In the Teeth of Fear
For the first twelve years of my rock climbing life I did my best to avoid fear. In my personal life it was like I was walking around with my fingers plugged deep in my ears. La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la; I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you. I tried, with every cell in my body, to be one of the guys and prove how tough I was. In the early 90’s very few women climbed and because I did, I thought that made me a real badass.
But inside, I felt insignificant and weak, afraid that if someone saw me for who I really was they’d reject me. Instead of risking being seen for that timid inner child who just wanted to be loved, I hid behind how hard I could climb.
It was all about the number; the bigger the better. By the mid to late 90’s, you could find me bouldering and competing in competitions wearing a T-shirt that said, “I climb harder than he does.” And even though sometimes I did, I wasn’t happy, I didn’t actually feel like a badass. It was all just protection to keep me feeling safe.
Our sport has three nearly equal components: technique, physical ability and mental sharpness. I was good with the first two, but ask me to stay calm and focused in the teeth of fear and forget it! I couldn’t even put myself in situations that would invoke it. I almost always followed and top-roped so that I never risked big falls from being on lead. (If you’re not a climber and this is Greek to you, scroll down to watch the video below) I never, ever wanted to feel exposed. Not on the rock, not in life.
In 2005 a series of injuries, the illness, and ultimately death, of my mother, and the near-death of my then-fiancé put me on what ended up as a five year hiatus from climbing. Through those dark years I turned towards my yoga practice and started weeding through the emotion that had been making me hide behind the tough-chick front.
Fast forward five years. I started climbing again. My body was older, but my mind was wiser and more calm. This time, I wanted to walk right up to those giant teeth and say, “Open wide.”
I wanted to lead, and, even more scary, learn to lead on gear, not just bolts. I wanted to face my fears, be proud of my progress and actually be a badass, not just climb hard.
With trad climbing, I began the slow learning curve of how and where to place gear and always, in the back of my mind, “Will it hold if I fall?”
We get off the ground high — 400-600 feet is common — and fear is always present for me. More than once I’ve broken into tears. I might climb while having an out-loud, stream of consciousness dialogue, trying to talk myself though the fear. Other times I hang on gear and wait, while I gather my focus again. I’ve pushed through the primal urge to just get down and get down now, like NOW! And there have been times where I do get down, which forces my partner to descend with me.
That partner, more often than not, also happens to be my now-fiancé [updated: Husband], Aaron. It builds tremendous trust and deep connection to be vulnerable and real with the person you most want to love you. The only way any of us can truly be in the teeth of fear and grow from it, is to be supportive and honest with each other about it. We can’t hide anymore, or nothing will ever change. We have to be courageous enough to let others see the tender parts of us that are sometimes terrified. It ultimately brings us closer than keeping up those big walls of protection.
Aaron and I have talked about it at length and want to share in each other’s growth. There are weekends he goes off without me so he can do all the hard and tall things I’m not ready for or don’t want to do. More than once he’s had to let go of the expectation of getting to the top or of doing a physically challenging route so I can do what I need to to grow. It’s a give and take. Aaron doesn’t experience much fear while climbing and doesn’t always relate, but he does hold space for my process. He doesn’t belittle me for feeling terrified or get pissed off that some end-goal wasn’t reached. We, as humans, need to be compassionate with each other. We need to talk about our fears with safe friends, or with professionals, or our fears will always be there, baring their teeth.
Every time I face my fears openly I learn a little about myself. I might uncover the internal source is from some childhood trauma. I might see that I can push to a level I never thought possible. I may learn that it’s ok to get shut down and that I’m loved for who I am, not how I perform. I might learn a new skill in gear placement that builds my self-confidence. I usually learn that the more I stand openly with my fears, the easier facing them becomes. And I always learn that this process helps me to grow and be a spiritual warrior.
It’s about the process, and facing fear is a process most of us will engage in our entire lives. Facing it and being willing to show the scared inner child increases our ability to stay on the edge of fear. And this is the place with the most potential for growth. We can do this, but we’ve got to do it together…
Here’s a short video on the difference between falling on lead and falling as a follower.