Part of my job as climbing instructor is organize and teach an overnight field trip where would-be climbers learn how to travel on a rope, use their ice axes, and test their ability to survive in the cold. Normally, I would have held this field trip at Stephens Pass ski area, but because of an unusually snowy spring, they stayed open longer than I anticipated.
The other confounding problem with the field trip was snow. There was WAY too much of it! You wouldn’t think that this would be much of a problem, except that the avalanche danger was through the roof for this time of year. And skiers, boarders, and snowshoers all over the Cascades were getting buried every other day. Not good.
On to Plan B…except that there was no Plan B. Dratz!
Not quite sure where to go, another instructor, Glenn, and I decided that we ought to go for a mid-week scoping trip. We reviewed the avalanche forecast, powered up our avy beacons, and packed shovels and probes. The avalanche conditions were marginal, but we felt prepared for risk. (Nick called dibs on my Rodriguez bike.)
The going was pretty tough. Two people carving a path in thigh deep snow get very tired very quickly. Fortunately, we found a suitable spot. But not before two random skiers ran into us, asking what the heck we were doing out there.
“Didn’t you read the avalanche forecast?”
“Yes, we did. Thank you.”
“And you decided to come anyway?”
Thinking in my head: “Well, so did you!”
Out loud: “Thank you for your concern. We have beacons, shovels, and probes. It is a risk we were willing to take.” Thinking in my head: “And where are YOUR shovel, beacon and probe?”
“But you’re traveling so close together.”
Thinking in my head: “So are you and who the heck are you anyway?”
Out loud: “Thank you. We evaluated the slope and felt comfortable with our traveling distance.”
Then we got a lecture on the avalanche terrain of the basin, a warning to stay out of the way of skiers (because Alpental just opened the backcountry and they’d be coming through here pretty fast), and some general comments that gave me the impression that they were pretty much assholes who didn’t want anyone messing up their fresh snow.
It was one of the weirdest encounters I’ve ever had with someone in the backcountry who wasn’t a ranger or ski patrol or some other appropriate authority.
Glenn and I shook our heads and wandered downslope toward the valley where we ultimately found the perfect camping and practice spot.
I started climbing for real in 2001 (before that I’d been on one guided trip up Mount Rainier). I almost failed the climbing course I took that year because I was terrified of rock climbing. Every time I couldn’t figure out the next move, I flashed back to the time I got stuck bouldering and did a backward summersault off the side of a cliff into the Puget Sound. Tears would overwhelm me and I was done.
I was really fortunate to have some amazing climbing instructors and mentors who patiently worked with me and gave me the tools to graduate the class. Flash forward 10 years, and I’ve not only figured out how to manage my fears, but I’ve learned to lead climb, and I teach others the basics of alpine climbing on rock and glaciers.
Invariably, I come across a student each year that really struggles with their own fears as they learn to rock climb. While I don’t have the magic formula for gaining confidence on rock (each person has to figure that out for themselves), I hope the following tips will help if you are one of those climbers, searching for ways to control your fears:
Take it one small step at a time Take small steps. Like anything outside of your comfort zone, it’s easier to tackle difficult challenges if they’re broken down into smaller, more manageable parts. Each time you go rock climbing, tell yourself you’ll just try climbing a slightly higher distance than the previous time. With smaller goals it’ll be easier to achieve real success each time you climb, which in turn will really boost your confidence.
Tell yourself it’s going to be OK Positive reinforcement is a wonderful thing. It’s a proven scientific fact that if you really believe you can do something, the chances are much greater that you’ll actually be able to do it. Before you climb, take time to visualize yourself actually climbing to a height. This process of visualizing success will enable you to climb higher than you thought possible. Trust me — this really works.
Get comfortable indoor climbing first If you’re having trouble climbing outdoors, it might be a good idea to try climbing at an indoor climbing wall. Although there’s no reason that outdoor climbing can’t be just as safe, I found that climbing indoors gave me that little bit more confidence that, even if I fell, there was nowhere for me to fall.
Focus on the 3’ bubble When you’re not sure where to go next it can be tempting to look down. Seeing yourself so far off the ground when you’re stuck for your next move is not productive. It’s likely to magnify your panic, not abate it. Instead of looking where you don’t want to go, focus on the 3’ to your left, right and above you – basically the place where your hands and legs can reach. Pay particular attention to where your feet can go.
Stop In rock climbing movies, the solution to most difficult climbs is to simply try harder and keep moving. Most basic climbs just aren’t all that steep. Stop. Get some good feet or hang on the rope. Shake out. Relax. Rest. As the pump drains, your mind will open up. Once you’re mentally back in control start climbing again.
Don’t start until you can see it While you’re resting, look at the climb. Figure out where you’ll put your feet, how you’ll move your body, what the tough bit is likely to be and how you’ll deal with it, how you’ll climb, etc. Then close your eyes and run the climb in your head. If you can see yourself doing it all then you will. If you can’t figure it out. Have a couple of plans about how you’re going to deal with the route: “If that’s bad I’m going right, but if it’s good I’m going right over the top.”
Climb lots No matter what sport you do the person doing more of that sport will likely be better at it than the person who does less of it. I’ve seen so many students start out as timid, terrified climbers and surpass me in skill and confidence simply by climbing a lot.
Above all, have fun! The ultimate key to really enjoying rock climbing – without being crippled by your fear of heights – is to try to always simply have fun. If you relax and enjoy the experience, any irrational fear will look after itself.
As my final parting shot, I offer this “professional” video on how to overcome your fear of heights. Next time you’re about to climb a pitch, think back to this video, chuckle to yourself, and get climbing.
After my reconnaissance ski trip to Leavenworth last weekend proved that rock climbing there would be nearly impossible, I made the executive decision to take my climbing students to Vantage instead. There isn’t as much variety, but at least the routes wouldn’t be covered in snow.
Thankfully, Marla, John, and Eileen offered to join the trip to help keep the students safe and move them through all the required skills they needed to learn and practice (escaping a belay, climbing in mountaineering boots, rappelling, and cleaning pro). Huge props to them for their patient, thoughtful, and kind instruction. The students raved about how much they learned and how supported they felt.
I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t have time to take pictures. (It was sort of a hectic day for me – thinking through how to set up the climbing and rappelling stations so everyone always had something to do, answering questions from the other leaders, babysitting the belay escape practice, walking through a simulated climbing exercise, setting pro, etc.) Fortunately, Brian King and Paul Kriloff took some outstanding ones. There’s not a single butt shot among them! Here are some of the best from yesterday’s trip.
Remember: For best picture viewing, click on the “FS” button in the bottom right corner. “SL” runs an automatic slideshow. Clicking on the “i” in the upper right hand corner gives you more information about the picture.