“Anything I’ve ever done that ultimately was worthwhile initially scared me to death.” ~Anonymous
I have a pretty severe fear of heights. One time when I was on a road trip in the South West with my two friends we stopped in the Grand Canyon. My friend, who is a photographer, really wanted a photo of the other two of us, sitting right at the edge of the canyon. As I got closer and closer to the edge the sheer vastness of the canyon completely overwhelmed me and I froze. I actually froze and couldn’t move. I panicked. Eventually I got up and ran from the edge. When my fear of heights hits I can feel it grip my stomach and make every muscle in my body freeze. As you can imagine, in climbing, this is a bit of a problem.
So why did I decide to climb you might ask? Strangely enough, I’ve heard from many many climbers that they also have a fear of heights. This is perhaps yet another indicator of the addictive power of climbing. In some ways starting off with bouldering helped me since I never have to climb more than 18 feet. On the other hand, I’m never roped up and always have to climb or jump down, so in some ways being roped up at a higher height is slightly easier. In any case, dealing with fear is a daily task for any climber and here are some ways that I deal with it.
Visualization. You hear this one a lot in sports in general. Visualize finishing something, accomplishing something. In bouldering, I try to see each move in my head before I even put a hand or foot on the wall. My boyfriend has suggested using the problems I’m working on as a form of insomnia management (climbing yourself to sleep you could say) and I have to say, this is much better than counting sheep, but it also helps you climb better. The other day I got him to talk me through every move of a problem he’d been trying to finish for ages as we lay sleepily in bed, and the next time he was at the gym, he sent it the first time. Your body has muscle memory and so does your mind. Learn to embrace the mental aspect of climbing as much as the pysical.
Yoga and meditation. One thing that amazes me is how much yoga helps climbing. I love yoga, but sadly these days don’t practice it enough (which I need to change), but every day I think, “if I was doing more yoga, my climbing would be better.” Sure, the physical aspect of yoga will help your climbing with increased flexibility, muscle control and core strength, but it’s the mental that can really help you out. I’ve found that my most successful climbs are after I’ve had a few minutes to just be in my mind, let it be still, meditate on the problem and give myself that boost of mental energy and mental strength I need. Then as I climb I breathe my way through the problem and stay as focused as possible. When my mind is distracted I often forget moves, lose my nerve or let my body tense up.
Relax. Fear is inevitable. Especially when you are a newbie climber or recovering from an injury. What doesn’t help is tension in the wrong parts of your body. The moment I start to feel fear when I’m climbing, and I notice it, I try to make an effort to relax my body and breathe through the fear. If I can, I rest in a particular position for a moment, close my eyes, refocus and breath and drop my shoulders. This makes an enormous difference. Just the simple act of straightening my arms and dropping my shoulders usually puts me in a far superior and more secure climbing position and I can often continue on and work my way to the top. Let all the weight sink down. Use the gravity you are fighting so hard against as a way to loosen your whole body.
Digest your fear in small bites. It’s okay if you can’t climb the face of the Chief after your first month of climbing. In fact it’s okay if you never can. One of the hardest parts of climbing is not necessarily the physical, but letting go of ego and managing fear. I’ve always been hard on myself and I have trouble being a beginner, as I’ve mentioned. Recently I managed to finish a challenging problem at the gym and I was so proud and happy, but the next time I was at the gym I wanted to show my boyfriend how I could climb it and of course, I couldn’t do it. I felt humiliated and frustrated. My ego and fear got in the way of my climbing. So, every time I climb, I make a concerted effort to be happy with seemingly small progress. Just getting one move further on a hard problem, learning how to adjust my body in a better way, using better footwork on the exact same moves…whatever it may be, it’s still progress. Dealing with climbs in smaller doses, breaking them apart and being happy with tiny bit of progress will make them much more achievable.
Sometimes you just have to push through. I firmly believe that you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself when you climb (and in life), though as I’ve said, I’m not always good at this. I also believe that caution is key, knowing your body, not pushing yourself when you are exhausted or injured…I believe all of that. But, I’ve experienced first hand what it feels like to push through a real moment of fear and force yourself through a problem. The “crux” of the problem, or the hardest part, often requires a leap of faith (or sometimes even a physical leap) and that’s when your buddies might be shouting at you to just do it! If you can push through that fear you will experience the high that climbing is all about. There’s nothing like it. And this in turn fuels your ability to climb everything else. And also gives you a goofy happy grin and may also be followed by high fives, and some booty shaking in the gym. At least if you’re me.
“What is needed, rather than running away or controlling or suppressing or any other resistance, is understanding fear; that means, watch it, learn about it, come directly into contact with it. We are to learn about fear, not how to escape from it.” ~Jiddu Krishnamurti
Fear is not something to be afraid of. Sounds strange right? It’s there for a reason – it’s indicating some kind of danger, but it’s also just a feeling and can be dealt with. Understand your fear, why it’s there and what parts of it can be overcome. I’m proud of myself every time I climb, no matter how little I may achieve. I’m proud every time I do something that initially fills me with that quivery feeling. It’s in these moments we grow as climbers and as people. So get out of your comfort zone today and do something that scares you.