Fear is a Four Letter Word

Darrington, my new favorite spot
I admit, I fell off the wagon for a bit. I was doing so well (City of Rocks, Squamish, E32, Darrington) but things slowed in the last few months of my Year of Climbing and I was a bit befuddled as to why until recently. "What happened," you wonder? Well, I was doing quite well and then who do you suppose knocked on my door again? Yep, my dear old foe Fear stopped by to remind me it was still hanging around town.

It happened slowly. But the big kicker came, ironically, on one of my favorite climbing days of the entire summer. Rappelling off of an awesome route in Darrington, I came to the last rap station, and while chitchatting to my partner - you could say I was a bit distracted - I forgot what I was doing. I’m embarrassed to admit the situation completely, but thank God for my partner’s strong arms (hence the distraction), a huge ledge at the anchors, and my own quick reflexes. Considering the location, angle of the slab, etc. I don’t think anything bad would have really happened but the potential of an accident of my own doing was a scary reality check that I’m only now realizing had sunk deep into my psyche.  What I did realize the next time I was out, was that my old foe Fear, who’d taken a break from me for a while, was back.

We have a complicated relationship, Fear and me. Like telling a stubborn teenager to do anything rational, Fear can push me to do the opposite of what it’s trying to convince me to. But, being the kind of person who doesn’t feel its necessary to rock the boat unless it really matters, Fear is most often very good at convincing me to do what it wants.  I was happy that I’d had a break from this dysfunctional relationship, and I was peeved it was back. ?!*&%?!

My inner stubborn, foot stomping, huff-puffing, teenage-angst-inspired self finally decided to put my big-girl boots back on and kick it in the shins.

Looking Fear in the face, 1 granite crystal at a time.
A few weeks back, my kickass roommate, Sara and I went to E32. We’d talked about climbing together since she moved into the little green house and it was finally time we made it happen. It was no surprise to either of us, but climbing together is just about as natural, fun, and comfortable as a gin and tonic sipped in a hammock on a warm summer night. And, being that we were in such a state of climbing partner bliss, we hopped on a10something-or-another at Blackstone Wall we really didnt have any business leading. I’d TR’d the climb before so felt ok on lead and clipped the first 4 bolts, but backed off at the 5th. There was too much reach, too much exposure, and my post-workday head wouldn’t let me reach Fear’s shins to kick it away. So Sara made a go. Solid. Finesse. Stretch.  Lock off. Hold…hold…uh oh. Dropping into the smoothest, most controlled fall she shouted "Falling!!!AAHH!" Down she went letting loose a fantastically huge scream. WOAH! I was ready to catch her fall but certainly wasn’t ready for her powerful lungs to give it quite so loudly.  As she shook out her arms, she calmly let me know to expect anytime she popped, her fall would be accompanied by a scream. She then got back on and rocked it up to the 5th bolt (it was sketchy, folks, but she made it look like ballet). 

I never knew falling could be so graceful. Or so explosively loud. And that both could go together and be a good thing.  Screaming- I can do that.

The two of us decided to back off the climb after I clipped #6, but not before I took a couple practice falls. Its true! Me! Falling! And this time, I let my terrified self express it's feelings. Vocalizing the fall made it just a smidge less scary. And it actually felt kind of good. It didnt take away the fear entirely, but made it a bit more acceptable. 

Lightbulb #1: Scream more often cause it feels good. Piece of cake.

Guides on rock
Fast forward to Labor Day. We went to Leavenworth. The first day was a nice and easy one for me getting to take the follower’s seat. But the afternoon of the second day, somehow I got dubbed the rope gun. What the?! Huh? I took it on with reluctance; I was climbing with a couple of guides after all. Wouldn’t they naturally want to lead? But there I was. The first went fine with a few slow, shaky moments of pause. But then the second...

With encouragement from the guys, I was making progress. Until it just ran out. Where did all the features go?! Hardly an edge to hold onto, not much to smear on, I was stuck. I tried going up a couple times and backed down. Looking down at Austin and Eric, I admitted I didn’t think I could do it. The real reality? I could feel Fear trickling in, wrapping its cold, hard fingers around my brain. And squeezing. Until the battle began with my stubbornness sett in.


