Why I love climbing pt2 – THE FEAR

1 09 2009

… or  “… oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit…”

Fear is defined as “an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger and accompanied by increased autonomic activity”. The effects of fear can be physical: causing increased heart rate, profuse sweating, pupil dilation, the raising of hair on arms and neck, lack of motor skills and shaking, shortness of breath or a tightness in the chest, nausea or dizziness; or psychological: causing confusion, paralysis, and in extreme cases hallucinations. Fear is very powerful and most people would say it is an undesirable feeling to have, we spend most of our lives trying to create a world we can live in without fear.

However, people do undertake activities which create and feed on this fear as a form of leisure. This might stem from living in an overregulated, overprotective society, or it might be something more primal than that. I once heard it said that if, every day on your walk to work there was a 50/50 chance you’d be eaten by a lion, then you would be a much happier person every day you weren’t eaten. Makes sense doesn’t it? You’d stop sweating the small stuff and get on with oyur life thankful that you were still here.

Because of a lack of “real” risks in our lives, we actively create dangerous situations and seek situations causing fear. Skydiving, rollercoasters, fast cars, horror films, video games, and literature can all illicit this feeling, some are safe, while others incorporate real physical risk if done wrong or something goes awry. Rock climbing is one of these activities, and has its own inherent and real-life risks.

I often times read comments from rock climbers saying “I wish I didn’t get so scared” or “I hate the fear of climbing.” And fair enough too, climbing can be damn scary, and for perfectly good reasons: the real and present danger of falling to your grizzly demise and being dashed to pieces on the rocks below. Yes I say, that is a very good thing to be scared of.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m no expert in the field of fear, nor of climbing, but the universal truths in climbing seem apparent whenever reading stories of others’ climbs, whether they be big-wall multi-pitch routes in Patagonia, or bouldering in Black Hill. I’ve had moments where I wasn’t 1.5 metres off the deck with a tenuous foothold, and felt more fear than the situation warranted.

The fear in climbing comes in many forms and from many different sources. There’s fear from anticipation of an unknown or intimidating climb (“Ooh that climb looks really scary from the ground!”) , fear from uncertainty as to what to do next (“Oh shit, what do I do now?”), fear of the unknown (“What if I get to that really good jug up there and it’s rubbish?”), and life-preserving fear in a difficult situation (“… feet slipping… feet slipping… FEET SLIPPING!”) to name just a few. Some fears are rational, some irrational, but your mind doesn’t know the difference between the two. To your mind, fear all stems from stimulus from a real situation of peril, so to your brain and psyche all fear is REAL.

There’s no point in me writing an article about how to cope with fear while climbing, just do a Google search and you’ll find more techniques for this than you’ll need. We all have techniques to deal with fear, deep breathing, singing, counting, checking and double checking, but in the end it’s what works for you that matters to you. For me, far from being something to avoid, fear is an active and necessary part of climbing, a part I have come to love on some level, but still loathe as I go through the motions, the sickening feeling of dread, the paralysing, gripping, gut-wrenching sensations. So I’m going to put this forward:

If it wasn’t for the fear, rock climbing wouldn’t have nearly as much appeal.

What do you think? Can you imagine climbing without it? Would you still climb?

I have read that a climber becomes more aware of the possible dangers and more familiar with the feelings associated with the trepidation of a climbing situation, a they can learn to overcome these fears, and give them less sway on the situation. As an absolute beginner climber I remember being petrified  of simply lifting myself more than a couple of metres from the ground on something that was well within my limits and in the relative safety of a climbing gym, and it took some time to simply become used to the sensation of being off the ground and in an unfamiliar situation. I had a similar feeling of fear the first time I flew in an aeroplane, or the first time I rode a bike unaided. But all these fears abated once the sensations of climbing became more and more familiar.

I could go on and on about how fear is part of our daily lives, via the influences of religion, media, work, deadlines, family, the law, terrorists, bees, spiders, zombies, whatever the fears may be. But what I love about the fear associated with climbing is it IS real, as real as a fear can be. We purposely place ourselves in precarious, even potentially life threatening situations as climbers. And why? Well I can’t speak for everybody, but for me, it’s the conquering of fear that gets me coming back for more. Sometimes I smash through the fear, other times I am whipped and walk away with my tail between my legs, but that self-same fear is the one I might smash to pieces the next time I climb. Some days after a climb, I feel shaken enough that I swear I will never do it again, but find myself wishing for more only a matter of days later. Do I have an addictive personality? Definitely. Am I crazy? Probably! But since we all have within us a need to seek fear at times, are we all just a little crazy?

The quote from Franklin D Roosevelt in 1933 “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” holds true in most situations. But in climbing we actively seek that fear, take it on on its own terms, and hopefully, are triumphant over it. And triumph over fear is triumph over the self, and in some way this is what we all strive for, betterment of self.

It is this voluntary immersion into fear, and the possible outcome of conquering and being triumphant over fear, that makes fear one of my favourite things about climbing.

see also “Why I love climbing pt1”

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