I like to think that I am not what you would call a fearful person. I like to think that, but I like to lie to myself.
Okay, so I run screaming from every wasp I see. I think being stung thirty-five times at the age of ten gave me that right. My gut-dropping, appendage-tingling fear of heights on the other hand, I have no such excuse for.
People are afraid of heights for a damn good reason: falling off of something tall is going to smash your brains. The terror that we feel when standing on a balcony at the top of a tall building is self-preservation; we have been hard wired to avoid dangerous situations and being up high is one of them.
But then why is everything that happens up high so much fun? There’s a reason that skydiving is on almost every Americans’ bucket list. The same reason that the Ferris wheel is the most popular ride at every fair, adventurous vacationers inevitably seek out something to bungee jump off of in any country they find themselves in and the phrase “I’m on top of the world!” means that you’re in the best possible situation.
Being on top of stuff rocks. So for me, shaking violently every time I was more than ten feet in the air was a problem. I had shit to do and my fear was getting in the way.
It made sense that the best way to getting over something was to just do it. Suck it up, as every high school gym teacher ever would say. So I did it. Oh boy did I.
Have you ever seen that ride at the state fair, the one that looks like a giant construction crane? They strap you into a harness horizontal to the ground, lined up next to three of your closest friends or, if none of your friends are insane, three strangers. Either way, they’re about to see you cry. When you’re all strapped in, they power up the crane and start reeling you in. The pulley slowly rewinds and inch by inch, the ground falls away. It takes about three minutes to get to get to the top, which is about 180 feet in the air.
So then you’re there. You can see for miles, to the edge of the fairground and beyond. There’s nothing under you for 180 feet except a nylon strap cinched around your belly. And somebody’s got to pull the cord.
That’s right. This isn’t one of those ‘wait until the carnie pushes the button’ kind of rides. If you want to plummet in full-on belly flop towards the ground at 65 miles per hour, you’ve got to pull that ripcord yourself.
I’ve done this ride twice and both times I cried at the top and begged my friend (different friends each time) not to pull the ripcord. Both times they laughed manically and pulled it anyway. And then, the plummet. The first five seconds is the definition of terror; I am downright shocked that I didn’t wet my pants. I feel like I have to nervous pee just thinking about it. Seriously, it’s the worst. Free falling straight toward the Earth, coming closer and closer to a crowd of people laughing and applauding while I scream my vocal chords to shreds is not my idea of a good time.
I was sure I was going to die.
And then, it caught. Right at the last second, when I’d already made my peace with God, the rope caught and we swung. The swing took us up almost as high as the crane had but it was an entirely different feeling. The pressure of the rope on the harness made all the difference; the last minute of the ride was a blast. And that’s why I did it twice, even though it seemed to be making my fear of heights worse.
So, at this point the only thing I knew was that swinging was better than free falling. Good solid information but I would choose to ignore it.
A few years after the state fair incident, I was in Costa Rica.
Before I left for Costa Rica I asked people who had been there before what I should do. Every single one told me to go zip-lining. At this point, it had been so long since I’d put myself in a heights-terror situation so I had no trouble convincing myself that I was over my fear. Not to mention that I was a twenty six year old in an undergraduate study abroad program and had a little something to prove. So when the big day came, I was a psyched as anyone.
We strapped on huge orange harnesses and helmets and stood in tight circles, talking loudly about how excited we were. I didn’t really start to get scared until I started up the stairs to the first line. They felt like gallows steps. There were two people ahead of me but they were clipped in and gone too fast. There was no time for hesitation. The employees of the course grabbed me by the harness and yanked me forward. They clipped me in and pulled on the carbineer to test it. “Lift your legs,” one of them said. I did. They pushed me, and I flew.
Whoever designed that particular zip-lining course knew what they were doing. The first line was long but low to the ground; my feet hung a foot above the undergrowth. The next line was higher and the next line higher still. I got to ease into the height and it really wasn’t so bad. Plus, there was no free falling. Win-win.
And then we got to a platform with no line leading off of it. Instead the man at the top clipped me into a line that went straight down. “Jump,” he said, and pushed me off the platform.
I was on the ground in an instant but my arms and legs had pins and needles for two minutes afterwards. It got worse from there. Two lines later I came to the top of the tallest tree I’d ever seen, growing on the edge of a valley. Once again they pulled me forward, clipped me in, checked my carabineer, and said, “Lift your feet,” before pushing me off.
The way I was strapped in, it was as though I was seated on a chair that was speeding across the widest part of a jungle valley. I hung onto the rope like an umbrella and looked around, smiling like an idiot.
