The Mechanics of Fear (and climbing gear)

I’m standing on about three centimetres of stone, pressed against the rock at about 18 metres from the ground, as Dave shouts up: “You have to turn around! Spin a few times – you know, like a ballerina!”. Seems like I don’t need to hitchhike to experience the thrill of the adventure.

I am at a climbing spot just out of Chiang Mai (called “Crazy Horse”), because climbers seem to know each other across continents, and because I was lucky. A cool local agreed to introduce me to the joys of outdoors rope climbing, me who has only been bouldering indoors a few times and occasionally gets on top of the odd wall. She brings along Dave, who leads the way up the twenty odd metres of rock, and then says: “You go next”.

I start climbing, slowly feeling the stone around me, touching it, stroking it. It is reassuringly solid and gives enough space to be gripped and to hold my body. Nice! Indeed, the difficulty is not the technical bit of the climbing (which is good, because my technique is very basic), but the ever increasing height. Several times, I stop to shake out my hands, which forces me to lean back into the rope and trust that my belayer down below has got me. When I reach the top, I turn around and look over the trees into the valley and I see the others down below, gosh, am I high. But – gosh – this is great!

Later, we try a second route. It’s meant to be as beginner-friendly as the first one, but it looks more difficult. Maybe it’s because the stone has had time to heat up, maybe I’m just a bit tired now.

When it’s my turn to go up, I am secured by a Dutch guy we met at the site. He is only hardly more experienced than me, which makes it even harder to trust in the rope that should prevent me from falling. Said rope also starts twisting as I climb which forces me to play ballerina at height. At about four or five metres from the top, I am not sure what to do. There is a ledge at about the height of my chin which provides good grip. If I managed to get my feet onto that one, I’d manage the rest of the route. My hands search for something to hold – after hearing Dave make some comments on proper technique, I repeat to myself “hands high, arms stretched, legs bent” (“aha, exactly like when you’re hanging on a wall before pulling yourself up”, my mind adds). The technical advice isn’t really helping: it feels as if upon leaving the instinctive auto-pilot (“get up this rock”), my mind suddenly offers me helpful comments like “Do you really think your hand can hold this grip for long?”.

Well, and every time I search for a grip higher than the nice protruding edge, I imagine my hands sliding over the surface, suddenly at a loss for things to hold, me falling backwards. After a few minutes, I shout down that I need a break. “Gotcha” goes the echo from below, but it takes a while until I loosen the fingers clamped around the saving edge. I stretch them, I breathe. That’s hard, because I can already feel the storminess inside (if it pleases you to imagine my mood like a deep sea, it is one now slowly set in motion). If I listen, I can hear something very primal trying to get my attention to inform me that nonononono, I don’t want to be here.

Instead, I look up and see that there’s only two more hooks left before the end, and I can picture how great it would be to be up there, to accomplish my mission.

I remember: “bend your legs, then push. Your legs are stronger than your arms”. Since I cannot directly reach the edge with my foot, I put it halfway up and try to imitate what I’d do if this was a wall: push against it to get enough momentum to move my body up.

And then, my left foot slips. I don’t know if I dangle in the ropes for a second, nor what my hands do. I don’t even know whether I make the sound of some small, frightened animal. I catch myself again, holding on, leaning back just enough to remind myself of the reassuring draw of the rope that secures me. What before was a dark, but mostly calm, ocean, is now like a tsunami going in all directions simultaneously. There is no capacity for thought, just a nameless force making me want to not be here. But even going back down requires a minimum of coordination, and I panic because I’m not able to go down, and I have no breath to shout that I want to be lowered. I breathe, I’m okay. I try to take action, I’m not okay. The panic comes in waves and this time, I do hear myself producing strange little sounds when they hit.

And for some reason, I don’t want to go down because I am so close, because I’m ashamed of leaving this unfinished, and because I want to concede no points to this part of me that seems so uncontrollable. Maybe it’s that wish to take control that makes me try a third, and last, time.

In any classic story, this would be the moment where I succeed, where the tension resolves into bliss and accomplishment. But there is no way my stretched nerves would do any better than before, no chance to spot a previously unnoticed path. So I try, and I fail, and I hoarsely shout that I want to be lowered.

When I come down, I am shaky and a bit disappointed. For a while, my brain keeps generating anxious thoughts, which in turn annoys me. But then, I also feel a strange lightness. It takes me a while until I notice: This was actually a pretty scary situation. It’s fine if my body reacts that way in case of actual danger (my body doesn’t yet know that much about ropes, so it must have been as scared as you’d imagine unsecured climbing would be). And now that the situation is over, I can relax.

And then, I am pleased with myself: today, I tried something that was new and outside my comfort zone. I am excited about it for several days to come. Why then did I share the “failure” bit of it more lengthily than the “excitement” bit? Obviously: because I don’t think that we have to succeed at everything straight away. If I only did stuff for which success was very likely, I probably wouldn’t learn much at all.

Just like in my last post, which talked about my not-so-successful attempt at hitchhiking, I am starting to celebrate my tries more than my successes. And I think that’s a great thing for me to do.

Would love to hear your thoughts!

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2 thoughts on “The Mechanics of Fear (and climbing gear)

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