This could be you.
Dear Mountain Mama,
I recently moved to a small mountain town and everyone my age seems to spend the weekend climbing. A few acquaintances have invited me to join them, but I’m petrified. I spend my weekends twiddling my thumbs and haven’t been able to meet friends. How do I get over my fear of climbing?
Grounded by Fear
Dear Grounded by Fear,
The first time I climbed outside of a gym was Half Dome. Rising 5,000 feet from the Yosemite floor, the climb is clean and exposed granite. The guy who asked me to round out the crew of five seasoned climbers assured me that the route we’d be taking, Snake Dike, is as easy as it gets in terms of technical climbing. He knew I had just completed a triathlon and thought the six-mile hike to the base, the eight pitches of climbing, and the nine-mile descent to Yosemite Valley would be challenging but doable.
We left our car at six a.m. I carried half the gear, weighing in around twenty pounds. We hiked in the back country, past two beautiful waterfalls and an isolated lake. We got lost, forcing us to boulder hop the last hour until we reached the southwest toe of Half Dome. By that time, we’d been hiking for nearly four hours.
My partner gave me a quick tutorial on how to belay him on lead before we started climbing. The first three pitches went smoothly. But I had gotten about four feet into the fourth pitch when the granite face turned completely smooth and slippery. I could only find vertical cracks to wedge one foot and then the other, makings fists with my hands and turning them sideways to pull myself up a few inches at a time.
It took forty minutes to finally pull myself over the final overhang of that fourth pitch, making eye contact with my climbing partner. An expression of elation and relief passed over his face, and he congratulated me on climbing so well. Later over beers he would explain that he had mistakenly led us off route and that pitch was much tougher than anything he expected me to be able to climb.
We summited with two hours left of sunlight. The descent down was on the other side, where cables provide day hikers the opportunity to enjoy the views of the High Sierras that the peak offers. We carefully negotiated the cables, and once we were back on the trail, we jogged all the way to Yosemite Valley, motivating each other with promises of pizza and pitchers of beer. Our headlamps helped us see the trail for the last couple of miles.
I felt many things that day — exhilarated, excited, amazed, awed, stunned, pushed, hungry, thirsty, dirty, and exhausted. But not once did I feel afraid. Looking back, it was a very ambitious first climb and some might speculate that anyone who agrees to climb Snake Dike the first time they climb outside is too stupid to be afraid. But I disagree. I think the reason I wasn’t afraid was because I didn’t have time to be afraid. I was too busy climbing.
I tell you this story, Grounded, because I have a hunch that you’re not afraid of climbing. Climbing is all about feeling adrenaline and accomplishment, experiencing breathtaking views, and getting to hang out with really cool folks.
You’re afraid of falling and all the disaster scenarios you’ve told yourself might happen. Fearing failure can be good. That kind of fear spurs you to take adequate safety precautions. That fear helps make you pause and ask just how experienced your climbing partner is and just how many falls have abused the rope you’ll be using. And that fear might motivate you to spend some time in the local climbing gym, making sure you’ve got some basic skills before going.
Grounded, once you’ve taken all the right precautions, you can replace your fears with trust and confidence. When you fall, you’ll be in the capable hands of your belay partner, falling on a strong rope that is properly anchored to a system that can support your fall.
And if that pesky loop of what-ifs creeps its way back into your thought process, immerse yourself in the present moment. Start by taking a few deep breathes. Pay attention to the length of each inhale and exhale. Next, focus on your surroundings. Feel the sun shining on your back. Describe the texture of the rock. Notice the color of the rope. Paint an image of that beautiful mountain onto the canvas of your brain, right on top of any still-lurking doubts. And with that, Grounded, double check your harness and climb on!
Do you need to hear it one more time Grounded? Climb on! Find each hold with intention and be present to feel yourself ascend the fear. It will rock your world.