Learning to climb with a fear of heights
If you have climbed with me before you would already know a little fact about me that I am going to share now. It doesn't take people long to put two-and-two together, after hearing my squeals and cries for help, and my stubborn resistant to let go for practise falls… I’m afraid of heights. Yes, a climber afraid of heights, and it’s pretty common.
I never used to be afraid of heights growing up. I went bunging jumping for my 16th birthday and straight away ran over to the bungy bullet to have another adrenaline fix. I was researching the best country to go skydiving- somewhere that took you higher than the Aussie limits before you jumped from the plane. I used to love jumping off bridges into the water below. As a comparison, recently it took me 20 minutes to get the courage to jump barely a few meters into the water below. All of those memories of the things I used to enjoy, well now they make me feel a little ill just thinking about them.
How did I turn into the scaredy-cat from the adrenaline junkie so drastically? Well I was in Thailand about to jump off a 16 metre cliff into the water below. I remember thinking as I was scrambling up the rock that this would be fun, I was excited and even getting impatient at the fact I wasn’t jumping yet. When I finally reached the safe spot to jump, I stood there and looked down into the water, and for the first time that I can remember I was terrified. The confidence I had climbing up had completely deserted me. And in its place was an overwhelming urge to lay flat, as close to the ground as possible in case the breeze suddenly got so strong it would whip me off the cliff. This feeling was very foreign to me. I wasn’t that girl that watched on while all the other people did the scary things, I was the girl that would push them aside so I got to do it first. It was this thought that led me to jump even though I was scared. I hit the water as I did every other time in the past- a pin drop, but this time it was different. As soon as I hit the water an enormous amount of pain erupted. It engulfed me. Everything hurt. I don’t know how, but I knew straight away I had broken my back. The boat that I needed to reach looked like a 1000 metres away, and it felt further away during my long slow painful swim back.
My suspicions were correct, but I counted myself lucky that I wasn’t wheelchair bound. Many physio sessions, and too many days to count of me limiting all movement meant I became a little depressed, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t socialise like I used to and the weight slowly went on due to the fact I couldn’t go the gym, which I would frequent 3-5 times a week without fail until that point. I’m ok now, back to my normal activities, and as healed as I’m going to be. But there is one small change about me- my fear of heights is now a regular part of my life. Which makes for some interesting climbs, especially when I first started. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I have had a full scale breakdown clinging to the side of mountain, freezing up, not being able to climb up or down, crying uncontrollably with my climbing friends gently yelling up to me “just let go, you’ll be fine, your only 3 foot above your last draw”. And when I top out of a climb, I get as low to the ground as I can and on all fours scramble to safety with wide eyes, looking more like a frightened animal than a climber.
I can definitely say I am an learning to live with this, I won’t get over it, because I don’t believe I actually will just one day wake up and think “oh hey, I’m not afraid anymore”, but I think I am slowly learning how to control the fear. I am learning to appreciate the beauty around me when I’m climbing, which helps me put aside this fear for a bit. I look around and get my body used to being up high, so I get used to that feeling. Now I don’t have to cling onto the huge ring bolts at the top of Brooyar Eagles Nest, I can stand there and take a deep breath, enjoying the view. And I’ve learned that repetition is a wonderful tool in combating the irrationality of my fear. Rappelling, especially if it was from over the top, not off the face, was a nightmare for me, but I forced myself to practise practise practise, and now I actually enjoy it, I get that same fear tingle in my head, but instead of it being crippling, it’s now just a buzz that gets my blood pumping a little bit wilder. I think now my fear of heights has subsided a bit, to now mainly be a fear of falling. So I practise falling. It’s a task my belayer dreads, because each time takes a ridiculous amount of convincing to get me to let go, but I know that with enough practise I will learn to control this fear too.
I guess it really goes to prove just how great this sport is, that so many people with a fear of heights or falling will willingly participate in an activity that involves these things. That we couldn’t just NOT climb- take the easy road and just not involve ourselves in those things we are afraid of. We WANT to climb, so we train ourselves to deal with the fears.
“You should fall because you fail to do the move, not because you fail to try the move.”
Andy Kirkpatrick, 1000+ Climbing Tips