It was a rough morning climbing.
I woke up really excited to climb and we hiked down to a well know crag in Meir Valley at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky to set up shop for the morning.
It was beautiful. You had to walk through an archway of a huge boulder which took us to our private oasis of climbing perched high on top of a hillside.
I started with a couple of easier climbs which turned out to be a blast. Both of them followed a great line to the top and were perfect warm-ups.
I then decided to attempt a couple of the tougher climbs.
The first one I tried was well within my range but I hit a sticking point which really frustrated me. I started blaming the rock (Crazy, I know). I then started blaming the people who put the bolts in that I needed to attach my rope to.
After much blaming, I finally had to come to the conclusion I just didn’t have it. I finally begrudgingly finished the route after a lot of struggle but I had some assistance so it didn’t feel like much of a victory.
I then decided to redeem myself on a slightly harder route on the same wall. I made it to the first bolt but could not figure out how to get to the second bolt so I had to bail and get lowered down without completing the route. It was the first route I have tried in the last couple of months that I couldn’t finish and gave up on.
That is either a testament to my willpower and tenacity in choosing to not give up or the fact that I am just not challenging myself enough. I’ll leave the judgment up to you.
Anyway, I was looking forward to getting out of that area and meeting friends of ours at a very sought after area of Meir Valley called Bruise Brothers.
It is a beautiful wall with some amazing lines.
I started on some easier routes and then decided to step up to some harder stuff. After the struggles I had on the previous wall earlier in the day I was resolved to just stick to the easier stuff but I saw a route I just couldn’t say no to.
It started out with some technical moves and then moved to an overhang with some big moves and had a great finish. I got up with no problem and started to build my confidence again.
The next one I wanted to do looked amazing but was at the peak of my ability. I’ll be honest I was scared to get on the wall. It was a huge climb with only a little crack to use about 40 feet off the ground.
Fortunately, another couple of climbers decided to do it before us. It was probably a bit of a false sense of confidence because he was a much better climber than I was and made it look way too easier.
Either way, I decided to give it a go.
Surprisingly, I made it without too much effort.
I was re-energized and wanted to test my limits for the last climb.
We shifted over to a really interesting climb.
The first part starts off as a fairly easy climb straight up the wall. At least it should have been easy but ended up feeling much harder than it should have been.
The next part is a giant overhanging roof about 30 feet off the ground that you have to climb horizontal to the ground below you and then over the top for the finish.
I resolved that I was going to have to take a couple of falls but there was no way I was going to give up on this.
What’s funny is a friend of mine completed the route just before me and still had his friend’s gear up there. His friend shouted at him to take his gear back down and put the rope directly through the anchors just in case I didn’t finish it.
Reflexively I shouted, “Leave it up there. I’m finishing it and I’ll bring it back down.” It was my little version of the “burning the boats” story where retreat and failure were not an option. I was going to finish this no matter what.
As I reached the top of the first part of the climb, I leaned back and peered over my head.
Doubts started to set in. It looked a lot harder up close than it did from the ground.
But there was no giving up. Remember, I told him to leave his gear at the top. I had to finish this climb now.
I decided to take it one bolt at a time; total presence.
There were 3 bolts and a finishing anchor.
I grabbed onto the first part of the roof, leaned back, and brought my feet a bit higher. A quick draw was within reach so I reached down, grabbed the rope, and clipped it in the carabiner.
One down, three to go.
I reached up to the next part of the roof, heel hooked the other part of the roof, and saw the next quick draw was within reach. I slowed my breath, relaxed my body, reached down, grabbed the rope, and slowly and methodically placed it in the next carabiner.
Two down and two to go.
The next one was a huge reach. I searched for a moment, found a decent hold, grabbed it, got my legs up and clipped in. I looked up and found the anchor just a short easy climb away.
I was so focused and so present that I was surprised the finish was right in front of me.
A wave of emotion and a tremendous sense of accomplishment came over me as I clipped into the final anchor.
