Four short points of steel supported my weight as I shook out my arms, one at a time. My feet were spread beyond shoulder-width and stabbed into two slightly opposed faces of ice — enough that if I leaned into the frozen waterfall I was climbing on, I could relinquish the death-grip I held on my ice axes.
It wasn’t a comfortable position, either physically or mentally, but it was stable enough that I was willing to give up the added security of handholds in exchange for giving my arms a rest.
What I was climbing was not difficult by an ice climber’s standards, but it was difficult for me; I was above the last piece of protection by a few feet, and the old ice climbing adage was echoing through my head: the leader must not fall.
Apart from the thoughts my mind was having in parallel about the implications that statement has on leadership, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to fall. Even from just a few feet above an ice screw, it would be a 10′ fall while holding two tools that could easily impale any part of my body and 12 sharp points on each foot. All kinds of bad could happen.
Rather than envision the potential carnage or consider each unfortunate outcome, I slowed down my breathing, took two deep breaths, and started up again, singularly focused on the next placement.
We can classify fear a lot of ways, but I want to split it into immediate fears and persistent fears.
Since moving to Colorado, I’ve been able to put myself into situations much more frequently that inspire fear. Not the stagnant, lingering fear that we learn to live with, but real, immediate fear that must be confronted head-on and in a timely manner or else it will become dangerous.
Examples of immediate fears include falling while climbing, initiating an uncomfortable conversation, or losing traction while driving on a snowy road. They are well-defined, in-your-face, and demand attention, like a handsome movie star in a commercial.
Then there are the persistent fears that become part of our daily lives (or our subconscious if we choose to suppress them). Those are the ones that I am trying to figure out how to address, but since they are often nebulous and pervade many aspects of life, like the hundreds or thousands of people you walk past on your way to work, it is very difficult.
For the same reason, it’s hard to give examples. But it could be fear of disappointing someone you admire, of lacking fulfillment, or of never finding “the one”. These fears have countless, sometimes untraceable origins, and their influence is painfully strong.
So my goal is to take the techniques I use to manage immediate fears and adapt them to take on my persistent fears. Reason being, I believe immediate fears are healthy and important for growth, but persistent fears are just the opposite — they produce stress and inhibit growth.
To illuminate what helps me conquer immediate fears, here are three stories.
Jump back to the frozen waterfall, two minutes later. With some freshness in my arms, I continued methodically up the vertical gully, moving one tool up past the other and then hanging off the upper one to reset my feet a little bit higher.
There’s a beauty and simplicity to ice climbing technique if you’re going straight up a perfectly flat face, but the reality is more complicated. It’s like comparing your physics teacher’s lovely problems that take place “on a frictionless plane with no air resistance” to a realistic simulation of the physical world. You never get to put anything exactly where you want it, and you end up creating uneven stress on placements that causes muscle fatigue and imbalance.
As I inched farther and farther above my last screw (which in an ideal world would catch me, but in reality might shear out and send me onward and downward to the next one), I shifted right to avoid a slight protrusion that held a foot of recently fallen snow.
By doing that, I gave up the advantage of using opposed faces to create counterpressure with my feet — a technique called stemming. That meant I needed to really kick my feet in if I wanted to be able to put weight on them.
After securing my new high hand, I kicked in a solid left foot. But when I disengaged my right foot and brought it up, I found that the natural place to plant was underneath a big bulge in the ice. Imagine trying to kick a ball out from under a bed when the ball is barely within reach of your toe and you can’t see below your waist. I ended up slamming my knee hopelessly into the ice as the front points of my crampons glanced off the ice again and again.
The seconds got long and I started to feel like a struggling animal. I slumped out of my proper form and desperately scratched my foot against the ice, hoping I’d be rewarded with the comforting thunk of metal sinking into ice. But I wasn’t moving intentionally, I was flailing and worrying about the fact that my arms and left calf were becoming progressively more inundated by lactic acid.
I thought back to my high school environmental science class — this was a “positive feedback cycle”, where when one factor becomes exacerbated, it causes another to heighten, which goes back and magnifies the first one, and so on until the whole situation spirals out of control. In physics terms, I was sliding precariously down the steep side of an unstable equilibrium.
As I freaked out about how tired my muscles were getting, my right foot movement became less and less effective, which made me freak out about how my muscles were just going to get more tired. Eventually, I would be a manic mess clinging to the face of this frozen waterfall with no hope of upward progression.
But before it got out of hand, the calm voices of past climbing partners reminded me to slow down and breathe. Two deep breaths, a purposeful kick of the right foot, and I was back on my way, focused and determined.
Ice climbing is a new endeavor for me, but I have been rock climbing for a few years now. It is easy, after that amount of time, to sink into complacency. Hanging out at the crag in the sun with friends and nature is perfectly pleasant, so why not just climb something easy and call it a good day?
