Fear of Falling

“Because it’s there.”
― George Mallory

Mallory died on Everest in 1924. The famous quote was his answer to the question of why he would risk his life climbing such a mountain. But I didn’t start bouldering at The Grotto because it was there. I started because she was there!

My girlfriend likes to try new fitness activities and I enjoy doing things with her. So when she said she wanted to check out this new rock climbing gym, I said, “OK,” then, “What is a rock climbing gym?” My first day there, I watched all of these young, fit climbers scale walls like some kind of new breed of spider people. I said, “Sure, I’ll just grab this here grip (they’re really called holds) and pull myself right up. NOT. It was harder than it looked. And, despite the finesse that a lot of climbers showed, it looked really hard.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, I eventually groped and groaned my way halfway to the top of a V0, the easiest of the routes, when something happened. I realized that I did not want to be in a high place, on a wall, holding on to tiny plastic holds (no matter how pretty the color) for dear life by numb fingertips. I’m not really afraid of heights. I’m more afraid of getting smashed up if I fall. When that fear comes to the surface, it can be a real trigger for me. At times on and off the wall, I can really lock up and have find myself unable to move. We’re all familiar with the famous fight, flight or freeze response. On the wall, we can try to fight by “muscling up” but that doesn’t really work to solve the “problem” as bouldering routes are called. We can opt for flight by jumping or climbing down, but that’s not a very satisfying choice. Freezing up there doesn’t work for long, because we all run out of steam at some point.

I have PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which causes me to have panic in tough situations. Part of healing for me is dealing with anxieties, real or imagined, that come up at times. Sometimes triggers happen for no apparent reason, and an anxiety attack can happen, leaving me feeling confused as to what’s caused it, let alone what to do with it.
But when there’s a real reason, like being 10 feet off the ground, supported by a toe hold on the right, all of your weight supported by your left hand, but with a left hand pull the only option to get up that route, then the fear reaction can become quite intense. Dealing with this kind moment has been the most powerful aspect of my climbing journey so far.

To deal with this mental obstacle, I’ve taught myself not to freeze, but to pause, give myself a relaxing breath, and continue. As a yoga teacher and practitioner, I’ve been using pranayama (directed breathing) practice for years. It really teaches the brain to calm down. Sometimes the relaxing breath doesn’t get me to the top, because I don’t quite have the forearm or finger strength to go further. But it always helps me refocus, and has ultimately allowed me to proceed up the scale to my current plateau of V2s and V3s. I try to begin a V4 here and there for posterity, but the 2s and 3s are what I’m working on. One hold, and one breath at a time.