It is easy to live life in the middle where there is no true sense of accomplishment but also no real risk of failure. It is easy to play it safe.
But sometimes, just sometimes, it is worth it to burn the boats and destroy the bridges so failure is not an option and there is a point of no return.
That is really when we are tested. That is where the sweetest juice of life can be found.
– Matt Westheimer
It has been 77 days since I parted ways with my chiropractic practice to pursue a dream of traveling around the world.
Currently, I am sitting in a giant metal tube 40,000 feet in the air on my way to NYC. I can’t believe I have been traveling for 2.5 months so far. Some days feel much longer than others, but overall the experience has flown by.
We have experienced some pretty amazing things so far and encountered some really frustrating challenges.
The highlight of the trip has definitely been rock climbing. We developed a passion for climbing that exceeded my expectations, but I am certainly leaning into the feeling and looking for ways to explore the world with a rope and a harness.
We have met extraordinary people from all over the world. We have stayed at five star hotels and no star shacks. We have had some expensive food and $1 street food. We have met some of the nicest people on the planet and encountered some of the rudest and most frustrating.
We’ve had things stolen and lost but more than made up for it with the generosity of people and experiences along the way.
Being away for so long and living out of a suitcase really puts things in perspective and makes me grateful for some of the simple things in life like a good home cooked steak and a decent pillow.
Man, I never appreciated a decent pillow until now.
I realize that we only get one life to live and living in fear is no way to live it. Life passes you by way too quickly.
I have been meeting many travelers along this journey that are in their early to mid 20s and just working and traveling around the world. They are living day to day and traveling until their money runs out. Then they go back to work until they have enough money to travel again.
There is such a freedom in that. To get on the road with nothing to lose and experience the rawness of what the world has to offer.
There are times when I question my decision to travel. Of course, it would have been more prudent to continue working, but being prudent isn’t always memorable. Being prudent doesn’t always create exceptional experiences. Being prudent doesn’t always build lifelong relationships.
Sometimes it’s important to throw prudence out the window, take big risks, and follow your passion.
One of my favorites quotes that exemplifies this idea is “You’ll regret more the things you did not do than the ones you decided to do.”
Stop always being so prudent, go against the grain, and do something you’ve always wanted to do.
My philosophy more and more is evolving into the idea that there are only 2 types of experiences: extraordinary ones that feel amazing and ones that are crap but make for great stories.
Go out and make both.
– Matt Westheimer
I extended my arm overhead with Bluetooth head phones in hand and flung them across the room smashing them into the wall. I immediately regretted my decision, but the damage was already done.
As with everything in my life, I always self-reflect and self-evaluate. I think it is a really important trait if you want to continue to grow.
Let me paint the picture for you to bring this scenario into better context.
I am here in Siargao, Philippines, a beautiful island known for its seclusion, crystal clear water, and world-class surfing. It has been on my bucket list for the past few years when I saw pictures of a good friend of mine who had come here to surf. I am staying at a beautiful villa with a great view of the ocean.
Do you want to know why I whipped my headphones across the room as if I was a pitcher for the New York Yankees?
It was because I was all set for a stand-up paddle boarding session behind my villa, but first I couldn’t get the headphones to sync with my computer so I could upload an audiobook and then I couldn’t get them to even turn on. Combine that with a WiFi connection that was taunting me with full signal yet a complete inability to work as if the full signal was a vestigial monument of the room and my patience had enough.
I know this is not painting a great picture about myself and my ability to remain patient in the face of chaos, but I had a complete alternate to this response in the beginning of the trip.
Due to a bit of a scheduling snafu, instead of flying directly from Cebu to Siargao, I was flying from Cebu to Surigao then having to drive to the port and take a 3 hour boat ride from Surigao to Siargao. It certainly wasn’t ideal, but I made peace with the situation.
The challenges began at the airport in Cebu. The domestic terminal at Mactan Airport in Cebu is certainly nothing to write home about. There are a couple of stalls selling really basic local food and that’s about the extent of the airport.
