Semi-Rad: The Fear Factor

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Brendan Leonard
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Smith Rock, Oregon. A source of terror.
Photo: dberry/Flickr; http://ow.ly/An5Nf

I can’t remember the holds at the beginning of Barbecue the Pope (5.10b) at Smith Rock, just the indecision: I definitely had one more heady move to do before I could clip the first bolt, 20 feet off the deck. I looked down to my right, then to my left, and thought, Wow, that’s actually a really good landing, all things considered. I looked up at the bolt and tried to figure out the move, and then I imagined the results of a fall if my foot slipped. It wasn’t pretty.

I did all of those things you do before a committing move to collect your head: several deep breaths, a few false starts, chalked up each hand 12 times, had a little Elvis leg, and examined every possible handhold within my reach. Then I downclimbed because I was scared of blowing the move and slamming into the packed dirt at the base of the route. A few minutes later, after borrowing a stick-clip and clipping the first bolt, then climbing past and clipping the second, I did the same thing for a few minutes below the third bolt. I false-started several times, got scared, decided I couldn’t commit to the sequence to clip the bolt, downclimbed a little bit, and eventually whipped off. Then I climbed up to the same spot and lobbed off again, and again, before I finally lowered and watched my friend Rick lead the route. I wasn’t pumped or flailing, just scared I couldn’t do the move without taking a 25-foot fall.

There are plenty of reasons to climb. Lots of people will tell you they like the movement, or the combination of mental and physical stimulation, or just being outside with their friends. Sometimes I wonder what the draw is for me, and the more I reflect on the emotions I’ve had while climbing, the more I think I am doing it to develop a relationship with my fear. I do lots of things that basically make getting scared a priority: I climb old-school routes. I have onsighted 95 percent of the climbing terrain I’ve ever covered. I force myself to eschew topropes at crags and lead everything. I prefer easy highballs to lower, more technical bouldering (although being somewhat out of shape may also contribute to that preference).

I have had adrenaline surges on alpine routes in several states and on multi-pitch climbs all over the West. I have freaked out in private with 100 feet of rope between myself and my partner after getting off route. I have accidentally climbed X-rated terrain and sworn that if I lived through it I would never climb again, only to climb again and get the shakes on a sport climb, after convincing myself I’m just a little too far above a bolt.

Does this sound familiar? If it does, you, like me, have probably had people tell you to read Arno Ilgner’s book about mental training for climbers, The Rock Warrior’s Way, and to get your shit together. I have. I’m working on it. But clearly (to me) it’s a deeper problem. If I climbed because I loved the movement, I would do nothing but toprope at the gym. I must love something else about it. And I’m pretty sure it’s the visceral fear, which makes everything else in life better.

Did you notice that after you became a climber, many other things became less scary? I definitely did. Long runouts make stuff like job interviews and blind dates seem like nothing. I think the repeated exposure to abject fear and the obligation to deal with it and move on make us mentally tougher. Maybe not in those moments when we’re out on the rock shaking and thinking we’re going to die, but after we make it down safely. Then, all those other things seem less scary—rejection, failure, long weekends with the in-laws. And, of course, heights in general.

Before I became a climber, fear was something I had little experience with. Now, in an odd way, it’s like a stuffed animal. I pick it up every now and then to remind myself that everything else isn’t so scary.

A few months ago, I gave a presentation at Second Ascent, a gear shop in Seattle. I had jitters as the doors opened and 20, 50, then 100 people showed up to listen to me do what Americans universally fear most: public speaking. Before I grabbed the microphone, I thought, Well, at least I don’t have to lead the completely unprotected first 25 feet of Pear Buttress tonight.

Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor for Climbing. His first book, The New American Road Trip Mixtape, is available at semi-rad.com.