Something that you need to know about my fear of heights: like all thoughts, we have the ability to box up a fear and put it aside. My fear of heights was something that I kept boxed up as often as I could. As I sailed across the valley in a seated position, with something to hold onto, the fear was manageable. It was like a feral cat that I had managed to trap inside a box; it was definitely in there, but I was in control of the situation.
The next line re-crossed the valley. They clipped us in by the backs of our harnesses and sent us flying like Superman over the rain forest. This was a little too much like the state fair; I was parallel to the ground, with nothing to hold on to. I think I hugged myself the entire way. The cat almost got out of the box on that one but soon I was being unhooked on the other side. I was going to make it.
We walked to the next and last clip-in spot; something called “The Tarzan Swing”. It was optional and about half of our group chose to stand at the bottom and cheer the other half on. It would have been perfectly respectable for me to say “you know what? This isn’t for me, thanks,” and walk away. But I couldn’t do that. Why? I honestly have no idea. I’ve always been the type of person who needs to be involved, right in the mix, every time I can. It’s gotten me into a lot of trouble actually but this isn’t the time to delve into my psychiatric problems.
Everyone who was doing the swing waited in a clearing that had been carved into the side of the valley. A metal gangplank that was about three feet wide and had a handrail on either side extended out over the valley. There were six other people waiting and I let them all go ahead of me. One at a time they walked down the metal runway, got clipped in by the two guys waiting at the end and jumped. Their screams, loud at first, would quickly fade to a whisper.
Then I was the only one left. I had to go or walk down to where everyone waited. So I put one foot in front of the other and ended up on a swaying, three foot wide platform 200 feet above the forest. The two men at the end clipped a carabineer to my harness. The tension from the rope yanked me to the edge of the platform; my knees pressed against a low metal gate. One of the men bent down to open it… and I stopped them.
“I can’t,” I said. “Unhook me, I can’t.” They undid everything and I tried not to run back to solid ground. When I got back there were seven more people from my group and a German mother and son waiting to go. The son said to me, “It’s okay, I’m not going either. No way.” He gestured to his mom. “She is though.”
“You are?” I asked her. “Wow. That’s brave.”
“Why not?” She asked. “We’re here, why not?” I didn’t have an answer for her.
When she walked down the catwalk a few minutes later she did so without hesitation. When the gate opened, she jumped. She let out a long whoop on the way down.
I hung around the loading area while everyone else went and more people showed up to wait. Eventually I was ready to try again. I walked down the catwalk again but this time, when the ground started to fall away underneath me, I closed my eyes. I shuffled forward until the two men at the end grabbed me by the harness and pulled me forward. I felt them clip the rope at my waist and I felt the tug of it pulling me forward. I heard the man on my left say, “step forward” and when I did, I felt the top of the gate against my knees.
And then it was gone and the platform under my feet was gone and I was falling and screaming. I gripped the rope in my hands and I screamed. I opened my eyes just before the rope caught me. Just like at the fair, the swinging was the best part. Even so, when I got to the ground I was crying, laughing and shaking, all at the same time.
After it was over I was glad that I had done it. The horror of jumping was better than the shame of refusing and I couldn’t have lived with myself if I had turned down the chance to have a once in a lifetime experience in the middle of the Costa Rican rainforest. But afterwards, my fear of heights was worse than ever.
Fast forward one year (almost) to the day. My boyfriend and roommate had both joined a rock gym; something that I had always wanted to do but fear had always stopped me. So they went a couple times and every time, they came home with these shit-eating grins on their faces. All they could do was rave about climbing. Finally I got fed up with myself. I wanted to climb, it was just this crippling fear that was stopping me. But fear is nothing in a controlled situation like climbing; with all the safety precautions in place, fear in a climbing gym is downright irrational. Or so I told myself as I stepped into my harness for the first time.
I watched two people climb before I clipped in. I decided to climb around low to get used to the feel of the harness before I got too far off the ground. Really what I wanted to do was get used to falling.
When I was four feet off the ground, I jumped. The rope caught me and I dangled in front of the wall.
“Get back on,” my wonderfully encouraging boyfriend said.
I got back on the wall, climbed another two feet and jumped again. Then I did it again. I got about halfway up the thirty-foot wall when I asked Charlie to take me down. I felt a little better; every time I felt the panic rise I had jumped off the wall. Every time the rope caught me I was reassured and the panic subsided. The key was to nip it in the bud.
I was on the ground for about two minutes before the people I was with decided that it was time for me to do a “real” one. For those of you familiar with climbing ratings, it was an 8.6, an easy one in the corner.
