Life Lessons in Climbing: Fear

One of the things I love about this sport is that it is a teacher. When I least expect it, climbing is teaching me about life. Sometimes the lessons are subtle, but usually they are in my face, and there is no avoiding them. There are lessons about commitment, perseverance, and accepting limitations, to name a few.

Climbing has taught me about fear. There are many lessons here, and they come when I least expect them.

I was climbing a route at Devils Lake and had worked my way up to a really beautiful little alcove tucked in to the rock. Below me was a big ledge to stand on, above was a roof. I could have taken a nap in there. From there, I wasn’t sure if the route went left or right. I worked my way up left, but it didn’t feel right. At this point I had moved pretty far off from the line of the rope, so was looking at a pretty good swing if I were to fall. I calmed my nerves and slowly worked my way back down the ledge to rethink.

I had to step out of the alcove onto the wall to the right. It was a really exposed move with not much in the way of hand and footholds. Even though I was on toprope, the thought of making that move gripped me with fear. I was stepping from a place of relative security out onto an exposed face.I stood in that alcove for at least five minutes. I had worked myself into a near panic, so I spent some time calming my breathing, and talking to myself. Reminding myself that I’m was on toprope and I was perfectly safe.

It’s amazing what our minds are capable of. The truth in that situation was that if I stepped out onto that face, with all of that air underneath me, and I were to fall, my belayer would have caught me. We had double-checked our systems and had done our safety checks. I was on toprope, so the only ‘fall’ I’d be dealing with would be rope stretch. That was the reality. My mind, however, had created a different scenario. Several different scenarios.This is what happens in life. There’s the real risk in a situation, and then there’s the perceived risk, which is what our minds create. Often times when we are afraid, it is based on a perceived risk rather than rooted in reality.

Standing on that ledge, I calmed my breathing, I scoped out the move, and I shifted my focus back to the rock. I stepped one foot out onto that face, committed fully to a sketchy foothold, and worked the rest of my body out, around, and up. Four moves later I was on good holds and I continued up to finished the route.

Many thanks to my patient belayer.

Climbing has taught me about fear; what it is and how to deal with it. Climbing teaches me the difference between real risk and perceived risk, and how to differentiate between the two. It teaches me about the power of my mind to alter reality. All of this has direct applications in my life, and each time I face fear on the rock, I become a little stronger and more equipped to deal with fear in my life.

And as I stand on my safe ledge, talking myself through the scary move to the exposed face, there is almost always a patient belayer below, supporting me and encouraging me, ready to catch me if I fall and cheer me on if I succeed.

Such is life.

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8 thoughts on “Life Lessons in Climbing: Fear

  1. kimkircher.com

    Great post. When we brush up against perceived risk, it offers practice for the real thing. We learn not to panic, to breathe and be calm. Then, when real risk happens, we've already practiced how to deal with it. I love climbing for this same reason (especially toproping). I'm not the world's best climber, but I appreciate it for the life lessons.

    1. Elizabeth Post author

      Kim, that’s a really good point. I always think of it as helping me to discern between real and perceived risks and stopped there. You’re totally right, though, that it’s also great practice for dealing with the real thing. Most excellent!

  2. Lydia

    Wonderful insights! And yes, the mind is a very powerful thing, I can't agree enough.

    Also, you did wonderful on that climb! If I can say, I'll belay you any day of the week!

    Hugs,
    L

  3. Amy C

    Great post Eliz. The difference between real and perceived risk can be incredibly tricky to navigate. I often ask myself when I feel scared, "am I *really* scared, or do I just think I *should* be scared?"

    Congrats on your climb. Sounds amazing. 🙂

  4. richard

    Liz,
    You hit on one of the best things for me about climbing – how do I deal with my fears. What's interesting to me is that I am more fearful of interpersonal situations where I won't get physically hurt than I am of situations where I could get physically hurt.
    We should talk about this sometime.

    1. Elizabeth Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Richard. That would definitely be interesting to talk about! I hope to see you soon, it’s been too long since we’ve climbed together.

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