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”


Why I love climbing pt 1

22 07 2009

…or “How I gave up my slothenly ways and learned to love bruised legs, rough hands and stinky feet.”

I’ve never really been much of a “sporty” kind of person. As a kid I played a few seasons of baseball, in the lower division, always outfield, at the bottom of the batting rank, or simply playing “left-right-out”. Played some footy, again in the lower divisions, couldn’t kick well, mark well, or tackle. Tried volleyball, athletics, soccer, hockey, played a couple of seasons of lacrosse, but I pretty much sucked at everything I tried. I was that kid who had a wardrobe full of the paraphernalia from a dozen sports, bundled away haphazardly, a graveyard of forgotten ambitions and half-assed commitment.

However I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors, bushwalking, camping, fishing (I’m not very good at this either), and have done these things for most of my life. I was on skis at the age of 3, and remember skiing to school on more than one occasion when the snow was too deep to drive through. I’m not sure if any of this counts as being “sporty” though.

Federation Hut Panorama on Mount Feathertop

Federation Hut Panorama on Mount Feathertop - click for full size

So by the time I was in my mid-thirties, I had pretty much resigned myself to a life of not doing much of anything except the occasional camping trip, preferring to spend my time drinking beer with friends than do anything physical.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I was a complete sloth. I have never been afraid of a little hard work, digging, chopping, whatever. I once spent 16 days straight, from 7am to sun-down stripping off the faux-brick cladding from the boards on the outside of my house. That was hard work! I had some furious tendonitis in my fore-arms after this (screaming barfies), and didn’t sleep properly for days!

But this sort of work is just stuff that simply needs to be done. There’s little “I choose” for these types of physical activity, more the fact that tasks need to be completed. So yeah, I guess wasn’t what you’d call athletic.

I’d heard at family gatherings, Hayley’s brother Luke talk of how cool climbing was, but had a bivvy of excuses as to why it wasn’t for me (“Ooh that sounds like hard work, and I think it might rain, I’m afraid of heights, and besides my knee is really sore right now, so thanks, but no thanks”). However, Hayley took up the challenge as I knew she would.

So off to Nunawadding we journeyed, a place with a 21m wall and a lot of overhang, a great place to learn to crank plastic. My knee was the size of a watermelon that day, and I had dislocated it the night previous, so there was no way I was getting on the wall (that and the wind direction just wasn’t right, and the moon was in Sagittarius).

Afterwards, Hayley announced she was going with her brother Luke and our mentor Rich on an outdoor climb in a couple of weeks time! For some reason I was unable to go, (probably sunspots, or bad hair?) but when she returned with all the awesome stories of climbing a multipitch on her first outing, I had made up my mind it was time for me to take the plunge. This was further reinforced after Hayley returned home one day with a spanking new pair of Red Chili shoes and a Mammut harness. Jealousy of her cool gear, and the fact that I really felt like I was missing out on something special, was what finally got me into the gym, bumbling my way up a Grade 9 (read 5.1 in the American scale), sweating profusely, huffing and puffing like a steamtrain, forearms burning, toes aching, and full of adrenaline.

After the first time, I swore I wouldn’t do it again. Climbing is hard! I was sore, beaten, bruised, blistered. I climbed like shit and I knew it. But only the next day, I was hanging out for another climb. I was hooked! In fact, I started researching shoes, and I bought my first climbing video shortly after this (it was “Pilgrimage”, thus began my extensive collection of #climbingporn).

The North Jawbone at Cathederal

The North Jawbone at Cathedral

The guys organised a trip up to Cathederal, The North Jawbone. They decided on “Spiegal’s Overhang” for my first outdoor climb,  a “very easy” and popular 4 pitch Grade 10 (5.2) with a slabby Grade 14 (5.7) finish. A one and a half hour drive led into a 45 minute walk/scramble up to the base of the Jawbone. Looking up at the climb ahead, I asked myself “What have I got myself into? This looks scary! AND HIGH! I’m going to fall! I’m going to die! Oh my god I really am going to die!”

My Ass on the way up Spiegal's Overhang

My Ass on the way up Spiegal's Overhang

It was difficult, and some of the moves were hard to pull, but I was up to the task. When we arrived at the top, I said to Rich “Seriously, thank you for taking me climbing. THAT was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life!”

I didn’t fall, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t die either. My knee didn’t explode. In fact, since climbing at the gym, my knee was stronger than ever. I had tried and conquered! I was the king of the world! And Hayley didn’t feel too shabby either! It was a brilliant day, and I had a real sense of achievement afterwards. The feeling of the rock, being out in the elements, pushing my body beyond what I thought possible, facing fears, learning, thinking, activating true excitement. This was it… at this moment, at the end of several hours of climbing, I was completely addicted. I fell in love that day, and that was just the beginning of my love affair with climbing! I’d like to thank Luke and Rich for getting us involved in the best thing I’ve ever done.

Luke and Hayley on Spiegal's Overhang

Luke and Hayley on Spiegal's Overhang

Stay tuned for “Why I love climbing pt 2” coming soon to a blog near you!