Heights make me very nervous. I max out at around 6 push-ups. And yet, I decided to try out a sport that not only takes you very high up but also relies heavily on upper body strength.
That’s right, I went rock climbing.
Because I know my fear of heights is irrational. And, I like trying new things and getting out of my comfort zone (20-year-old me is saying “who even are you?”). So when my coworker organized a team-building afternoon “on the crag” (as the climbers say), I was in.
I watched everyone else go, including my fellow first-time-climbing coworker and a few others who hadn’t climbed in years. I was having a great time, feeling confident that I could do this…..and then it was actually time to go.
The fear sweats kicked in. I got that familiar stomach churning that starts whenever I’m scared or anxious. I suddenly found myself wishing I had gone to the bathroom before doing this. My heart started racing.
But I’m also very stubborn. And I said I would do this and I didn’t want to back out and be the only one that didn’t go (which, for the record, would have been totally fine because everyone was super supportive).
I’d already confided in my coworker and her husband (who were leading the trip) and tried to remember their words of wisdom as I put on my harness.
They made the obvious point that I didn’t need to go up all the way (and probably shouldn’t if I thought I was really going to freak out and not be able to come back down). They reminded me we were just out here to try something new, have fun, and spend time together. I could go two feet up, decide I wanted to come down, and that was totally cool.
Starting out was actually pretty easy. I was worried my arms were going to poop out on me, but it was easier than I thought to move around. About halfway up, the obvious places to put my hand and feet started to run out, and I started getting worried about falling.
I was in a harness and ropes, so even if I did slip and fall, it’s not like I would plummet to my death. But my lizard brain was sending things into overdrive.
I thought about coming down then, and I knew no one would judge me if I did. As I tried to decide if my rapid breathing was because of physical exertion or fear, I remembered Caroline Gleich’s video that I just watched from REI.
(If you haven’t watched it, do so immediately)
This badass woman skiing these INSANE lines in the backcountry of Utah…was still nervous sometimes. In her GoPro videos, you could hear her nervousness, her discomfort, her pep talks to herself.
So I reminded myself that I could do this. I wasn’t tired, I was just nervous. I was doing something new and scary, so it was okay to be nervous. But it didn’t mean I needed to quit.
I remembered that my coworkers had all done this already and decidedly did not die.I remembered I trusted my coworker belaying me. I remembered she wouldn’t put anything in front of me that she thought I couldn’t do, and the whole point of the day was to try something new and out of your comfort zone.
And then my stubborn streak kicked back in.
I got to the top of the route.
My coworkers cheered, I grinned from ear to ear…and then I realized I needed to get down. And the way you do that is by letting go of the rocks with your hands, sitting back like you’re in a chair, and walking yourself down backward. Basically, doing exactly what I didn’t want to do for (irrational) fear of falling to my death.
I had also had to look down at this point to ask my coworker what I was supposed to do next. So that wasn’t helping. My rapid breathing returned. I willed myself to let go and sit back, and I couldn’t. I reminded myself this was the only way back down. But my body was not responding. It was full lizard brain paralysis.
By some magical streak of luck, my coworker’s brother-in-law (an insane climber and professional guide) was at the exact same height as me, on another route just a few feet over.
Or, maybe me being frozen, frightened, clinging to the rock, and not moving resulted in someone yelling at him to go help me. I couldn’t hear anything over my raging, rapid heartbeat. He pep talked me into leaning back, and letting go, and I slowly made my way back down.
That was honestly the scariest part. Going up, you don’t really realize how high up you are, and you feel like in control because you’re holding on to something in front of you. Coming down was legitimately terrifying, and by the time my feet hit the ground again adrenaline was coursing through my veins. I was shakey and teared up a little (shout out to sunglasses for hiding that), but also had an insane feeling of accomplishment and excitement.
After calming myself down, but before my brain decided it was OVER THIS, I did one more route. After getting the first time over with, I was actually able to enjoy rock climbing.
I realized why people get hooked on it. It’s really just one giant puzzle that each person figures out in their own way. None of us took the exact same route up, and it’s up to you figure out in the moment what’s going to work for you to get yourself further up. I loved that about it, and it was quickly addicting.
I was able to take a deep breath, and just look around. I was comfortable taking my time to figure out what my next move was, instead of panicking that I was stuck. Leaning back to get down was still nerve-wracking, and it helped the entire time that my coworker-belayer kept the rope really tight so I always could feel the harness holding me up.
When I was back on the ground, I felt like such a badass. I had conquered a major fear of mine. I was stronger than I thought I was (although my arm/shoulder/back muscles were basically useless the entire weekend after).
No matter what your fears are, no matter how self-conscious you are, if you’re able to let go of that and get out of your comfort zone, you’re never going to regret it. At least I haven’t.
I am so thankful to my coworkers for giving me that space to get comfortable being uncomfortable, for lending me their gear and expertise, and for taking me on one of the most exhilarating, empowering Friday afternoons of my life.