Woman desert rock climbing

words and photos by Roanne Van Voorst ::

I was trembling. I was excited to be climbing for the first time, but there was one problem: My body wasn’t on board.

This was true fear in climbing.

I felt sick to my stomach and so dizzy that I could hardly see where I was going. When I safely reached the floor, pale with blue lips, my arm muscles were so pumped that I couldn’t hold the mug of tea that my partner passed to me.

“Wow,” he said. “I’ve seen people get scared, but I’ve never seen anyone respond like this to heights.”

Two weeks prior, he had offered to teach me how to climb. Knowing that I loved the outdoors, he figured I’d like rock climbing, too.

Despite the fear, he was right.

I’m intrigued by the puzzle that each route presents. I like figuring out the right position of my body in relation to the holds and I adore the idea of doing this in beautiful, remote places around the world.

But no matter how much I think I want to climb, I can’t shake the vertigo that racks me every time my feet leave the ground.

Woman rock climbing

Not like them

My fellow climbers seem fearless. They joke around at the crag, laugh, and take victory falls. They come across as confident and relaxed while I sit at the opposite side of the spectrum.

I get dizzy even thinking about BASE jumping or free solo climbing. Actually leaving the ground myself, even on a top rope, presents a pretty big problem.

But even with those issues, I fell in love with rock climbing. I like the movement of climbing, the way in which I have to stretch my body or balance it in order to get to the next hold or create new movements I don’t initially think I can make.

I love the social aspects of the sport: My climbing buddies have turned into dear friends. I can’t think of anything more fun than going on a climbing trip with them. I love that feeling after a long day of climbing, when my skin is raw and my toes are sore, and I’m still beaming about the route that I successfully climbed earlier in the day.

It wouldn’t be worth it to give all of that up in exchange for staying in my comfort zone on the ground.

Woman sitting at the top of the rock climb

Naturally bold and courageous?

It’s easy to believe that the world’s best climbers, mountaineers, and base-jumpers are naturally bold and courageous. But in reality, I suspect they struggle with anxiety, stress, and self-doubt too.

Because I have always been open about my own fears when talking with other climbers, they come to me with stories about the moments in which they, too, felt afraid.

Our kind are not always adrenaline junkies. If we are addicted to anything, it is to the feeling of overcoming our fears.

It’s important for me to find ways to make my vertigo manageable, and this makes me want to learn methods that other athletes use to keep themselves calm in stressful situations.

Method to the madness of fear in climbing

I started interviewing athletes about their methods of overcoming fear, hoping to glean some advice from their experience. Each used a different technique to deal with their fear in climbing, tools that ranged from visualization to self-hypnosis.

One climber developed a breathing and relaxation technique to help him calm his nerves while climbing. Other athletes performed rational risk-analyses that help them commit when they felt anxious. Several BASE jumpers trained themselves in meditation and mindfulness. And a highliner found a way to use the power of his brain for deep concentration.

I put pieces of their advice to practice. In the years since then, I’ve learned to shift my attention away from fear, redirecting it to breath and body position, and practicing self-hypnosis and visualization to further assist this process.

Slowly, by gradual exposure, I’ve gotten used to heights while climbing and — more spectacularly —  the sensation of falling. Applying their methods to my own fear in climbing continues to help me overcome my vertigo.


Climbing mindfully

Now, I’m able to enjoy climbing, from bouldering to multi-pitch routes. I am grateful I didn’t give up after my first fearful experience with climbing. By forcing myself to examine how I react to heights, and by talking openly with athletes in my circle, climbing taught me how to harness and channel fear in my brain and body.

I’ve also become more courageous in many other aspects of my life, from public speaking to solo hiking. I’ve learned that it’s not fear that divides the adventurous from the cautious; rather, it’s how people manage, understand, and overcome their fear.

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