While there’s nothing wrong with that style of climbing, it does not push the limits of your comfort zone, and that is sacrificing my favorite aspect of the sport. So when I went climbing a couple months ago on a 50-degree, sunny day, I resolved to try hard.
After a couple warm-ups, I set off on a route at the upper end of my ability that I had no certainty of completing. I told my belayer before leaving that I was not going to stop and ask for a rest when I got tired, I was going to push on until I finished or fell, regardless of how scary it might be. I felt like saying it to someone else would help me stay accountable.
Fortunately, falling on rock is not as treacherous as falling on ice — the bolts won’t rip out and there are no spikey things — but it can still leave you shaking if you take a big whip.
I cruised up the first half of the climb to a fairly blank section of the wall. I determined that I’d have to rely on small crimps and tiny nubs to get through it. It would test my finger strength and balance. I clipped the bolt below it and began.
My fingers felt progressively weaker as I moved up, but I made it through without much trouble. A couple big handholds and natural rests afterward helped me recover, but just before the top, I encountered another blank section that included traversing left a few feet.
The first tiny ledge I crimped brought the fatigue back almost immediately. If you’ve ever climbed, you know the helpless feeling of weak fingers. It’s not a painful feeling like you experience in your forearms or shoulders, it’s just that you can’t hold your hand closed, no matter how hard you will your fingers.
As I felt my grip start to go, I did not hang there and cling with the remainder of my dwindling strength, I lunged for the next hold, knowing well that I might not be able to grasp it. When faced with the fear of falling, I chose not to pointlessly prolong the pre-fall period, but to keep moving upward, because while it increased the distance I would fall, it also gave me a better chance at finding a good hold and avoiding the fall.
The next hold turned out to be an equally minuscule ledge, and I was no match for it, so I did fall. And it was scary. I fell around 20′. But I didn’t get hurt. I climbed back up and climbed straight through the tricky spot to the finish.
Since I get to ski for work, pretty much all of my mellow and tranquil ski cravings get covered before the weekend even starts. It is relatively easy, even amidst the daily responsibilities of a patroller, to find time to enjoy the quiet that snow enforces and to get some therapeutic turns in on a run you have to yourself.
That means that when I go skiing on a day off, I’m usually on one. Find the deepest powder at all costs, ski the bumps until my legs feel wooden, and jump off any rock under 10′. It helps to have friends on the same agenda (probably to a greater extent).
But before jumping off the big rocks, I like to know what’s below. It helps to look at it from the chair or to see someone else hit it, but I always like to stand on top of it and see for myself what I’m getting into before committing.
On one of the biggest snow days of this season, I went to Vail with some other patrollers. It was fast-paced — stopping for a second meant someone else might beat you to your next best turns — so unless it was a heinously large drop, rocks were only briefly contemplated and then left behind before the cold smoke remnants had time to settle.
I was last to go on one particular drop, so my three companions skied ahead and disappeared through the trees, leaving me to ponder this jackassery on my own. Over a foot of snow obscured the true nature of the series of rocks that would need to be hit in quick succession, which gave me pause.
What would the consequences be if I lost a ski partway down? Was there season-ending potential in this steep juxtaposition of soft snow and hard rock? Was the thrill worth it?
The fear turned in my stomach, mixed up with adrenaline and curiosity. I had a choice here: ski around and enjoy some perfectly reasonable turns in thigh-deep snow, or proceed straight ahead into the uncertainty and find out what I had.
Lying in the snow at the bottom a minute later with one ski poking out of the snow 15 feet above me, I laughed with joy, thanked Mother Nature for not messing me up, and basked in the golden feeling that you get when you embrace the pit in your stomach and plunge headfirst into the fear.
This isn’t supposed to be a story with all the answers about fear, but it is a step along my journey to find them.
From ice climbing, I know that in the most stressful situations, a couple deep breaths can change everything. But when, in dealing with the persistent fear of not belonging, do you stop to take those breaths? It’s not obvious, and two measly breaths doesn’t feel like much when it comes to something that plagues your thoughts day in and day out.
From rock climbing, I know that when confronted with fear, you have to figure out which direction is up, ahead, onward, and commit to it. Lingering where you are will not make it any better. But if you’re scared of committing to a serious relationship, that fall can hurt you, to the point where you can’t get back up and power through right away.
From skiing, I know that fear is sometimes a choice, and embracing it can take you places you’d never get without it. But how do you embrace your fear when the thought of it makes you shrink inside?
My point is that there is a big gap between immediate fears and persistent fears, and techniques for one won’t always work for the other. But I do think it’s a starting point, especially when you don’t know where else to begin and the persistent fears seem insurmountable.
Getting to confront tangible fears on a regular basis is like studying common ski injuries in a classroom so that I’m a little more prepared when I encounter them in a cold, snowy environment on the side of the mountain — it’s training.
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