Nina Williams: Managing Fear on Evilution Direct

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A light bulb has gone off. My fingers clench in excitement. I just climbed the top moves of Evilution Direct (V11) on a rope, clean and without falling. The moves go for me, I thought. They go! I had been nervous they would be too reach-y, too committing for my height. But they weren’t. The doubt was erased, replaced with unflinching knowledge of my physical capability to send this dream line. You can do this. Game on. I rappel off the Grandpa Peabody boulder imbued with mental anticipation and a touch of anxiety.

Photo: Beau Kahler, @beauknowsphotos

The inevitable question arises. “Aren’t you scared?”

My eyebrows furrow in thought. I always have trouble with this question. Glancing at the overhang, my eyes follow the line of crimps to the lip and beyond. “I don’t know,” I respond. “It does seem taller from down here, doesn’t it?” I ponder a few seconds, unsure of how to answer. “Sure I’m scared,” I finally say. “But I’m not scared at the same time. I don’t know if that makes sense.” Mixed emotions make me doubt my words even as I voice them. Fear—is it fear?—tugs at my heart, just a little. I stare at the line once more. “I don’t think it’s that bad.”

I mean, of course I’m scared. Evilution to the Lip, an accepted climb by itself, clocks in at around 16 feet. Past that, it’s another 6 or 7 feet through technical (but not necessarily strenuous) moves. Then after reaching a slight ledge to rest on, another 20 feet of low-angle scrambling remains before the top. Taking in the boulder as a whole, especially from the ground, is a daunting task. But after hanging from a rope and putting the puzzle pieces together, the task seemed somewhat… less so.

Watch the video: Nina Williams Sends Bishop Highball Evilution Direct (V11, FFA)

I’ve always been drawn to tall climbs. There is something about the soaring angles that catch my eyes and spiral them upwards, forcing air through my chest in an involuntary gasp. The first climb to evoke this reaction from me was Speed of Life (V10), a steeply-overhanging line on a massive block that would have boasted a 25-foot fall if not for another tiered boulder behind it. I laid eyes on Speed of Life in 2009 and tried it multiple times over the course of six years, finally finishing it in 2015. Due to it’s dangerous fall-potential, I steadily learned the exact amount of pads that were needed. I figured out how to accommodate the chute-style fall with strategic placements. I knew where the spotters needed to stand. The whole system was perfected through trial-and-error, with every fall a subtle learning experience.

One year I found myself crumpled at the base of Speed of Life. Moments prior I clung to the overhang, in the zone, and practiced ignoring the jutting edge of the sharp boulder behind me. I leapt for the next hold and missed. The moments seemed to pass in slow motion, second by second. One—a moment of fear as my foot slipped through a crash pad strap, threatening to tip me forward and break my leg. Two—Flipping my foot free and kicking with the other, propelling me out towards the lower pads. Three—Lurching forward and down, arms splayed in a T for balance.

THUD. 

After landing in a pile, I assessed my injuries. I had some scrapes from hitting the pads and a section of exposed rock on the way down, but nothing serious. My spotter gaped, eyes a-goggle. “That fall was crazy! Are you okay?” I took a few deep breaths. “Yeah, I’m good,” I said. And I was. 

In that particular moment I realized I had been able to react quickly without fear holding me back. I had fallen over and over to the point where I felt safe doing so. The repeated falls had trained my eyes to assess landings and predict the best way to crumple, so to speak. I remember my vision zeroing in and correcting the mistake with sharp visual clarity. I had unintentionally prepped myself for sudden slip-ups through practice falls and careful landing arrangements. These tactics were the start of several that I would apply to the rest of my highball climbs.

The evening temps were just beginning to settle in during my third Evilution session. I had fallen from the lip again, uncontrolled and unable to catch myself on the drop down. My heel hook forced my torso slightly left as I fell, bringing my right knee towards my face in slow-motion. My thoughts became singular, simple: Knee. No.

THUD.

A slight hip rotation before my feet hit the ground in a crouch position. They absorbed impact as my head fell, first between my legs, and then jerking backwards. I would have lingering whiplash over the next few days, but it was better than a split chin. “I don’t want to fall like that again,” I said after some minutes, eyes closed. “I’m holding back.” Opening my eyes, I focused on the move that was resisting me. “I have to commit.” Even as I said these words, a bubble of fear swelled in my chest. This was dangerous business, after all. Was it really worth it? And what if I did stick the move? What if…

I shut those thoughts down real quick. I knew how to climb the top. I also knew how to fall. I had my pads, my friends, my chance. It was worth it because I wanted it. I had cleared my own path for success and it was up to me to walk it. 

On my next attempt I focused on one move at a time. My feet left the ground with a bubble of fear still lodged in my chest. But as each move passed with near-perfect execution the bubble shrank. I reached the lip and hesitated for a split-second; I had to do this right. Taking extra time to shake out, I made a point to sink a little lower, to throw my body harder into this move. Focus was critical. My arm shot upwards. The fear-bubble expanded. My fingers stuck the crimp, barely. I felt as though I was literally crimping my fear. Got it, I thought. Re-adjusting until the crimp felt solid, I knew I was in it. I floated towards that blissful focus, the blankness of mind that is entirely dedicated to just doing the task at hand. As I approached the final tricky move, the heady crux, a fleeting virulent thought crossed my mind. You can still fall here. You could fall right now. I didn’t want to take another fall like my last, further even. But the fact was I hadn’t fallen here on a rope; I wasn’t about to fall now.

As I reached the rest, a grin broke on my face. The bubble of fear, having never quite disappeared, emerged again in a giddy realization that I was very high off the deck and had better not mess up now. The last 20 feet were carefully, but easily climbed. As I sat at the top, enjoying the last of the sunset, I took a moment to ask myself that inevitable question. 

Were you scared?

Yes, I was scared. Fear was constantly reminding me of the hard moves, the falls, the landing. But fear was also part of the process. It was a thing to be managed, through learning how to fall and overcoming doubt of physical limitation. It was an energy to be harnessed. Once the physical crux was achieved, fear sharpened my mind for the mental crux and motivated me to take it to the top.