The airline I was taking was notorious for being late. I think every flight I have ever taken with them over the years was delayed. My first leg of the trip from Singapore to Cebu continued their perfect track record of being late.
When I arrived in Cebu the first thing I did was find the Cebu Pacific desk to make sure my flight was on time because it was already cutting it really close with making it for my connecting boat. I was relieved when they told me the flight was on time, yet I wasn’t going to hold my breath yet.
To my non-surprise, an announcement came over loud speaker about an hour later that said the flight would be delayed. I started doing all of the calculations in my head about the reality of whether I would make the boat or have to spend the night in Surigao and miss my reservation at the villa.
Fortunately, the flight was still going to make it in time to Surigao for me to connect with the ferry.
The plan was to land in Surigao and then take a motorbike taxi with an extra carriage attached to it called a tricycle. I needed to stop off at a money changer to exchange my Singapore Dollars for Philippine Pesos. With money in hand, we head across town to the port to catch the ferry to Siargao. It was the last boat of the day leaving for Siargao, but we were going to make it right on time.
Things looked ominous as we approached the ticket counter. There was a sea of people all crowding around with outstretched hands waving their money back and forth. I immediately knew this could only mean one thing. There were limited tickets and everyone was vying for the last ones.
I took a breath knowing there was nothing I could do at this point but hope I was one of the chosen ones. If not, I had no idea when the next boat would be. I patiently waited yet firmly held my ground as we all were aware that every ticket that was handed out that wasn’t ours could mean us losing our seat.
Fortunately, luck was on my side and I got a ticket. I raced to the boat, found the last seat I could find on a crowded bench. With luggage between my legs and backpack on my lap, we were off.
The whole trip was a cycle of extreme highs as well as big frustrations. Looking back on it, it was a total gift because the challenges added a new dimension to my character and the highs in comparison were extraordinary.
The trip to get to the villa in Siargao was no joke. It began with a 12:30 am wake up for a flight leaving Singapore at 3:30 am and I didn’t arrive to my villa until 4:30 pm. If you are doing the math, that is a 16 hour journey on 2 hours of sleep. I arrived exhausted and wet from the boat ride.
Then things did a total 180 the next morning with my first day of surfing. My villa connected me with a wonderful instructor, Lohloy. When we arrived to the beach, I was blown away. I had never seen water for surfing so clean and crystal clear. It was amazing. If I knew the water wasn’t full of salt, I would’ve wanted to drink it. The moment I caught my first wave and rode it all the way in, I realized the journey was worth it.
Sometimes we don’t appreciate challenges until we experience the light at the end of the tunnel. For me, this was different. I chose to exercise extreme gratitude and patience on this trip. Other than my head phone incident I described earlier of course (LOL).
From the extremely temperamental weather to the wrongly scheduled travel plans to the loss of my GoPro on the first wave of the third day of surfing to the last experience of the trip which I will describe in a moment, I chose to see the gift, the lesson, and the gratitude in every challenge. I chose to focus on my breath rather than frustration. I chose to see what I could be grateful for rather than to see what was missing.
I really got to meet some extraordinary people on this trip. From a wonderful Iranian man I met on the flight from Surigao to Siargao who I became really good friends with to people from Holland, Russia, Australia, Spain, and Philippines, I learned a lot and got to connect with a lot of people from different religions, cultures, and backgrounds.
On the third day of the trip, I guess Lohloy thought I was good enough to take my surfing game to the next level so he organized a small boat to pick us up at the beach of my villa and take us out to Guyam Island for some bigger waves.
Guyam Island is a really cool island off the coast of Siargao. There is actually nothing on the island except for a couple of barbeques and sheltered tables. There is no electricity but there are still about 200 people who live on the island. It is certainly a different quality of life than I am used to.
Anyway, back to the surfing.
The boat dropped us off in the water and we paddled out to the surf spot. These waves were much bigger than I had experienced the previous two days. At one point, I was the only beginner with an instructor left. Everyone else was much more experienced than me.
