When the Fear Bites

I met a buddy, Lucas, and a new friend, Nancy, today to go rock climbing after a lazy morning mindlessly scrolling in bed. I’d been stoked about getting out on this beautiful day off in the warm weather but on the hour-ish drive to the crag, I started feeling nervous. For no particular reason. I wasn’t planning on leading anything out of my comfort zone and had climbed with Lucas many times before. There was no good reason that I should feel scared the way I did, and yet it happened anyway. My palms were sweaty before reaching the crag, and though I put on a good face, I knew I wasn’t really feeling it.

Maybe it was something about going back to this crag that I’d visited, but hadn’t actually climbed yet. I’d had months to think about it and build it up in my mind. Regardless, I sucked it up and, after watching Lucas and Nancy both lead the warm-up 5.7, I hoped on the sharp end. It went well enough, but I definitely felt more scared than I usually would for the grade and less coordinated than I would have hoped. It was thought-provoking climbing the whole way up, without any obviously easy sections. I felt a bit better when Lucas said, unprompted, that he also felt a little spooked on the route, and he’s a much stronger climber than I am.

For the next couple of hours, I top roped on some harder climbs and certainly didn’t feel on top of my game. I fell, several times, on routes that I know I could have normally cruised. But I tried everything that the others hopped on, always got back on after my falls, and got in a good workout.

But I knew I wouldn’t feel satisfied with the day if I didn’t push myself just a little bit more, so, despite feeling pretty worked, I racked up to lead the classic 5.6 route that had been on my tick list. Nancy had led it just a few days before and assured me that, despite how it looked, there were plenty of spots to place protection and that I’d love the airy face climbing. She was right. And while I still didn’t feel like I was climbing very smoothly or that my mental game was strong during it, I was glad to finish the day with a successful lead on an inspiring line.

Reflecting at the crag, we three chatted about how personal an experience it is to be climbing. We discussed how it doesn’t really matter if you get to the top, or if you take a fall. It’s all about how you feel about the climb. And sometimes — when there’s rational fear or exhaustion — you should listen to your body when it’s telling you that today isn’t your day. But other times, like today, when the fear bites without rhyme or reason, it’s helpful to push yourself past it and give it your all anyway. Because it’s in those sharp, heart-pounding moments when you step just outside your comfort zone that you’re able to grow.

And I’m proud of myself for doing that today. I didn’t climb my best, but I did climb the best I could.

A man wearing bright yellow pants climbing a rock face looking out over the edge.
Yours truly, leading Bozeman Bullet (5.6) at Deadwater Cliff.

(By the way, the climbing community is made of — bar none — the most supportive, accepting, kind, and quietly badass people I’ve ever met. Check out a climbing gym or outdoor crag sometime. I doubt you’ll regret it.)


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