Scared of Being Scared

Fear is a familiar feeling for climbers. It’s natural. Your instincts are telling you that you’ve greatly increased your chances of dying by hanging yourself 20 to hundreds of feet above the ground and relying on a few nuts and cams or bolts, a rope, a belay device, and another person to keep you from hitting the ground. It no longer seems irrational for your calf muscles to be shaking uncontrollably or that you chalk up four extra times before going for the crux. Even if you’re topping out a highball and likely won’t die from the 20-foot fall, you probably aren’t psyched at the likelihood of breaking an ankle. I even get nervous on single pitch sport routes, hesitating before attempting challenging moves even when I know I won’t ground out, but I don’t want to slam into the cliff below me either.

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Alyse Dietel doesn’t let fear keep her from tying in to the sharp end.

We fear many things while climbing including, but not limited to: heights, hitting the ground from one or more stories up, hitting a ledge, missing the pad, having our gear pop, having the rope break, back-clipping then falling, failing at a project, failing to onsight, failing to send a climb below our typical onsight grades, breaking a hold, getting hit with a broken hold, and regretting having previously consumed four Red Bulls and six Taco Bell burritos half-way up Cannon.

However, none of the above plagues me as much of the fear of being afraid. Much like worrying, this fear is completely irrational. Being afraid of being afraid does not help me climb harder or safer. It has never made me double check my knot or fueled my redpoint excitement. It just makes me anxious.

I’d only been climbing outside for a few months when I first saw Cream, a 20-foot V0+ highball Pawtuckaway classic. Brandon jokingly said I should climb it and then immediately retracted the statement, saying he “wouldn’t make me do that; it was too scary.” If Brandon thought it was too high, hard, and scary for me, then I wouldn’t protest. I kept waking by.

Later that spring, I traded an everything bagel with cream cheese for a ride to Pawtuckaway with Alec.

“Have you climbed Cream?” Alec asked as we entered the Round Pond area. I said I hadn’t, and we walked over. Alec threw down a pad, pointed out the starting jugs, and reassured me that the downclimb was the hardest part. I grabbed the jugs, finding better and better holds as I went up. The feet were good, I never felt insecure, and I had no sense of how high off the ground I was until I topped out. I was so relaxed and focused that I don’t even remember whether or not Alec was spotting me, though he probably was.

I only thought to climb Cream because Alec thought I could climb it and left me with no time to be afraid before I’d sent. And he was right, the downclimb was the trickiest part, or maybe that’s just what I was expecting.

I’ve never repeated Cream. To be honest: I’m scared to. I’m not scared of falling, though I remember none of my beta; I’m afraid that I’ll be afraid. I was so focused and emotionless the first time I climbed it that now I’m scared that I won’t feel that same focus and comfort again.

Now, you might suggest that I go out to Pawtuckaway right now and conquer that fear immediately. But, being a wimp, I’m going to suggest another solution: Climbing Sauce. Sauce is a V3 traverse with a funky undercling that leads into Cream. Thus, to send Sauce, you have to send Cream. So, I think I’ll choose the route of surprising myself and re-send Cream when I finally work out my short-person beta on Sauce. Then I’ll have less time to be scared, and hopefully I’ll be focused like my first send.

For now, I’m going to work on not being afraid of being afraid. Between breaking my ankle last fall and the long, cold, snowy winter, it’s been a while since I lead sport or trad, so naturally I’m anticipating being a bit nervous for the first few clips/placements/whips. However, I won’t let my fear of feeling fear keep me from getting on hard routes again. And the only sleep I plan to lose over it will be out of pure excitement.

Originally published April 20, 2015, on 

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