Life on Lead is a monthly column by Amy Christensen – climber, certified life coach, writer. In this column she discusses the point where the challenges of life and the challenges of climbing meet. She takes readers on a journey, helping them learn how to use wisdom gained from climbing to enact powerful, positive changes in their lives.
I’m sweating. The anxiety and pounding in my chest slowly moves up and into my throat, closing my airway as I blink back tears of frustration. I can see the route up ahead yet can’t seem to get to it. My partner is well ahead of me, turning back every so often to wait.
I crawl and pick my way across the trail, stopping for what feels like every couple of seconds, reassessing my progress
and searching for the next step. I focus my gaze directly in front of me, desperately trying to ignore the steep drop to my right and the loose rocks beneath.
My Fear Exposed
When most people think about rock climbing, they think about the distance off the ground as the scariest thing about the sport. “I’d love to climb,” they might say, “but I’m afraid of heights.”
I’ve never heard of anyone who doesn’t climb because the approaches are too scary.
But I’ve thought about it. And I often wonder if I’m completely alone in my fear of The Approach.
When I began climbing, I looked at experienced climbers and saw courage combined with a certain risk-taking tolerance that I admired. I wanted to be like them: strong, courageous and graceful.
I began climbing mostly in the gym and a fear of heights never factored into the challenges I faced. So when I finally started climbing outside, I was surprised to learn that I did, in fact, have a fear to overcome: The Approach.
Great rock rarely appears on the side of a road or well-cared-for-and-accessible trails.
Shelf Road and Smith Rock are the exceptions with friendly approaches that tend toward the kind and gentle.
It’s the steep, loose scree that can cause sweat to bead on my forehead. Or facing steep exposure with a large, awkward and heavy pack on my back. Or boulder hopping on tall, uneven boulders three feet apart and ten feet high that require me to jump from one to the other, both feet off the ground at the same time.
The fear of a sketchy approach appears before I even make it to the crag. It begins as we’re researching a new area for interesting routes. “How’s the approach?” is a factor that’s heavily considered when planning. My anticipation of a fun route is colored by the dread I feel about simply getting there.
This, as you might guess, is incredibly frustrating. For me and my climbing partner.
I want to get excited to climb. To hang onto the stoke long enough to rope up. Yet so often, by the time I’m actually at the crag, my nerves are raw and my ability to take risks (i.e., lead a route or climb hard) is compromised.
Navigating The Approach
I’m learning how to navigate this fear at the same time I work to overcome it. While I often feel completely alone, I have a feeling I’m not the only one out there that gets nervous about the approach (or plans her routes around their difficulty).
Climbing to me has always been about pushing the limits and boundaries of what’s possible, while at the same time gaining strength and grace on and off the rock.
Life throws us curveballs all the time, and this is my current climbing challenge—a challenge decidedly off the rock. Applying myself as I do to all challenges, I am committed to addressing it and cultivating the patience for myself that I need.
If you find yourself feeling trepidation when you think about just getting to a crag, know you’re not alone. Here are seven techniques I’ve developed to help recognize and face the fear of The Approach.
1. First, it is important to acknowledge the fear. By simply verbalizing the fear, “I’m scared of exposure,” it can help you stop fighting it and begin dealing with it. The more you talk about it, the more you’ll realize you’re not alone and that others have—and are currently—facing the same challenge.
2. Set aside the judgments and negative self-talk (i.e., I’m a wimp; I’m not strong enough; I’m not a “real” climber; I’m not cut out for this sport), and simply allow yourself to be afraid. Write down your negative feelings in a journal and reread them. This will get them out of your head where it’s easier to see and address them. Read them to yourself objectively to remind yourself that they’re not true. Then give yourself permission to no longer listen to them.
3. Talk to your partner about your fears. A lot. Be sure to choose climbs together and if there’s a sketchy approach (or what sounds like one), prepare yourself in two ways:
- Mentally. Just knowing it might be tough or scary for you allows you to focus energy on preparing for that. Information is powerful.
- Physically. Pack differently. Ask your partner to take the bulk of the weight so you can have more maneuverability.
4. Be sure you and your partner have a rock-solid agreement that if at any time you’re too sketched, you turn back. I’ve only taken advantage of this once, but it felt really good to know that I could without hard feelings. Sure, there will probably be disappointment (on both sides), but the most important thing is for you to feel safe and excited to climb again another day.
5. Assess other areas in your life that might be competing for your energy (I actually wrote a post recently about this very thing). Here are the four main areas to assess and some questions to ask yourself:
- Your base comfort level. (Am I feeling particularly sketched or feeling strong?)
- The conditions of the environment. (What’s the predicted weather? Am I comfortable with the other people I’m with?)
- Your energy level at the moment. (Did I get enough sleep? Am I trying too hard to keep up?)
- Your current reservoir of strength. (Am I dealing with any outside stress or injury?)
6. When on the approach, take your time. Focus on yourself instead of what others think. Create a personal mantra and concentrate on it. Mine is often “slow, steady, graceful and light” as I work my way to the crag.
7. And finally, once you’re at the crag, take time to settle down. Don’t immediately gear up for a climb. (This has caused more than a few meltdowns in my own history.) Take time to refocus and recenter on the actual climbing part of the day. Find a quiet spot where you can sit still and allow your nerves and adrenaline time to settle so you can focus fully and completely on the routes ahead.
These techniques have consistently helped me arrive at the crag with extra energy for the actual climbing part of climbing, so if thoughts of The Approach puts butterflies in your stomach, too, take some time to follow the steps and you’ll be delighted at the extra mental strength and energy you’ll have once you’ve tied in. Climb on!
Amy Christensen is a certified life coach. Her company, Expand Outdoors, works with adventurous women to identify and accomplish their wildest and deepest dreams. She recently returned to Boulder, CO after completing one of her own life dreams: a year-long adventure of climbing, trail running and mountain biking around the country, living in a converted van. Learn more about Amy at www.expandoutdoors.com or contact her directly for a free consultation.