A new entry for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual on Climbing Mental Disorders
I'm not a psychologist, although at times in my life I've been a middle class American so I've had some exposure to shrinks. I broke up with my last shrink awhile back. Don't get me wrong, Therapist was a very nice woman, but it's the familiar refrain... she just didn't understand rock climbing. Since then, I've been on my own, seeking psychological solace from folks who "Get It", and who live their lives of adventure more like my own. Unlike Therapist, who worried that my climbing partnerships might be keeping me from forming more conventional interpersonal bonds, fellow adventurers are able to counsel on issues in climbing partnerships from a been-there, done-that point of view. For the most part, it works out well. We have a shared language and culture; there's less to explain than when I'm talking to "normal people." But sometimes, talk therapy with my climbing friends just isn't enough to trigger the big epiphanies that make life interesting. At those times, I tend to find myself several pitches up a long traditional route, and the light bulb goes on. I've had my best and biggest life epiphanies on long, multipitch traditional routes. While my life might be easier and smoother — more normal — without some of those epiphanies, I wouldn't trade them for the world. The latest...
Since I'm transitioning from follower into leader myself, I climb with a variety of different partners; some mentors, some peers, some newbies. There's a head game with each type of partner... the least, when I climb with peers. When I climb with newbies, I feel the pressure of needing to keep us both safe, making the best possible choices, and ensuring that the newbie partner has fun so that they'll want to rock climb again. But no type of partner triggers more psychological angst for me than climbing with mentor partners. It sounds backwards, I know. It seems like climbing with a mentor partner would be a walk in the park. If you get in over your head, you've got someone there to help get you out. You've got someone to take the sharp end when your brain or body quits. Mentor partners have all sorts of problem solving skills that I have yet to learn. But climbing with mentor partners is easily the hardest headgame in climbing, as far as I'm concerned. The epiphany came on the second pitch of Arrow Place, at Black Velvet Canyon, during my last Red Rocks trip. It was the last day of another fantastic trip. Shawn and I had dropped our friends off at the airport the night before, gotten a fitful night's sleep, then geared up for our last day of climbing. We picked a short objective, a casual and pretty approach for a 3-pitch 5.9, so that we'd be sure to get in and out before our own flight that afternoon. We figured he'd lead the first crux pitch, then I'd take the second easier pitch and we'd duke it out for the last.
The first pitch was a challenge to protect, but beautiful climbing. As I cleaned gear as second, though, I could feel it coming on. The fear. The insecurity. The lack of self-confidence. The fear of failure. By the time I reached the belay ledge, and went to clip in to the anchors (on top if I was taking the lead; underneath if I was staying as second) I just couldn't clip the top of the anchor. I was ... terrified. I looked up at the next pitch, a beautiful, consistent crack that was right up my alley, but there was no way I could make myself lead it. Shawn stepped up and stayed on lead, with nary a complaint and not even a snarky comment or reprimand. As I watched him work his way up the moderate crack, placing gear casually and confidently, this thought flashed through my head: "I'm never going to be that confident. I'm never going to have that kind of skill." I shook my head in disbelief that my brain had gone to such a negative place, and finished the belay. As I climbed the pitch, I realized — with any other partner, I'd have sucked it up, taken the rack, and lead the pitch. But there was absolutely no way I could bring myself to, that day, on that climb, with Shawn. It wasn't until halfway up the pitch as second that I had my latest epiphany. Finally, a self-diagnosis for the mental illness I've struggled with for the last few seasons. Climbing-Induced Stockholm Syndrome. Like hostages who become emotionally attached and fiercely loyal to their kidnappers, we view our mentor partners as powerful figures who help enable our survival, despite the risks and danger we subject ourselves to as a climbing partnership. Over the years, I've followed my mentor partners up countless pitches, and they've helped get me out of countless sketchy situations. They've belayed me up routes up and down the Western U.S., in near and far flung locations. I've learned nearly everything I know about climbing from them. I treasure the opportunity to tie in with these partners, be it in the gym, close to home, or in some exotic destination. I am fiercely loyal to these partners, and make choices that may appear crazy to a non-afflicted person in order to climb with them. Skip work to go climbing? Sure. Leave a perfectly nice boy who might be fond of me for more than just my belaying skills to travel a couple thousand miles to sleep alone and climb? In a heartbeat. Volunteer to second on some objective that's way over my head? You betcha. Subject myself to hanging belays, epic climbing, rationed food and water, long approaches, death slabs, stuck ropes, rope drag, sun and wind burn, bleeding tips and the risk of a sub-30 degree night shivering on a ledge somewhere hours from the nearest road?Without hesitation. OK, maybe I am insane.
And even less sane is that despite the fact that my mentor partners are the most experienced, safest belayers I climb with; despite the fact that they can give me worthwhile feedback on my climbing and gear placements; and despite the fact that they wouldn't have spent years teaching me everything they know unless they really want me to succeed as a climber, I hesitate to take the lead, for risk of disappointing them, or screwing up. Over the years, I have lead countless pitches of climbing. A tiny fraction of those pitches is with one of my mentor partners on belay. I haven't yet found a cure, but knowing is half the battle, right? Fessing up might be another quarter of the battle. During our trip home, talking about possible future trips, I admitted my self-diagnosis to Shawn, and said out loud that I'm afraid to take the lead with him because I don't want to disappoint him. I observed, "I'm going to have to get over that," and he responded, "Yes, you are." And we're both right. Just identifying the cognitive dissonance of the situation makes me feel like I can make more intentional choices in the future, with a better understanding of whether my fear and apprehension is rational or not in a specific situation. Accumulating positive experiences on lead with peer and newbie partners also can't hurt. Becoming more experienced and competent as a leader on my own will take me steps closer to being a peer partner with the guys and gals who have been my mentors. To succeed in climbing, I have to risk failure. I have to risk embarrassment in the eyes of my mentors. I have to risk criticism and being chastised for a job not well done. On the other hand, if I plan well, commit, think positive, and believe in my skills and capability I'm much more likely to succeed than fail, and that the risk of failure is worth the possibility of success. Putting that knowledge into action now, with my mentor partners on the dull end of the rope, will be one of my challenges for this climbing season. The best thanks I can give a partner like Shawn for his tireless tutelage is to get stronger and be more confident; to be a better climbing partner; and ultimately, to swing pitches on some long traditional classic so that he gets to enjoy some of the climbing and cleaning and I'm the one, finally, pulling up all that extra rope on belay. What's the hardest head game for you? Climbing with newbies, peers, or mentors? Please comment on this blog. For more, visit rockclimbergirl.com.