If facing fears means climbing big rocks, then hand over the belay rope

EOE Mary COLOR.jpg
Courtesy Photo.

Sun slapped the side of the rock as my fingers clutched a jagged edge of the granite. Securely harnessed and receiving calm coaching from below, I could still feel my pulse increase, anxiety threatening to choke out my strength.

Heights make me nervous.

It’s hard to say how exactly I got into rock climbing. Maybe it was because the friend who suggested I try is someone I am constantly in competition with – I don’t like to be out-adventured. Maybe it was the lack of anything better to do one Wednesday afternoon when he invited me to the climbing gym for the first time, having put another weekly issue to print that morning.

Or maybe it was just a matter of time, a sick but inevitable twist of destiny, of my inner Batman refusing to be held back by fear.

So, last summer, I began indoor rock-climbing, facing my completely overwhelming, totally irrational fear of heights head on.

San Diego has some good indoor rock-climbing gyms, but if you really want a taste of adrenaline, my friend kept insisting, you have to go outside.

I wasn’t having it. I barely made it through the training session at the indoor facility – I wasn’t about to go outdoors where there was no padded cushion waiting to catch your fall.

In fact, I figured to myself as I hung up ten feet in the air, desperately grasping the green hand-holds of the gym wall, I’ll probably never do this again anyway. As long as I know I can face a proverbial bat in a dark alley, there is no point in making an entire Batcave out of the experience.

If you don’t believe that my fear of heights is real – and people who are not burdened by this phobia often don’t – consider that I once got stuck in a tree as an adult. Kids were climbing up to see the view and I wanted to join in. I got halfway up, stepped out mistakenly on a rotten branch that broke away beneath me, and realized – as I clung in terror to the trunk, immobile and panicking – I hadn’t figured out how to get back down.

That is the first rule of climbing anything, of course, as my dad was always quick to remind me. Going up is an attractive venture, but a wise person will always make sure there’s a way back to the ground. I’m still working on attaining that wisdom.

What surprised me about rock climbing, aside from how much of a workout it is, was the mental challenge of propelling myself up a wall. You have to plan ahead, picture how grabbing that handhold will allow you to find a foot grip somewhere else. It is like working a puzzle where your body is one of the pieces.

“Use your legs,” my friend would remind me from the soft padded floor of the gym. “You can’t pull yourself all the way up, you have to push with your legs.”

I’d reposition and try again.

“Breathe,” he’d remind me. “It’s okay to take a break. Let your body rest for a second.”

That was always a needed reminder. In everything, I push, push, push until I find I am burned out and falling fast – only, in life there is no harness to keep you from the consequences of a bad fall.

But even as I would cling to the side of the wall, trying to let my limbs rest, balanced between grips, I could tell I was still using precious energy. You can’t stay still forever. Eventually, you have to keep moving, and the only way on is forward.

But forward doesn’t necessarily mean “up.” So often, I’d find myself unable to reach the next foothold, or out of energy to push upwards, or knowing I didn’t have the skill to make the transition between grips in front of me. It’s incredibly frustrating and, when you’re high up and out of options, it’s easy to panic.



Look for another way out. There always is one.

“There’s a footing on your left,” my friend would coach from below. “Cross over with your other arm, that’s right.”

Slowly, thoughtfully, determinedly, we would find a way.

You can do that in life, too. We may not have harnesses, but most of us have friends who can coach us through with a perspective from the ground. We just need to swallow our pride, put down a little faith and listen.

So how did I end up hanging off the side of a cliff face in Mission Trails Regional Park? Simple, my friend asked me to.

At that point, I had been in rock climbing gyms for about a year, but there is nothing like stretching your body across the warm surface of a rock that has been baking in the sun all day, waiting for you to come and get to know it better.

To my left, I could see the canyon through which the trail led, laced with trees and bursting with wildflowers. But when I turned my head right, I saw the drop off. There was nothing beyond my shoulder but empty space. In the distance, Mission Gorge and the valley wound their way between the rise and fall of San Diego’s peculiar geography. Was that sky or ocean I was seeing out there?

My blood pressure spiked and I could hear myself beginning to hyperventilate. This was definitely not a gym.

“Breathe,” my friend reminded me from below. His voice was calm. He’d just done this route on the lead rope.

I took a steadying breath and scoped my surroundings. Slowly, I inched sideways.

Again and again, whenever I found myself unable to go up, I challenged myself to stop and rethink the situation. Again and again, I found a way forward.

Eventually, I made it to the top, forearms and calves aching, fingers feeling rough. But the world looked good from up there.

As my friend belayed me back to the ground, I soaked in the quietness of the canyon and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with overcoming something you once thought was impossible for you.

Finding the edge of my comfort zone and then crossing over it has been one of the best habits I have developed as an adult (except for keeping fishy crackers in my car for when I get stuck in traffic and I’m hungry).

In so many ways, rock climbing embodies that challenge – for me personally it has pushed me high up and far out, but for everyone I think it encourages the practice of stopping to reassess and then to press on again.

Not everyone’s limits are the same, but if this editor could encourage our readers to do anything this summer, it would be to find yours.

When you do put them behind you, the view will be unbeatable.