Rebirth Through Climbing

Rebirth Through Climbing

Hi dear community, my name is Nicole Berthod and I’m a Swiss mountain guide and climber. I started my second life two years ago in Jordan, and I’m happy to tell you why and share my story with you.

Where should I start? Maybe let’s start in a place very far from the cliffs, far from the beautiful community of climbers, far from the nature and the outdoor we enjoy so much when climbing.
Let’s start in the middle of a doctors office . I remember her telling me when checking my breast: “oh, it should be nothing, but let’s make some more exams.” I remember the radiologist responsible for the next exams showing some concerns.
But, for me, it was clear, it should be nothing. Actually, why would I be sick? I was young (32 at the time), healthy and fit and I enjoyed my life like never before.
But the call came, the one you never wish to answer. It happened a few days later at the cliff. My phone rang and the doctor’s assistant told me: “please come next week so that the gynaecologist can give you the results”. I gently explained her that I didn’t need to rush, as the doctor said it was probably nothing. And anyway, I was not available because of work. But she insisted. At the end of a long discussion, we finally decided for an appointment the coming week, even if that meant I would have to cancel my plans. I shut down the phone and she immediately called me back. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you. The doctor said you can come accompanied.” Shit. That was bad. By this time, with this sentence, I clearly understood it was not “nothing “. And that my life was about to change forever.

As I said, by this time, I was young, fit and healthy. I cared about my lifestyle. I tried to eat healthy food, I moved a bit every day and I committed to climbing like never before. I was 31, mother of two kids and I worked as a mountain guide.
By this time I felt strong. I had climbed several 8a and I just sent my latest project that was graded 8a+. This route was particular for me. The first move was a bouldering move with a really far crimp. I’m pretty small so it felt almost impossible for me at first. But anyway, I tried hard on it. And one day, almost magically, I reached it! I grabbed this crimp and could manage to do the seemingly impossible move. Everybody was surprised. I was surprised. And even my friend that was belaying me told me: “Oh, but you’re taller than you look”. Wow. That was an important moment for me. Taller than I looked… This sentence inhabits me since then, and inspires me. I always kept his reflection in mind, because for me, it means that we can do much more than what we think we’re capable of. Do you know “game of thrones”? There is this song, the half man’s song, who says: “I’m small but my reach is long”. This is the message, this is important. What it says, is that I’m limited, we all are limited, by our fears, doubts, the image we have of ourselves. But actually, we can achieve far more than what we think we can do. And a few days later, I finally climbed this seemingly impossible route…

One month after this achievement I got diagnosed with breast cancer, so during one year I had to go through surgeries (seven in total), chemotherapy (6 months of it) and radiotherapy (1 and a half month), and when I finished the treatments I wanted to turn the page and take back my life. But I had a lot of fears.

In December 2021, at the end of this tiring year, I was invited by a friend to travel to Egypt, to the Sinai. I discovered this region, and instantly fell in love with the place. It was new, beautiful and peaceful. It seemed that there, life started to flow again inside myself. Some time later, I wanted to combine a climbing trip with the amazing atmosphere I had experienced in the desert. I'd heard a lot about Jordan, but had never been there before. So my husband at the time and I planed a trip there. It was March 2022, at which point I hadn't lead climbed for over a year. I'd lost a lot of strength, but above all, I'd lost my self-confidence. I was afraid that a fall could have disastrous consequences, as my operations had taken a huge toll on my body. So my husband climbed all the pitches first, and I followed on top rope. Towards the end of our trip, we set out to climb a route called the Pillar of Wisdom. The first few pitches were very easy, so I decided to lead climb again. I was excited by it and wanted my body back, my condition and the happiness of climbing back. When we reached the last pitch below the summit, it was my turn to do it. But this pitch, rated 6B, was much harder than the others. I went into this pitch with a lot of apprehension. I had to cross to the left, then pass a spur that cut me off from all contact with my belayer. The wind was coming up the wall, I was impressed by the void beneath my feet, and I could hear the muezzin reciting his prayers in the distance. I couldn't get over a small slab that would take me to the good jugs. I went back and forth several times between the belay where my husband was and this slab, which seemed too impressive for me. I hoped he'd offer to take my place, but he didn't. I had the feeling that he understood that this was an important step for me, and that I had to make this passage on my own if I was to return to life. I could visualize the movements I needed to make, but I couldn't feel confident enough to take the plunge. After a while, my plan was clear. I managed to silence all my thoughts by repeating to myself, like a mantra, the word confidence , confidence , confidence. My steps followed the rock, my feet landed on the right holds and, step by step, I found myself at the top of the pillar of wisdom. Finally, just when I thought I'd never make it, this challenge gave me a real sense of liberation. A few hours later, at the summit of Jebel Rum, I looked up at this woman who had weighed up the options, mustered her courage, decided to trust herself, overcome her fears, decided to act. And I was proud of her. Fear didn’t win. Cancer didn’t cut me from the things I love. I overcame this challenge even if it seemed impossible to me. Because, in the end, we can do much more than we think.

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