My long-time friend and traveling partner, Françoise, and I were hiking a fourteener a couple of years ago. Françoise is deathly afraid of heights, and hiking up a fourteener is more of a mental challenge than a physical one for her.
Above tree-line, the trails become thin, skirting steep talus slopes. Hiking up there is almost nothing but barren landscape and views. There are rugged, low, alpine flowers like old man of the mountain and stone crop, and there are pikas barking “beejer” in defiant warning to the huge mammals invading their territory. Other than that, all Françoise can see is the slope heading down the mountain. She knows that slipping here wouldn’t actually be all that dangerous, but acrophobia isn’t a rational fear, and if she could listen to her brain instead of the adrenaline pumping through her veins, she wouldn’t be scared at all.
She’s been afraid of heights since I’ve known her, and while she never lets it slow her down, she’s cautious stepping on a chair to hang a picture, and she always holds the handrails on stairs. For the longest time, I had absolutely no idea what she was going through. Once, while I was gently prodding her to keep going on the hike, she suddenly got irritated and exclaimed, “You don’t understand, because you’re not scared. You’re never scared!”
I’m never scared? I am some brave warrior? Ridiculous. Except that she’s right. I’d never really thought about it, but I am almost never scared. It’s hardly from courage, though; it’s really out of foolishness. While Françoise is rightfully considering the remote possibility that she wouldn’t be able to regain her footing and would tumble, heels over head, down a 1000-foot talus slope to her death or serious injury, I think simply, “Nah, would never happen.” Of course it could happen, but I am foolish and that just doesn’t register.
I understand how Françoise feels now. I understand her because I started leading rock climbs. Rock climbing feels safer to me than mountain biking, because in rock climbing you’ve got a rope. But while leading rock, that life-saving rope is all but uselessly below you. I slip sometimes while climbing, hell, I slip sometimes while walking on the sidewalk! If I were to slip while leading, I could plummet twice the distance between me and the last piece of protection I placed in the wall. I’d fall a little further, too, taking up slack in the system and rope stretch. I’d like to not even think about what happens if I didn’t do a good job placing that last piece of gear.
I slipped the other day on an approach. I bruised my tail bone, and it’s still bothering me. I think that was two weeks ago. How would I fare if I smacked into a cliff after falling 15 to 20 feet? I think about this now. Sometimes, when I am leading, I think about it and I get nervous. I remember once holding on to a not-very-difficult spot and trying to place a piece of protection into the crag. It was taking too long, and my legs were starting to shake. I could feel the fear welling up in me like cement slowing setting up.
I later described this to Françoise, who was, naturally, unimpressed. She claimed that this locking up is exactly what happens to her on those talus slopes. Eventually she’s more afraid that she won’t be able to move any more than that she’ll fall. I also explained to her how, during the 15 to 20 minutes that it takes to climb a pitch, sometimes this heavy, rigid cement would be on the verge of freezing my joints and muscles, and how I would get…angry. I just wanted it to stop. To set up the anchor. To…relax. I remember trying to find which piece would fit in the crag, and having to mentally overpower the growing anxiety. Having to wrestle this anxiety back down and out of my mind. It felt like a physical act, not a mental one, to push it away. I remember setting my jaw and literally straining my muscles to get it out of my mind and to concentrate on placing the piece and climbing on. The sooner I got down to business, the sooner I’d get to relax at the anchor! I was no longer afraid of falling. I was afraid of locking up.
It took a vertical pitch 100 feet high for me to experience the same thing as Françoise, but it’s the same thing. After being so unaware of this mental factor for so long, I am frequently amazed at how much it does affect me. It’s not only fear. Climbing in the rock gym, I notice a significant improvement depending on my mood. I lose a whole grade in climbing when I am angry or upset. Undoubtedly, this has been affecting my life in other endeavors, even if I have been so ignorant of it before.
I must admit, I am disappointed that I don’t have some superhuman power to logically suppress or, better yet, not even have fear. It may sound silly, but that rock pitch I was climbing was the first time I realized what Françoise was going through. I doubt it’s the first time I was ever really afraid, but I guess I have always been too oblivious to appreciate it.
Fear is a normal part of life, and I love it. Climbing is fantastic for me because it brings this unfamiliar fear right to my attention. I can face it and I absolutely must deal with it. Climbing engenders a concentration from me that almost nothing else does. Like a forced meditation, everything unnecessary is cleared from my head, but I must remain aware of everything around me. At the bottom of a climb, I wonder why I am starting it. I remember how much I fear and I dread it, but I know how charged and empowered I will feel at the top, having overcome it. I feel huge at the top, finally safe again. Fear makes me feel alive. No wonder Françoise keeps on climbing fourteeners!