Climbing with Fear by Stephanie Holt
When professional athletes and adventurers are interviewed they generally speak about the high they get doing their activity, the state of flow they experience during a race or a climb or on a river. This state of ecstasy is what we as humans chase, it is what brings people like Alex Honnold to free solo in Yosemite and Olympic athletes to devote their life to their sport. This passion for life, passion for adventure and purpose is also what drives people to push their limits, what drives me to push mine. What is talked about significantly less is the dark side of pushing boundaries, the side we hide from the world and often, even from ourselves. That side manifests itself in many ways, but that of fear has to be the most powerful.
When I wrote that entry in my journal I had spent the day climbing from dawn til dusk in the Red River Gorge, one of the most beautiful and elite climbing spots in the United States. I had top-roped a variety of hard climbs that day but it wasn’t until late in the evening that I finally got the chance to lead a climb. I hopped onto a 5.8 climb with four bolts that I had completed the year before when I was injured with a badly sprained ankle. As lead climbs go, the climb should have been a piece of cake for me. I knew I had the strength to climb more difficult routes and I knew I had previously completed this route with no problems while injured, but what I would realize three bolts into that climb is that sometimes, for no obvious reason, your mind lets fear overpower reason.
Forty feet up in the air I hung dangling from the bolt I had just clipped when I felt a familiar panic start to bubble up in my chest. My heart sped up, my breathing got shallow, and my palms started profusely sweating off the chalk I had so deliberately caked onto them. I had two moves above me before I could mantle the ledge where the anchors stood yet I could not get my body to move an inch. My thoughts were running a marathon around my brain and all I could think of was how crippling my fear was in that moment. I kept trying to gather the courage to finish the climb. I would make the first move and then shrink back down to the safety of the bolt in defeat. I was absolutely furious with myself because I could recognize that my fear was not rooted in logic- I knew I had nothing but solid holds above me and good feet placements. I knew that as soon as I threw my body over that ledge that I could leisurely walk on the ledge over to the anchor bolts. I even knew that if I slipped and fell that I would fall maybe 5-10ft. and then the rope would catch me. I was aware of all of this yet I was unable to move from the comfort zone at the bolt that I had created for myself some 40ft. up in the air.
This is a strange place to be as a climber, a strange place to be as an athlete or as a person. Fear is something we still know so little about but it has an unprecedented ability to paralyze us if it is given the chance. I knew that my body was capable of finishing that climb without hesitation. I was fully aware that I was strong and that every move I made would be calculated so that the chances of me taking a whip (climbing term for falling) would be very small in comparison to the chances that I would finish the climb without any danger. In the end, I did finish the climb. My belayer yelled up to me that I had “better get my ass to the top” because I was “not coming down until I did” in true climbing motivational fashion and that was the push I needed. I took a deep breath, made the moves it took to get to the ledge, clipped into the anchors and then cleaned the route so that our group could move on.
Moments of fear like that I experienced on that climb are not unusual for climbers. As humans our nature is to work with gravity, not against it, and even the most skilled of climbers will find themselves succumbing to the will of their mind on climbs from time to time. Fear is often variable, though. A highball boulder that I can’t get the courage to top out one day might be my warm up problem the next and the same goes for sport climbing. The trick is learning to face that fear, to let it motivate you not cripple you. I am still learning how to control my fear, how to push past that panic and trust myself. Climbing exists as an adventure sport pursued all around the world because of its relationship to fear and that is what is important to understand. If you are not absolutely terrified at least some of the time, then you are doing it wrong. Fear expands the mind, it challenges perceptions of oneself and allows us to push boundaries and set boundaries and discover our self and our relationship to this world.