Over half my life ago I was a teenager learning to trad climb, and my friend Adam and I were down in the Red River Gorge looking for easy leads to build our skills. We both had several years of gym fitness under our belts, just enough to be pretty dangerous. At some point on that trip I found myself up in the belly of Chimney’s Direct, the second and essentially totally unprotected pitch of an easy climb first done decades before. I was stemmed out in a solid position, looking up at an awkward transition into a short squeeze chimney, and down at a bare loop of rope leading to Adam, on a big ledge ~50 feet below. It occurred to me, rapidly, that the only thing standing between me and a big splat was the skills and fitness I’d built over the previous years, and most of all the mental wherewithal to apply them, right then.

It was a Hamlet moment which I’ve carried with me every living moment since.

I’m not sure if other people learn to recruit their full resources in a single epiphany, as I did, or gradually. What I am quite certain of is that this kind of education, this certitude, this understanding of how vital for personal safety the application of skill and will, is an essential part of any adventurers repertoire. Climbing is a good teacher because of how stark and obvious the lesson is, but an identical process occurs on a bike dodging a sudden, limb threatening rock, and in the water coming around a corner to encounter an unexpected and deadly sweeper. Cultivating the raw skills to deal with these hazards is not a quick process, but it also isn’t especially complex. Applying those skills without hesitation or ambiguity is more mysterious, and more than any single thing what will keep the adventurer alive.

I’m grateful I learned this lesson so thoroughly and well early on, and so I ask; what and when was your Hamlet moment?