her inability to make it to the apex on the fact that she couldn’t see where to put her hands.”

“I’m disappointed I didn’t get to the top,” she said, turning her head to Slaton, who was struggling herself, spread out like Spider-Man on a slab.

Trinidad stood at the bottom and pulled on the rope, now confident that there was nothing to be worried about. The time was 12:30 p.m., and the women had already conquered their fears and learned how to trust their partners. Only a few hours had passed and the mission was already a success.

And this program is just the start of many to come, including fly fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. Classes for men and children are also being planned.

“Trust and self-esteem are so important,” said Mary-Michael, while hooting and hollering for Slaton, who managed to cling to a very difficult spot. “I mean, it’s one thing to talk about it until you’re blue in the face, but when you experience it, it sticks.”

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