It was a climb I’ve led before, and here I was yo-yoing my ass at the last roof- with a new climbing parter belaying me- dangling more than a hundred and fifty feet above the deck.
It was a humbling experience to say the least. I would use the excuse that I pumped my left arm out trying to wrestle out a .5 Camalot (which is true) but I’m sure I was also over gripping every hold too. In fact, I know I was. I know this because I was scared out of my mind.
The climb in question is pretty exposed as it winds its way up a blocky section of cliff like a massive orange figurehead. As I moved passed rocker blocks and hollow flakes, I wondered how the damn thing was still standing. A popular, three-star climb, its gets enough traffic that I began to be amazed that more of the loose rocks were not liberated from their gravity-defying positions on a regular basis. I expected everything I grabbed to break away the moment I weighted it.
Two days later, I found myself out climbing again in a different section of cliff, one that is known for loose rocks on the overhanging and sometimes crumbling second pitches. As I wound my way through the lichen-covered, sandy blocks, I knocked and tapped on everything before committing anything to it. Again, expecting anything and everything to break off in my hand if so much as a blood-filled mosquito landed on it. I was climbing though a minefield, literally and figuratively.
What happened? Two weeks ago, I was climbing strong and confidently. I was enjoying the heights and hanging belays. I surveyed the valley from the top of my best lead to date and felt I had finally conquered not the mountain, but myself.
You see, I’m a huge chicken shit. I’m afraid of everything when climbing. My mind can go from the zero to the worse-case scenario in less than 2 seconds. For many years, I have been frustrated by the regular internal battle I go through of wanting desperately to be a better, stronger climber, but being so unwilling to engage the fear and challenge myself on harder and harder routes.
This season I have made huge strides and a lot of progress. It’s been exciting. Intoxicating even. I was even tempted to think I had finally won in the battle against my internal, chicken-shit demons. Good thing I didn’t break out the champagne and book that vacation to Disney just yet.
A week or so ago, I was climbing in NH. My climbing partner & I ended up helping with a rescue of an injured climber. He took a lead fall when a hold he was standing on broke. We didn’t know it at the time, but when we got back to town, we learned that an experienced and well-known local climber had died on Cathedral Ledge earlier that day. I think these two incidents reactivated some of my old, more-ingrained scripts about how climbing is fraught with danger.
Not to say that climbing isn’t dangerous, but one can mitigate a significant portion of that risk by being smart, using common sense and paying close attention to what you are doing. Kind of like driving a car.
However, when my mind goes to this place, its beyond rational. Everything, no matter how easy, is super scary. I find myself making excuses and finding ways not to engage with the challenge because its just too overwhelmingly scary. Then I get out of practice and it becomes even more scary… do you see where this going? Yep, its a downward spiral.
After this weekend, I was threatening to hang up my rock shoes until September. (Making the excuse that the temps will be better then, even though we are having one of the mildest summers I can ever remember.) Then, this morning, my Facebook feed blew up with all these subtle messages- though to me they were like giant neon signs. We fall so we can practice getting up. Failure is a part of the process. How you deal with failure is what determines success- do you get up when you’re knocked down? Or do you stay down? All reminding me that the next step is to get back up.
And in truth, the last great climbing day I had was so great because I practiced this lesson. I was with a new climbing partner and looking at leading what is for me, a stout pitch. As I belayed her up, I found myself making all kinds of excuses as to why I should bail and not lead that next pitch. I came up with a bunch of stupid ones. Then I realized that they were just that- excuses. They were my fear-adled reptilian brain’s way of trying to not engage the fear and the challenge. I distinctly remember making a conscious decision to not give in to those excuses. And when I topped out on that climb, I remember the pride I felt for having not given in. That’s what made that such an awesome climbing day.
So I’m going to reframe my previous week’s climbing experiences as another opportunity to practice the lesson I am learning. Instead of focusing on how scared I felt and disappointed that I climbed like shit on climbs I usually do very well, I’m going to focus on how I successfully onsighted one of those spooky climbs through the choosy, loose shit. I’m going to focus on how I got to spent the day with fun and interesting partners and the fun stories we have to tell about our little adventures. And the next time I go climbing, I’m going to pick a climb that scares me and lead it. I’ll let you know how that goes hopefully later this week 🙂