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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To Hitch or Not to Hitch

It is morning and I still haven’t decided. Will I do it? How dangerous is it? Can I do it? At the thought of leaving the hostel to hitchhike the 300 odd kilometres to Chiang Mai, my chest knots itself up and my head goes spinning.

I spend some time on my newsfeed to procrastinate, I google road safety (Thailand is number second in death cases on the road, after Libya) and half-heartedly check bus timings.

Yesterday, I had an argument about whether to do it, in which I revisited a lot of my points from this earlier post.

I think the arguments still stand, but two things make this situation different. One is that I am more tuned in with cautious, or anxious, vibes than I used to be. Therefore, I am more receptive to people telling me that I’m about to do something stupid. Rationally, I still don’t find the particular arguments I encounter convincing (I still think that we tend to exaggerate some risks, like being raped, while neglecting others. I am definitely more worried about car accidents here than about malicious people. And my cursory consultation of the usual sources seems to have shown that, if anything, Thailand is one of the nicer countries for autostopping), but I am faster to doubt myself. But then, I want to update my beliefs on rational grounds, and not because someone got me scared.

The second thing is that, because of the recent changes in my temper, hitchhiking now carries another significance for me. And it feels like now would be an exceptionally bad occasion to not do something because I’m scared.

I decide to give it a go because I want to remind myself that I am able to do things even if I feel scared and that, once I’m in it, reality usually isn’t as bad as I imagine it before I set off.

Just before I go, I have a chat with a girl in my hostel who has hitchhiked in Australia and therefore is sensitive to, and concerned about, my lack of hat or other sun protection. I reply “I might find one on the road” and she laughs about my bad planning. Fifty metres along the main road, there is a shop that sells hats.

I walk on, soon soaked in sweat. “I’ll wait till I’m at the exit of Old Sukhothai, so it will be more obvious that I’m hitchhiking”. This makes me gain time to think, and to collect my thoughts. Whenever a vehicle passes, I find a good reason not to signal – there’s not enough space, it looks like a tourist bus, there’s not enough room to stop. After half an hour, I finally come to a halt, on a place as good as any. I’m having moral doubts, and I feel ashamed. Am I propagating an image of the Western backpacker, who has, or could have, more money than the local population, and yet doesn’t spend any? What are the most likely consequences of my actions? Is it wrong to ask people who probably have less than you for favours? How good is it to ask people for favours at all? Would it really be that much better to spend my time working, to then spend my money feeding the Thai tourist industry (which, in turn, feeds lots of people)? And once I start think about morality, these things are no options at all, go work and spend your money/time really helping people instead of going on holiday!

Still, if choosing only between the two current options – to hitch or not to hitch – it comes down to a question about my goals. If my goal were simply to reach Chiang Mai, I might as well just take that goddamn bus, on danger of never recovering from my persistent air-conditioned cold.

But now that I’m travelling alone again, I aim for experience, I want to challenge myself, and I want to observe how people behave over here.

I stick out my thumb, and alternate that gesture with downward waves of my hand, which is how people stop taxis here. No-one seems to understand. My body language is hesitant; I find it very hard not to cross my arms, occupy my arms, twist my legs. I remember the second morning of my marathon-hitch from Morocco and how I’d persuaded people to stop by what seemed to be sheer force of will; how I’d been sure of myself and trusting in fate; how I’d really made myself believe that this was a glorious morning which would end in an awesome day, and how no challenge was able to stop me getting to where I wanted to be.

It doesn’t work this time.

After a while, I get the first acknowledgements: people indicate that they don’t have space or are not going my way. I feel better – at least some people understand what I’m trying to do. But no-one stops. Someone from opposite the road calls me and tries to say something, but we don’t understand each other. He comes from within a building that looks like it belongs to a university or some ministry.

I tell him where I’m going and give him a text in Thai about what I’m doing and what hitchhiking means. He reads it out loud, slowly. Then he smiles and motions me to go inside his car.

I’m not sure he understood, but I let chance decide – we’ll see where he brings me. Indeed, we drive all the way back to town and, out of all places, he stops right in front of my hostel. However, he doesn’t look at it, but crosses the street with me – to the police station opposite. I’m pretty sure hitchhiking is legal over here!?

Soon, I’m surrounded by a flock of more or less helpful police officers in snazzy uniforms, always happy to help what they perceive to be confused tourists. Out of awkwardness face to all this haphazard effort to help, I nod meekly as one of them asks “bus to Chiang Mai?”. And so, I am conducted to the bus station from where I head to my next destination.