Susan E.B. Schwartz - Reader Blog 5


It’s all (mostly) in our heads


Welcome to The Parallel Universes of Climbing

Writing an article for this month’s issue of Climbing (8 Confessions of a Climbing Mom) has reminded me that climbing exists mostly in our heads.

This aha! moment was inspired by an episode that took place in my article. In it, I relate the story of the last time I climbed Modern Times, a Gunks classic known for a notoriously overhanging and exposed crux traverse that is hard to protect for the second.

You can do the math: If a second pops on the traverse, she’s in for a big swing. Which is exactly what happened to me.

In my article, I estimated that I was swinging and dangling for about an hour until I figured a way to aid up the crux. But when I showed a draft to my climbing partner, he chuckled.

“No way,” he insisted. “You climbed pretty quickly. You were up there maybe fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes tops.”

At the other end of the spectrum, after we rappelled to the ground, a woman at the base came up to me. “Was that you up there?” she asked.

When I nodded, she continued. “Oh my god, I was watching you and was terrified for you. Were you crying? How did you keep from crying? I would have been in tears.”

If I had asked this woman how long I had been up there, she might have replied hours.

Three people, three different perceptions of the same event: Which was correct?

In a way, we were all correct, because the three of us had experienced three different realities. Thus is the internal nature of many climbing challenges.

There was the reality of my climbing partner: He had set up a comfy belay, taken off his climbing shoes, and was basking in the knowledge that he had aced Modern Times on lead yet again. He was happy to sit there, stretch his toes, and savor the adrenalin rush and the glorious Indian Summer day. Time was passing quickly for him.

There was my reality, alternating between fear and fun – drinking in the gorgeous views as I relished the good natured kidding with my climbing partner and a leader on a belay below.

Yet I still found myself unconsciously taking deep breaths and having to muzzle my cavewoman instincts as my inner Neanderthal punched me in the arm and kept insisting: HEY! HEY! ARE YOU CRAZY? I EXISTED BEFORE PERLON ROPES AND CLIMBING HARNESSES. I KNOW THAT DANGLING IN SPACE IS A BAAAD IDEA. ALARM! ALARM! BEWARE! BEWARE!

Lastly, there was the woman on the ground watching me, who was either a beginner or maybe didn’t climb. (I didn’t ask.) As she said to me, she would have been terrified in the same situation. In her reality, it was the situation that was inherently terrifying, not her response to it.

Same situation, three different realities.

Anyone else experience a climb where you and your climbing partner seemed to have occupied different, parallel universes? Climbing Magazine and I would love to know. Please share your stories with us in's forums HERE.