Fear: the Art of Courage

IMG_1378EDITI was going to write about something else this week. I had almost a whole post written down and then something tripped in my brain and I decided to write a completely new one.

Today I’m writing a little bit about fear.

Lots of people have written about this, many of them with more credentials than I have. The only thing I really know is that I’ve been afraid of things my whole life and maybe you’ll agree that qualifies me to talk about what I know of it and how I deal with it. The one thing I know for sure? You’re the only one who can do anything about it.

As human beings, we’ve all felt fear at some point in our lives. Maybe it isn’t fear of heights or fear of flying or even a fear of spiders. We have hundreds of words to describe the fears that grip our hearts and minds and everyone is afraid of something. Some of us are unfortunate enough to be afraid of nearly everything.

So that’s awesome.

Reaching for the final hold on a short climb.

I myself am afraid of heights. I’m also afraid of falling, failure, spiders, change, and depending on others. Naturally I picked a sport in which I am sometimes dozens of meters up sheer rock where failure often means I slip and slide up the face because I don’t know what I”m doing, the cracks and ledges house spiders, I’m constantly challenged to adjust my life to fit and need to rely on other people to keep me from falling to my death. But hey, nothing terrifying about any of that. Not at all. Climbing fits me like a glove.

Best sport ever.

Now, I volunteer at my local climbing gym as a part-time ‘belay tech.’ This means I am the person who handles the rope and safety systems for people who want to try climbing but don’t want to commit to the lesson. Or birthday parties. With groups of kids it’s a bit harder to tailor the session to them; they just want to climb things. With the adult groups (1 belayer per 1-4 guests) it’s a lot more fun for me. I can give them some information about climbing, about what we do, how things work. I can show them some tricks to make it a bit easier, and I can tailor the difficulty to them (or their egos….or mine). I’ve had friends, couples, families, kids to seniors, and there are quite a few that have come back and taken their lesson and are now regulars at the gym.

As a volunteer I get to see lots of different types of people try out climbing. I’ve worked with people of all different fitness levels (and nothing is more fun than the big burly guys who lift weights) and abilities and fear levels. Not all of them can conquer their fears right away. Some don’t make it to the top of a single wall. Some send things that most new climbers can only dream of. I always ask my groups if they are afraid of heights. I’ve had a few people say things along the line of “you guys must be fearless! I wish I could be like that.” That’s my favorite moment.

Because then I can say honestly that I am afraid of heights. And I still climb.

Squamish - Howe Sound
Howe Sound from the top of “Skywalker” 5.8 – What a view.

Just this past weekend I had a little girl ask me why I still do it if I’m afraid of it. I told her I did it because it’s fun. Because even if I freak out on the wall and have to fight off a panic attack it is worth it.

I’ve learned to manage my fear when I’m on the wall. Sometimes it gets the better of me. My second multi-pitch climb (where a pitch equals the distance between two belay anchors and is about one rope-length halved) was “Skywalker”, a 5.8 Traditional (placing your own protection) climb in Squamish, BC. It’s 5 pitches on granite and is one of the more popular climbs in the area even though it’s not very hard. The only other multi-pitch I had done was earlier that week, a 5.8 called Emil and the Detectives, and I had led (climbed with the rope hanging down, clipping into bolted protection as I climbed so as to help keep me from hitting the ledges below. Or the ground) the second, shorter, easier pitch. That was a lesson in fear management if ever I saw one.

But “Skywalker” was the project of the day on our last day in Squamish. So we got to the crag and set up while waiting for our turn. When the climbers above had cleared the pitch we started up. I was following the climb; this meant that as I climbed the leader took in slack from above. If I had fallen it would not have been terribly far. The first pitch was a bit nerve-wracking, but it was well within my ability level. I moved carefully and concentrated on each hand and foot placement. Once up I clipped myself to the anchor and waited for the rest of our team.

It was the second pitch that broke me.