Patience is a kind belayer
Barely sticking to the wall by the crappiest of nothing features, I slowly let myself stand taller to reach above me. Slowly, slowly I moved and then POP! I was off the wall and falling. And falling. And still falling with enough time to turn and look at the guys and yell, “Are ya gonna catch me?!?!?!” (But with a few extra choice words thrown in for spice. Sorry, guys.) Scared and completely rattled, it felt like I’d fallen forever and so very far. Far is supposed to be bad, right?! Remembering to breathe I took a moment to shake it out. And in that moment the hard reality sunk in. I was actually fine. No scratches, no bruises even. Just fine. And maybe, just maybe, was I feeling a slight bit of enjoyment out of the shock, adrenaline, and fear of the fall? So doing what any misnamed rope gun would do, I got back on, and finished it. Yes, I was still a little shaky after I made it back to ground, but the new sensation of mild enjoyment and the renewed determination to finish what I’d set out to do was completely exhilarating.

Lightbulb #2: Discovering new sensations can be entirely thrilling. Take the time to do it more often.

Glow of sunrise on Rainier
This past Saturday I was determined to get to Camp Muir (remember my distraction from Darrington? yep.). The weather had been terrible and winter was starting to put out the welcome mat, but it was supposed to lighten up. With good motivation to get there along with the pure enjoyment from having a trail and all its beauty all to myself at 5am, I knew with the melted out trail, I'd be fine at least until Pebble Creek. Getting that far would be easy enough even if it was totally socked in and at that point, I could safely decide to keep going or head back to the car. 


Lucky for me the morning was gorgeous. The lower clouds broke up just as I hit Pan Point and I had the most gorgeous views for my hike up. The morning slowly wore on as I warmed up in the shelter and it became clear that the weather would turn that night to the point that climbs were being called off for safety. While shoveling snow (yes, I like shoveling snow – its therapeutic) the clouds began to roll in. I was told I should keep an eye out and be sure to head down before 3pm.

At 3pm, it didn’t look good. Not quite a white out, but bad visibility. And the snowfield had apparently opened up in a few places since I’d walked up that morning. And I was solo. And I'd given away most of my food. And I didn’t have a compass….


Pre-panic in the early hours of the morning
So many things running through my brain in an attempt to prove that going down was a terrible idea. Dang you FEAR! Back again, fingers on brain, squeeeeeeezing. And I was scared. Being reassured with a smile and a kiss and a confident “you’ll be fine, follow those people going down and stick with them” helped but didn’t make the lump in my throat subside.  As I headed down with a few tears in my eyes, I was reminded how terribly out of my element I felt. Fear, you are cruel.

I moved fast through the rain and the clouds wanting to stay with the party near me but the desire to be down immediately pushed me faster. And then the clouds lifted. Not enough to make the rain stop or reveal the peaks around me, but enough to see the trail below. Before I new it, I was at Pebble Creek, then Pan Point. It was beautiful! Even the marmots were out enjoying the day chomping on drippy, brushy green snacks. And I began to laugh. What was I so afraid of? I had nearly let the Fear take over what had been a wonderful day full of surprises that kept getting better than I’d expected. As I laughed at myself for being so silly with it, I realized, my experience also wouldn’t have been as real without it. The cold wouldn’t have felt so cold, the views once revealed wouldn’t have looked so rugged and beautiful. The time spent with others wouldn’t have seemed so precious and fun.  If I hadn’t had Fear as my company, would I have missed out on all these most important experiences?

No need to fear, even what cant be seen
I realize I’ve had it all wrong all along. Fear hasn’t been my foe, but a friend – there to keep my reality in check, to highlight to the wonderful things I experience.  To push me to try harder, expand my point of view and help me discover newness all around me. Maybe I even like this four letter word.

Lightbulb #3 Don’t pass over the pleasure of fear. Without it, challenging experiences wouldn’t feel so vibrant or real or inspire the hope to come out, unscathed, on the other side. 


My relationship with Fear may be more intimate than it should be – obviously I don’t know it all that well, so perhaps I should take the time to learn and get comfortable with it. And yes, Fear is a four letter word that often elicits the use of other four letter words. But it also is so often related to other so very valuable four letter words that without a little fear wouldn’t be quite so precious; hope, time, love, and cake.