Basic Rock Climbing School. And finding out I have a fear of heights.
Andy really wanted to take rock climbing school. I was hesitant. It seemed dangerous. I just never had an interest in it. I had no knowledge of how it worked, and just saw it as something that involved unnecessary risk. But in my new found “look what I can do” attitude coming off of a great WTS class, I went along with him and committed myself to the course.
Before BRCS (Basic Rock Climbing School) I never would have said I was scared of heights. Tall buildings, ledges, bridges, etc, don’t bother me. They never have. But as soon as I was strapped in to a harness and on the climbing wall at the CMC, my sweating palms and shaking legs confirmed that I am, in fact, afraid of heights. This fear took over like nothing else. It even included a bad case of the nervous farts. I would easily freeze up and not be able to move. I’d give up and not continue up a route. And repelling? Terrifying! When you climb, and someone else belays you, your life is in their hands. When you repel, you are all you have (there are safety measures that can be put in place, like a trusty auto block, and a “fireman”, but for all intents and purposes, you’re on your own). This scared me more than climbing. I’m a bumbling idiot. “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Val” you might say. But seriously, I’ll trip over my own two feet any chance I get. I regularly run into the same corner on the dresser in our bedroom and have a fairly permanent bruise on my hip as a result. Bumbling. Idiot. The thought of having my own life in my own hands and willingly lowering myself over the edge of a cliff seemed ridiculous.
But I committed to the class and I was going to see it through. In-between bouts of fear, and farts,there were tiny little moments of triumphs. I’d make it to the top of a route and feel really good about myself. But mostly, I held back. I did the bare minimum. I only did a few repels, and only attempted a few climbs. I enjoyed watching other people, who seemingly had no fear, enjoy themselves on the rock. And I felt like a doofus. I felt bulky and weak. And in many ways, I was. I wasn’t in the best shape, mentally or physically, and it didn’t help me to overcome my fears. I think the fear is normal. An instructor told me “Of course you’re scared, you have a brain. Fear is good.” But combined with other limiting factors, I couldn’t find the enjoyment in it.
We have friends who rock climb, and after the class was over, we went out with them to Castlewood Canyon. Chris and Jess are both so nice and encouraging, and that one afternoon out with them made a world of difference. When you’re scared, like really scared, your instinct is to hug the rock. You hold on to anything you can with a death grip. This is not the correct way to climb. Climbing is far more legs and feet vs arms and hands. Its fluid and strong movements far more than it is tightly holding something and clumsily climbing up like its a ladder. Learning to focus more on your center of gravity and solid foot holds is what helps to take the focus off of unnecessary death grips. Both Jess and Chris had great advice around these issues, and I still regularly hear Jess’ voice in my head yelling “put your vag on the rock!” (i.e. get your pelvis and hips towards the rock to center yourself) when I climb.
Andy and I have climbed indoors for the last year and have really come a long way. A lot of the fear is gone. Learning to trust your equipment, and system (top roping, when done correctly, is virtually 100% safe) and belayer, lessens so much of the fear. The fear of falling severely erodes the ability to improve, and lessening that fear allows growth. I still fight the falling fear, but mostly outdoors. I have this vision of slipping. Not a big fall, but enough of a slip that I angle towards the rock and cheese-grate my face down it until the harness catches me. Its probably not likely (unless its lower angle slab climbing, but still unlikely), but its something I’m working on getting out of my head. The truth is, the few falls I’ve taken have been so non-memorable that you’d think I’d be over it by now. But no. There are times where I’ll be in a sort of “zone” and then look down, and my heart shoots into mythroat. I still freeze on insecure holds and call “take” in a moment of panic. But I’m thinking that this is part of why I enjoy it. Fear can be fun. Its what roller coasters are all about. Its a reminder that I’m human. That I’m in my body, and I’m using it. And I’m valuing my life.