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Alli Rainey:
Climbing When Afraid Of Heights
I’m afraid of heights.
I hate that statement, even though it’s the most common one used to describe acrophobia, the fear of heights. But the words “fear” and “afraid,” at least to me, someone who has worked with words for a large part of her living, don’t quite capture what I’m feeling when confronted by an exposed climbing situation, one in which I can genuinely feel how far off the ground I am and how much air is underneath me. Perhaps the term “afraid” comes the closest when used to describe a feeling of apprehension about what might happen, with apprehension being a “fearful expectation or anticipation,” according to Wordnet. What does happen when my fear of heights overtakes me? Rational thought ceases, and bodily, visceral panic ensues. I lose all confidence in my physical ability, feeling waves of nausea overcome me and tears of utter terror spring into my eyes. My heart rate goes up, my muscles tense up, my breathing quickens, and my body prepares for fight or flight mode – only in this case, its instinctive response is to hunker down like a scared rabbit playing the “if I stay really, really still the big bad predator won’t get me” game.

Needless to say, this doesn’t really work all that well in rock climbing situations – it doesn’t offer a solution to keep me moving safely and surely through exposed sections of climbs or dealing with fourth or easy fifth-class approaches and descents. Not moving equals going nowhere, and usually frustrating my climbing partner in the process (not to mention myself). When I first started climbing, this led to some really awful situations, though thankfully, nothing got hurt in them besides my ego. I had too many incidents to count when I would just freeze up and be unable to move across some easy terrain, often on exposed traverses or approaches. Without the rope, all confidence dissipated immediately, and all I could feel was the potential for falling, falling, falling. My body insisted that I not move, instead responding with tears and trembling.

Fabulous Nonetheless, I did love rock climbing from the very start more than any other sport I’d ever attempted. It may seem like a very odd choice given my obvious and deeply ingrained fear of heights, I agree. But the thing was, when I started climbing, the place I started at couldn’t have been better for someone to gradually work through and start to manage a fear of heights. The outdoor 35-foot tall vertical bridge built of granite blocks was top-rope only (unless you soloed it, like some of the guys did). All of the climbs were way too hard for me. I started out by getting about three feet off of the ground on my first day. I was captivated by solving the puzzle, putting all of the little pieces of beta together to succeed. It took me almost three months, and during that time, I had plenty of opportunity to get used to each incremental movement higher up the wall, as well as to learn to inherently trust my climbing equipment and my belayer. I’d still been climbing for less than a year when I experienced my first fall into space on an overhang. I absolutely flipped out, screaming in terror as I clutched the rope, spinning in midair, unable to get back on the rock, totally irrational and unable to even come close to grasping the concept that I was actually fine. My partner had to lower me; I couldn’t deal with anything else. Granted, he had dropped his belay device and was belaying me on something he’d “rigged up” out of sight from above, which wasn’t exactly the most confidence-inspiring introduction to climbing horizontal roofs. But still, I was horrified by this outburst, and I continued to be ashamed for years at my seeming inability, despite my growing climbing experience, to easily handle exposed situations, technical approaches, and yes, even walking across logs over running water.

I realized this winter as I looked back over my almost two decades of climbing that I’ve come a long, long way from that screaming teenager dangling in midair and clutching her rope for dear life, even while I struggled yet again with an approach to the crags that involved icy terrain and fixed lines. At first, I felt the demons rise within me every time I ascended and descended; I had to have someone else carry my pack. For a couple weeks, I had to put my harness on and go after it via ferrata style; I couldn’t really handle it well any other way. Though I want to climb too much to let something like a sketchy approach stop me, I still felt totally ridiculous watching everyone else hand-over-hand up and down the rope on this ice-covered slab with seemingly little thought (though I did feel slightly vindicated when an experienced ice-climbing friend told me he wouldn’t make fun of me for being scared of it – I guess it maybe is a tiny bit treacherous for real?). As I via ferrata-ed my way down one day, feeling utterly ridiculous as I did so, I joked about starting a support group, (“Hi, my name’s Alli, and I’m a rock climber who’s afraid of heights…”). But at the same time, it slowly dawned on me how much progress I’ve made in confronting and managing an issue that could have just as easily stopped me from pursuing rock climbing. In fact, I’ve done what the National Institute of Mental Health recommends as the most effective treatment for most people with phobias: I’ve undergone systematic desensitization/exposure therapy, and I continue to use this approach with each new scary situation I encounter. The cool thing is that now, even though it still takes me longer than other climbers to be okay with situations like this fixed-line approach, I do manage to get comfortable with them eventually – and yes, I was proud to “redpoint” the fixed line sans harness and carrying my own pack within a few weeks of exposure to it. If being a climber means having to deal with this fear for me, I’m finally just okay with it. It doesn’t make me love climbing any less – in fact, I appreciate the added mental challenge that it puts me through on a regular basis, forcing me to handle and effectively manage my constantly diminishing but still very much alive (at least when compared to most long-time rock climbers) acrophobia. At long last, I have just accepted this about myself, realizing that hey, at least I can actually get to the climbing area on my own now, even if it takes me longer to get there than everyone else (at least at first), should that approach involve something that triggers my acrophobia. Better yet, I can lead routes and take falls and not have the fear of high places cripple my actual climbing ability or movement – and that was definitely NOT always the case.

No, I’ll never be one of those climbers who revels in exposure, spends the night on a big wall, or free-solos near her climbing limit. In fact, every time I step away from roped climbing for even a little while, I have to go through an adjustment period to getting used to being up high and handling the sense of exposure when I lower off, especially on steep rock (hmm, this probably explains a lot about why I avoided steep rock climbing for so long, too…). And what I still really hate is swinging out when I let go of the cliff; honestly, I hate even watching other people do that, or watching them walk near the edges of a cliff. If you have a fear of heights, just know that it’s likely that you can, at the very least, manage it to the point that you can actually enjoy rock climbing for the incredible movement and challenges it presents to you, like I do. Be patient and gentle with yourself, and just take it one step at a time – but make sure you’re taking steps, every day you can, in order to make continuous progress. Learn to trust your equipment and your belayer – and most of all, yourself and your ability. As long as it’s safe for you to fall, aim to focus your attention on the climbing at hand as often as you can, instead of how high up you are. Just like in any other climbing endeavor, don’t compare your ability to handle heights or lack thereof to others; this will only lead to frustration and irritation. Instead, lend yourself a helping hand of encouragement and take pride in every small accomplishment you make in chipping away at your foe. ~Alli Rainey, prAna Ambassador
 
 
 
 
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