Don’t look down, right? Not that easy. But every time the panic started to rise, I’d let go. When I felt better, I’d get back on the wall and keep going.
I almost gave up. My arms were tired, my hands were sweaty and I was extremely close to completely losing my mind to terror. And then I looked up. There were two holds between me and the end. It was either get there now or go back down and have to start again in a few minutes. I found somewhere to put my foot and I stepped up. I took another step and I was there.
I wrapped my hands tightly around the final hold, thrilled and nauseated with terror. I knew how high I was and even after all of my test falls I still wasn’t sure if I trusted that rope. Letting go was the hardest part. When my feet hit the ground I was almost crying from the adrenaline but ten minutes later I was back on the wall.
The fear wasn’t gone right away; it would come over me when I was halfway up the wall or reaching for a tricky move and I would have to fall back onto the rope to reassure myself that I was safe. But after that day, I was hooked. I climbed four times my first week and by the end of it I never needed to test fall.
For a month, I climbed as often as my body would let me. It immediately became a sort of meditation for me, a separate place where my mind and body could work together to solve complex problems without distraction from other thoughts, needs or responsibilities. But the fear wasn’t totally gone. It was boxed away and growing dusty in the attic but it was still there.
I grew comfortable climbing. I felt safe in the hands of my belayers and when I did have moments of panic they felt far away and could be ignored. But I still hadn’t tried the auto-belay.
An auto-belay is just what it sounds like, a spool of rope that catches and belays you without the help of another person. Besides bouldering, it’s the only type of climbing that you can do at the gym alone.
My favorite time to climb was between noon and three on weekdays, when I get restless and need to take a break from work. I work from home so it can be hard for me to relax there but I soon discovered how restorative it could be to climb with nothing but 90’s music for company.
Everyone that I usually climbed with was busy during normal business hours so I ended up going alone a lot so eventually, the auto belay had to be faced. The way that the auto-belay catches you is different than with a human belayer. The person below you can see if the rope is loose and pulls it tight as you move up the wall. This way, when you fall, it catches you right away. The auto belay operates with a little less precision and lets you free fall for a few feet of slack rope before caching you and escorting you to the ground.
The day that I took it on, I knew that I was ready. I’d been climbing for over a month and it was time to face my fear. I hooked myself up and stepped back to check out the route. I didn’t have a lot of technique yet so I was only partially sure what I was looking for but I planned out my first four moves and stepped up to the wall. I boxed up the fact that I was on an auto belay instead of a rope. I focused on where to put my feet instead.
I got nervous. Halfway up, I jumped off. I went again and instead of making a tricky move and risking falling, I let go. I went twice more and kept letting go halfway up.
My arms ached and my hands were cramping. I sat down for the first time since I’d stepped up to the wall with the rope still hooked to my harness. I forced myself to rest and for ten minutes I did nothing but stare at the wall.
I tried to think as logically as possible. I knew that the auto belay was safe; it had caught me plenty of times at half height and it would catch me at the top. And the spot on the wall where I had been getting stuck had no shortage of holds; I just couldn’t see them through the fog of my fear. I’d done plenty of harder routes than this one. The only thing to do when I got stuck, I decided, was to look for the next hold. It would always be there.
When my arms felt better I stood up, chalked up and got on the wall. I knew the bottom half well by then and I moved quickly. When I reached the spot that I had been unable to get past, I just kept moving. I found somewhere to step and I stepped on it. I was right, the holds were there, all I had to do was focus on finding the next one.
Again, the end was the hardest part. I grasped the top hold with both hands and, as panic began to build in my gut, I pushed off the wall.
The fear was gone instantly. I rode the belay down with a grin the size of Montana on my face. Ten minutes later I was at the top of another route. That time, I turned around and looked down before I pushed off the wall.
I’ve been climbing for about three months now and my fear is gone. So far gone, in fact, that a couple of weeks ago when I reached the top of the hardest bouldering route I had done so far, I swung off of it without checking out my landing. You don’t use ropes in bouldering so when I let go, I fell. Unfortunately, I fell at an awkward angle and sprained my ankle. Quite badly actually, I’ve been on crutches for three weeks. But I don’t feel bad about it. For one thing, I completed a route in two tries that took my boyfriend about fifteen to get. And for another, I now know for sure that I am not afraid.
Even when I was falling, in those long, stretched out seconds when I knew I was going to land wrong, I never felt afraid. Even now when I remember that day, all I feel is pride.
Fear is a prison and I am free.