03.17.06

Everything to fear

Posted in Society at 8:45 by RjZ

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.


Garden of the Gods, Colorado

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!

8 Comments »

  1. Penelope said,

    March 17, 2006 at 12:22

    Very interesting. Now you really understand why I haven’t been to the top of Long’s Peak: My mind knew that the talus slope wasn’t all that dangerous, but it also knew that my body was in danger of freezing up so completely that I wouldn’t be able even to turn around and start back home, so I turned around while I still could. It would be nice to have been able to keep going calmly up the mountain, like you do, but like Françoise, I’m just not wired that way.

    The more interesting thing about this essay, though, is that you’ve shown that, although fear kicks in at different times for different people, we can understand each other by comparing their experiences to our own fears. Now we can understand how my favorite cousin, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder (really just a condition where visceral, untouchable-by-logic fear kicks in much more often than it does for most people), feels when he goes to college classes or to the grocery store. For a marvelous direct description of that kind of fear, I highly recommend “Chicken in the Henhouse” from David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

    How cool this discovery is! Until I read your essay, above, I hadn’t realized how easy it is to empathize with other people’s “bizarre” fear, or (in your case, when I’ve been hiking or climbing with you) “bizarre” lack thereof.

  2. Penelope said,

    March 17, 2006 at 13:37

    Very interesting. Now you really understand why I haven’t been to the top of Long’s Peak: My mind knew that the talus slope wasn’t all that dangerous, but it also knew that my body was in danger of freezing up so completely that I wouldn’t be able even to turn around and start back home, so I turned around while I still could. It would be nice to have been able to keep going calmly up the mountain, like you do, but like Françoise, I’m just not wired that way.

    The more interesting thing about this essay, though, is that now that you’ve shown that, although fear kicks in at different times for different people, we can understand each other by comparing their experiences to our own fears. Now we can understand how my favorite cousin, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder (really just a condition where visceral, untouchable-by-logic fear kicks in much more often than it does for most people), feels when he goes to college classes or to the grocery store. For a marvelous direct description of that kind of fear, I highly recommend “Chicken in the Henhouse” from David Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

    How cool this discovery is! Until I read your essay, above, I hadn’t realized how easy it is to empathize with other people’s “bizarre” fear, or (in your case, when I’ve been hiking or climbing with you) “bizarre” lack thereof.

  3. RjZ said,

    March 17, 2006 at 13:40

    I never meant to have bizarre lack of fear, and worse, I rarely noticed. I don’t so much lack fear as lack a clue about it! I am glad however to finally understand how it goes for others and that’s really the point of this post (thanks for noticing) that everyone has some limit and there’s nothing good or bad about that limit, whatever yours is.

  4. Penelope said,

    March 17, 2006 at 23:42

    I am also relieved to know (and you’ve pointed this out before) that you aren’t completely fearless. Fear keeps us from doing stupid, overly dangerous things; if you really had a bizarre lack of fear, you’d be dangerously deprived. Also, as you point out in your post, you’d miss that great adrenaline rush. It’s nice to know that you aren’t fearless; you’re as protected and as vulnerable as the rest of us. It just kicks in at different times.

  5. Penelope said,

    March 18, 2006 at 8:08

    I am also relieved to know (and you’ve pointed this out before) that you aren’t completely fearless. Fear keeps us from doing stupid, overly dangerous things; if you really had a bizarre lack of fear, you’d be dangerously deprived. Also, as you point out in your post, you’d miss that great adrenaline rush. It’s nice to know that you aren’t fearless; you’re as protected and as vulnerable as the rest of us. It just kicks in at different times.

  6. Amy said,

    March 20, 2006 at 6:15

    I really like this post, Ron. Thanks for the enjoyable and meaningful Monday morning read.

    And… I hope your tail bone feels better soon. (I once fractured mine, and, well… I feel your pain.)

