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By Leila Hallenbeck

“Lower please!” I’m so scared I feel like I’m going to puke. 

My forearms are about to explode and my feet are well above the bolt. My brain is spinning. My heart is beating out the rhumba. I know that as soon as I make another move, I’m going for a nice, long ride. I might scream. I am definitely not excited. 

Fear is a crazy thing and no matter what people say, we all have to deal with it at some point if we decide rock climbing is the sport for us. A lot of the time, we avoid it: “I’ll train more! If I’m stronger, I’ll fall less and therefore be less afraid!” “I don’t want to cry in front of these people (if you were me back in the day), so I’m just going to take an ‘easy day’ and climb below my grade.” “If I just top-rope this route enough, I won’t be scared to take the whips eventually.” None of these things are bad in and of themselves, but the main culprit that keeps us from succeeding is avoidance.

I take a lot of wild rides on a rope now (often still with some fear by my side), but when I first started climbing, I climbed at least two number grades below my ability because I was too afraid to fall. When my boyfriend told me I could climb 5.12 if I got over my fear, I thought, “Hahahahahaha- not happening.” 

I started trying to push myself occasionally though, and it did not go so well. Sometimes I would cry, sometimes I would get angry, sometimes I would have a mental breakdown and my entire life would seem like it was in shambles. Climbing seemed to bring out the worst in me: the things I really hated about myself like anxiety and weakness and being a weepy basket-case. 

But here is the thing I discovered: If you’re rock climbing, you have what it takes to overcome your fears. When you’re out in the world and you tell people that you like rock climbing, most of them throw a hand to their chest and say “Wow you are so brave, I’m so afraid of heights, I don’t think I could do that.” To which I always think, “Well, me too, it’s very terrifying.” But even if you are out there scared out of your mind on a 5.7 top-rope, you’re still doing it. You’re still facing fears, you still want to push yourself physically and mentally. You have that drive in there somewhere that wants to get out of your comfort zone and feel a little fear. 

So, instead of focusing on the fact that you aren’t leading what you want to or getting frustrated with yourself for all your weaknesses and tearful moments, start thinking about what you’ve accomplished already. For me, at the time when I finally decided I had to stop avoiding whips, I was on a road-trip, climbing in Ten Sleep and Lander, unemployed, living out of my truck. I felt like a total wimp whenever I got on rock, but the rest of the time, I was really proud of myself. I had saved up money, and I was trying to do something I had wanted to do for quite a while. I was finding partners to climb with. I was at least getting out on the rock every day even though I was worried I would cry in front of  strangers. I was still doing it. 

I was climbing at Aspen Glades in Wild Iris. I decided to try a 5.12. I was so scared and I definitely cried a little, definitely screamed every time I fell, definitely had elvis-leg, but I wanted to get to the top so badly. I just knew I could do it. I could see the sequence, and it looked hard, but I’d done hard things before, and this seemed possible. So I took whip-after-whip, and I remember it being quite terrible, until I finally stuck the crux, and got the next clip. I remember thinking, “Wow, I actually can send 5.12 if I just embrace how scared this is going to make me, but I’ve done hard things before, and I can do this.” 

In that moment, I decided I wanted to send 12a much more than I wanted to avoid crying. So I projected it day-after-day and kept taking falls and remembering all of the hard things I had done before in my life. Eventually it stopped being so scary and that familiar whip was more annoying than it was terrifying. Eventually, I sent it! I stopped avoiding fear and realized that I was ALREADY a badass climber who had faced scary things before, so I had what it took to figure this out, too. 

As soon as we start believing those truths about ourselves, we can stop avoiding things that make us feel weak. Maybe you’re the scrappy kid that used to build tree forts! Or the one that used to race the boys so hard, she would puke! And maybe you’re also the person who cries because whips are scary, but think of all the other things you have overcome in life. When we know who we are and what we are capable of, we don’t have to avoid scary things: we just have to face them. Like the other things we used to be scared of. You have what it takes! Tap into that part of yourself that lives for the adventure! You’re already climbing, you have that drive. You might cry in front of a few people (I’ve done this so many times), but if you can embrace the whole experience, you’ll come out the other side much less afraid. 

All of those people who seem like they aren’t scared and are taking whips all over their project? They had to do it, too. They aren’t more badass than you, they just got scared a little more than you have. 

Credit for all photos: Jeff Dokmo

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