Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Plight of the Chicken-Hearted

We booked the tickets Friday night. I wasn't as excited as I thought I would be. Just that morning, I had seen on Facebook the news story about the park ranger who slipped and fell to his death rescuing 4 climbers who had fallen into a crevasse. More then anything, I felt fear and self-doubt. 'Why am I spending all this money to potentially end up dead?' I thought silently, from somewhere in the recesses of my subconscious, so remote I was barely aware of the coherent thought, only the emotion associated with it.

The following day I went rock climbing. We met up in the afternoon and climbed till after dark. As the evening deepened, it was my turn to climb the final pitch through a series of overhangs, the first of which is the biggest. I always struggle with that move, so I don't quite know why I suggested we do that climb. Belaying from under that first roof, I couldn't hear my partner yell, "Off belay!" so I had to rely on the movement of the rope. While she pulled all 70 meters of it up, I was still feeding it through my device and yelled back, "That's me!" when it came taut, hoping she could hear me better then I could hear her. I sat on the ledge and shivered. It had become uncomfortably cool now that the sun had disappeared, but I also shook from the fear. Several tugs on the rope came next as she pulled in the rope. I hoped, rather then knew, that meant I was on belay. I took a deep breath and removed the anchor carefully with one hand, too afraid to let go and risk a misstep that might send me hurtling down  the cliff. As I began climbing, the rope moved up the climb with me- a good sign I tried to remind myself. 'But just in case- DON'T FALL!' came the response, again from that mysterious subconscious place that was more clearly emotion then a coherent thought.

I climbed smoothly until I reached the roof. I removed the #1 Camalot in the roof and replaced it with my hand and found the secret, solid hand jam that would let me move my body out and around the roof to reach the jug. Too bad grabbing the jug was the easy part. The hardest part of the move for me is getting my feet up on the overhang since I'm not strong enough to campus off the opened handed jug and haul my ass up. I managed to throw a left heel hook up and the tried pull with all my might. My heart was pounding, "don't fall! don't fall! don't fall." I was stuck for a moment, my hands so wet with sweat they were starting to grease off the crucial juggy hand hold, and all I could do was lament how utterly useless my right leg felt just dangling off into space, doing nothing useful to propel me out of this predicament, but instead feeling like the darkness had grabbed ahold of it and was pulling me down, down, down into the eternal abyss. 'Why do I do this to myself?' I whined.

The adrenaline gave me enough of a boost to finally struggle up and over that horrid roof. As soon as I pulled both of my feet up and was again standing on them, the potent mix of fear & adrenaline became counterproductive and I noticed an odd sensation in my stomach- I wanted to hurl. Three pitches off the deck in the dark- god, I hope no one was standing below. I briefly thought of the parties that would do this climb the following day, would pull the classic roof only to recoil in disgust when they found my vomit all over the rock. But before I could actually hurl, the feeling subsided and I was able to take a few breaths and move on. There was now only one way to safety- keep climbing to the top.

The next day I tried to go climbing again. My nerves were so frayed from the experience of the night before that I felt physically exhausted all day. I could barely muster the energy to do anything. When I tried to lead a pitch that I've done many times before, I could barely keep it together. I climbed up & down several times, balking at doing one little move that felt too far out from the gear 2 feet to my right. I ended up shoving a few crappy cams in on the route above, too anxious to relax, find a good stance and place a good piece.

All this fear and frayed nerves prompted some intense self-reflection. I have dreams of big adventures and big mountains, but how to accomplish this when it turns out that I am a big chicken-shit? Even the smallest things that most climbers seem to do with ease- like anchoring in at a hanging belay, can send me up to the edge of having a panic attack. I so desperately want to lead harder climbs so that I can travel and do bigger routes in the mountains, but I nearly wet myself thinking about pulling through the roofs on some of the classic 5.6 climbs. It's a question that I wrestle with perpetually in my climbing- is there a place in climbing for the risk-averse people with a fear of heights?


  1. I honestly found this relieving to read. Some days I'm a 5.10 climber, and other days I freak the hell out on a 5.5. Glad to know I'm not the only one! Thanks for this! The thing that always gets me through is reminding myself that I love this, and that I'm a much happier person when I'm climbing regularly than when I'm couch-ridden and bitchy for it.

  2. Good right up! I especially like, "god, I hope no one was standing below. I briefly thought of the parties that would do this climb the following day, would pull the classic roof only to recoil in disgust when they found my vomit all over the rock. "