I’ve been climbing with a wonderful woman named Shaina. She leads burly offwidth trad routes, boulders harder than me, listens to me talk about anxiety with climbing, and somehow manages to convince me to try sport lead climbing again. Basically, she’s a magical fairy with dope back muscles, great hair, and a tendency to show up at the crag with doughnuts.
I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point within the past year I became scared of heights. I remember sitting in a ball on a tiny belay ledge (it was a large foothold) in Yosemite, looking down at the valley below me and suddenly realizing just how terrifyingly high up I’d managed to get. I silenced the fear until we topped out the climb and I had finished taking our summit group photos. It was during our descent that the panic hit me. I couldn’t handle an exposed descent on a moderately maintained trail. My boyfriend and his friend, both of whom have seen me get overly stressed while climbing, held my hands as I dealt with the scariest parts and sandwiched me between them during the easier parts of the hike. Truthfully, I’d still be on the top of Nutcracker, extremely sunburnt, without them.
Recently, Shaina convinced me to lead a few routes with her at the gym. I begrudgingly accepted, knowing it would be good for me to challenge myself. The secret desire to lead trad routes that keeps nudging me in the back of my mind, followed quickly by the feeling that I was going to faint, provided a confusing source of inspiration. I found a 5.9 on the gym’s lead wall: a long, mildly sustained route with jugs the whole way up. I got this.
I started off calm, placing my feet precisely, using the strength and confidence I had gained from almost a year of bouldering to pull through the overhanging start. I thought of the lessons I had learned from therapy on how to involve mindfulness in an effort to keep anxiety at bay. Really feel the hold. Really sense your muscles working. This worked until I was about 20 feet from the ground and facing a small move around an arete. I shouted down at Shaina for her to take out the slack in the rope, and tried to relax. I knew she wouldn’t judge me for feeling anxious on a 5.9, something I always expect to feel easy but it almost never does.
Unfortunately, I started judging myself. I told myself to just push onwards—eventually I’d be at the top. I reminded myself of my boyfriend’s favorite saying: you can always do one more move. And I did make it to the top. Almost. I took at the last bolt, suddenly very aware of the man pushing through the 5.10 on my left, and the guy top-roping something on my right who was struggling with a belayer who wasn’t belaying fast enough. The holds above me were jugs, but not the kind I wanted. They were directional, and my fingers couldn’t curl around the lip securely. I could feel my breathing quicken and knew I needed to get down to the ground. I shouted down to Shaina. No response. I tried again, I could see her below me, weight on her end of the rope so I wouldn’t move. Still no movement. I began to wonder how I would get down or if I should just commit to living up there, frozen by fear, when I saw my boyfriend walk over and point up at me. I managed a small wave and pointed towards the ground. Apparently I had been whispering the whole time.
Fear and anxiety are ugly beasts to try and conquer. They stop me during top outs, lead climbing, even top roping. I’ve had more meltdowns top roping than I have doing anything else, and I honestly couldn’t tell you why. It’s the desire to push forward, the fear of failure and being stuck, and the lurking insecurity that I’m an idiot and shouldn’t even be climbing. These moments, when all these negative and unhelpful voices start chanting at me, are when the people who understand and remind me that no one is judging me are the most important. People like Shaina, my boyfriend, all of his friends who have seen me cry on a route and not be able to explain what it was that led me to panic, the many other women I climb with who chant each other’s names during the crux and talk me into facing my fears—these are the people who keep me coming back. The people who keep me climbing. The people who make my fears worth facing.