Squamish - Skywalker 5.8
2nd Pitch of “Skywalker” – 5.8 vertical slab

Pitch number two is a near-vertical slab of granite with a thin crack to the left and a shallow corner. It was a totally new type of climbing for me and I did not handle it very well. I was cold, and nervous, and stressed out, and I was sliding back more than I was going up. I was so frustrated by my own anxiety and inability to do the climb (mostly in my head) that I was crying and that led to me ultimately starting to hyperventilate about two-thirds of the way up the pitch. I took a breath to try to calm down and…my body wasn’t cooperating. I shouted “ten-sion” (my voice broke quite dramatically in the middle as I tried to get the air out through my vocal chords) and let go. I knew instantly what was happening and why. I was hyperventilating because I had pushed myself without letting myself breathe properly. I knew I had to get my breathing under control and that people usually use a paper bag to help: I didn’t have that, being on the side of a cliff and all. So I made a fist and wrapped my other hand around and breathed through that.

I calmed my breathing in less than a minute. And then I kept climbing.

I got to the top of the pitch and took a deep breath, looked at my friends and said “I’m ok. I’m just going to sit here and cry for a bit.” And basically sat down in the only place I could find and cried. I was emotionally shattered, and even once I got myself mostly back under control I had to skirt carefully around the climb itself in my thoughts. Still, I was breathing and I didn’t feel faint. I was okay.

Notice that in the above scenario, I not once thought about going down.

Skywalker 5.8 topout
Four Happy Faces at the top of Skywalker. I’m in the blue helmet. Do I look wrecked? I felt wrecked.

I did the next three pitches and topped out the climb at nearly six pm with my friends. The selfie I took of all of us is victorious and also telling: I was not emotionally stable; even writing this now nearly a year later I remember that feeling of victory and vulnerability almost like it happened only weeks ago. It took me weeks to really think of that climb as ‘fun’, let alone wanting to get back out on the rock. Yet, here I am seven months later working my way up the crags. Three days ago I sent a 2-year project I’ve been working on. Sure it was on top-rope (where the rope loops through the anchor at the top of the climb and the belayer takes in slack so falls are small) but it was something I’ve never been able to do in one go before and it was awesome.

The more I climb, the more aware I become of my fear and the voice with which it tells me to give up before I even start. “Don’t pus yourself for that move,” it says, “you’re not strong enough to make it work.” It whispers constantly in my head that I’m not strong enough, that I can’t hold on any more, that I’m going to fall. It tells me I cannot trust my feet or the rock or my gear.

It gives me so many reasons to stop.

Lead climbing is scary. Here I am staying outwardly calm while terrified.

People say I’m brave, some of you have even said so. I don’t feel brave. When I look at a crag and fear is whispering at me I feel exactly the opposite of brave. My weekend in Strathcona reminded me of something; courage isn’t the absence of fear. Courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

My last belay session on Sunday was with a lovely couple who were both in good shape. I took them up to a short, easy route and had them climb it. They did pretty well, though of course they were pulling with their arms but that is a common error for new climbers to make. Your instinct is to hang on for dear life. I put them up a slightly taller route, and this is where the fear started to play with them. One of them said that their fear of heights meant they probably weren’t made for climbing. I told them that it didn’t mean that at all. I took them to the bouldering wall, and showed them some movement tips. Then I took them downstairs to the big walls.

The woman was up first, and she made it almost to the ceiling before she had to call it. Her arms were too tired to hold on. As she climbed I told her partner that fear is a very real thing for most climbers and that one way to combat it is to take a breath and concentrate on where your next foot is going, then your hand. Just think about your movement, not the heights, or the muscle weariness. When she put her feet on the ground I told her she’d done great and she said that she had just concentrated on where she was putting her hands and feet, and didn’t let herself think about the height or the fear. I laughed because that was exactly what I was telling her partner to do.

I’m afraid a lot of the time, I always have been.

The only thing that has changed is that I’m willing to step back and ask myself if my fear is grounded in real concerns or imaginary ones. Hanging on the side of a cliff? There are very real concerns at play there. Am I willing to accept the risks to keep climbing? So far the answer is yes. Am I willing to accept the risks to go camping by myself? Absolutely.  Am I willing to jump off a perfectly good bridge? Nope. Not even a little.


Not Lost Girl

((By the way: I took the photo at the top of this blog while leaning out over the edge of the cliff. That was nerve-wracking))

What fears have you been struggling with? What brave things have you done? Tell me about it below!


4 thoughts on “Fear: the Art of Courage

  1. My greatest fear that I have been dealing with on a daily basis is fear of failure. I feel totally justified as failure at this point in the game affects 7 lives not one. So pushing past that getting it done despite having negative thoughts rushing through my head day in day out, that for me is brave.


  2. Pingback: The Black Dog – Depression – Not Lost Girl

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