  7. tim r said,

    March 20, 2006 at 23:04

    Ahhhh, fear and the big mountain moment. Or the “mountain-is-bigger-than-me moment.” I remember getting chased off the SW approach to Mt Princeton by lightning so palpable that if your hand came even remotely near anything metal, static finger leapt from your fingers like you were Gandalf the Grey. Scared me shitless–I fully expect to die in a freak electrical storm or perhaps a freak home improvement accident. I’ve been shocking myself regularly since I was three and took apart the phone–part of my incessant electronic tinkering. But that’s a side note.

    I think midlife crises–hell, Ron, we’re both getting to be middle aged now, and endoscopies are on our horizon–are big mountain moments. Most of my twenties and even my early thirties were spent in blissful ignorance of that “I’m bumping against the reality of the world and my own limits within it” feeling. Not to say that I was always able to do anything I wanted, but I felt like my life and my decisions were clearly mine–not mine in the sense of reponsibility, but mine in the sense that my rational ego had my emotions heeling like a well trained show dog. Fear, of course, is but one of them.

    From what I read in this post, Ron, it sounds like (part of) what makes rock-climbing interesting to you is its capacity to induce you to feel fear, which you must both feel and overcome. But isn’t also that it teaches us our limits even as we keep pushing them? You push your body in ways that you never have before–”I need to put my foot there, but I never tried to put it there before.” “What, I can stand on that?” But at the same time you push your limits, you viscerally experience them. Your emotions pour forth and are there–you must concentrate on them for they are part of the situation in hand, just as much a part of it as getting your foot onto that little knob by your left elbow.

    Funny of course, that you also note that when we do not let ourselves experience anger or be upset, it leaks through and also changes our job or other parts of life… of course it does. Sometimes it takes a big moumtain moment to remind us of that simple truth. The big mountain moment can come on a talus slope, while climbing a cliff face or ice cornice, when someone you love leaves you or when a parent tells you that they cancer. They’re there, palpable, visceral, real–the mountain has objected to your obliviousness, the world is reminding you that it is bigger than you.

    But what is there really to do about all this? Is it a koan-like case of “Before Enlightenment, chopping wood, and carrying water. After Enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water”? What will you do, now that the dogs have been let out?

    Me? I’m going camping.

  8. Penelope said,

    March 22, 2006 at 14:58

    I find it intriguing that Tim mentions midlife crises as part of getting in touch with fear. I’m not having a midlife crisis, but rather in the past few years have been in a “I’m no longer super-young, and I can’t get by forever on just looking helpless and cute” sort of crisis, which is particular to 30-something women in our vapid-fashion model-loving society.

    The funny thing is, it seems to be having the opposite effect on me that your midlife crises have: You guys seem to have been in an emotion-ignoring, macho haze for all of these years, in which you felt invincible, and didn’t notice fear much at all. I, on the other hand, feel like I spent my twenties paralyzed by fear—fear that I wasn’t strong enough to take care of myself and survive in the world, fear that I wasn’t cute enough (since that’s what 20-something women are supposed to be all about), fear that I was unlovable, fear that I’d do something imperfect and because of that the world would end.

    Now you guys are noticing for the first time that climbing mountains is dangerous, and that knowing that makes it all the more satisfying. On the other hand, I’m noticing, to my delight, that I can take care of myself, that life goes on even if I screw some things up, and that I can do some pretty amazing things I hadn’t realized I was capable of. I’m realizing that I don’t care so much whether one guy or another thinks I’m cute enough (though I still care more than I wish I did). I’ve learned that I can drive all over the country all by myself, staying safe and having a great time. I’ve learned that with some truly great friends (the three best friends I have right now are examples), I can not only be imperfect, but completely screw things up, and still work my way back (with their very generous help–I know some wonderful people) to a strong and happy friendship. I’ve learned that shit happens, loved ones even die, but still my life goes on, and still I can handle it.

    I’ve been well aware of fear all my life. Just recently, I’ve begun to really live in spite of it (as you guys seem to have been doing all along), and it feels great!

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