The surfing was extraordinary. Some of the waves I caught were as tall as myself and continued for 150+ meters. I have a bunch of friends who are surfers and are totally addicted to the sport. I now can see why.
I continued surfing for a few more hours on the fourth day and on the fifth it was time to leave.
The journey back to Singapore began at 4:30 am with my suitcase and I piled on to the back of a habal habal, which is a motorbike with a slightly longer seat and a rudimentary roof.
As we arrived at the port, I was optimistic. The weather was beautiful and I bought a ticket for the faster boat that was only supposed to take about 2 hours. I stepped on board and the boat was packed. There was only one seat that was available but a gentleman was lying down on it. I was going to ask him to move and make room for me when upon closer examination, I realized this guy was in serious condition. He must’ve been in some horrific accident because he was bloodied and looked badly beaten and had an IV with saline hanging above his head. I knew at that moment I would gladly give up my seat if it meant him being a bit more comfortable.
With absolutely no space left inside, I realized I would have to find a space outside on uncovered walkway of the boat.
I used the power of ingenuity and found a plastic chair and parked myself on the side of the walkway with a beautiful view of the clear water, untouched jungle islands, and sunrise starting to appear in the sky.
Remember earlier when I said there was one more challenge I needed to face.
About 30 minutes into what turned into a 3-hour boat ride (so much for the ‘faster” boat), the seas began to get much rougher. Nothing that bothered me until a massive wave came over the side of the boat and soaked my sneakers, clothes, and bag. I managed to preserve a small portion of dryness to my stuff until about 15 minutes later when an even bigger wave came over and hit me again. This time even my socks were soaking wet. As if things weren’t bad enough, it started pouring rain and I tried to huddle myself under the tarp that was draped over the railing to attempt to provide some shelter from the rain. It just so happened the portion of the tarp I huddled myself under had a tear in it and provided little protection to the down pour.
Here is the thing. Every time I found myself wet, cold, uncomfortable, and frustrated, I looked over at the suffering man sitting inside and it immediately put things in perspective. I actually smiled at one point and just enjoyed the adventure realizing it would be a great story to tell someday.
Remember when I told you earlier how I lost my GoPro on the first wave of the day. What I didn’t mention was it was a really bad wipeout. When I fell into the water I was tumbling under the extreme force of the wave, I felt my body brush up against the underlying reef. Luckily, I came up with only a tiny mark on my arm. I was just so grateful to be unharmed. I knew at that moment my GoPro could be replaced. A broken arm or worse could not.
As I sit here at a local outdoor café in Surigao awaiting my flight back to Manila and then Singapore, I am really grateful for such a great experience. I am grateful for the highs and the lows. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn more about myself and challenge myself in new ways.
Until next time Siargao. I will most definitely be back.
Rob Lilwall is a former geography teacher, turned internationally acclaimed adventurer, author and speaker. His two most epic expeditions to date are the three-year 50,000 km Cycling Home From Siberia expedition, and the six-month 5,000 km Walking Home From Mongolia expedition – both were commissioned as television series for National Geographic. Rob’s unsupported and human-powered travels have taken him across the frozen plains of the Gobi Desert and Siberia; through the thick jungles of Papua New Guinea; and over the lonely passes of Tibet, China, Pakistan, Japan, Switzerland, Bolivia, Peru and Afghanistan.
He is the author of two books which have been translated into five languages, and has given his acclaimed motivational talks to more than 40,000 people in over 20 countries around the world.
Asides from his expeditions, Rob has spent over 14 months of his adult life as a volunteer on educational and humanitarian projects in Africa, Central America, and Asia. His expeditions have raised over 100,000 USD for charity. Between 2010-2015 he and his wife Christine founded and ran the Hong Kong office of the children’s charity, Viva. Rob received his education at the Universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, and most recently has been taking a MOOC course in Positive Psychology with UC Berkeley.
You can reach Rob at www.roblilwall.com