Climb on.

 

Don't bother asking me when I'll actually climb outdoors. Most days, I'm still working on getting myself to the gym.

 

I have a gym membership, but I don’t use it as often as I’d like. I seem to have found two great groups to join — a team of climbers who like to climb in the morning and a team that climbs in the evening, but I rarely get to the gym out of total insecurity.

Stupid, I know. Everyone has to start somewhere, right? But when you’re a rookie who pants at the top of a 5.6 (easy-to-medium difficulty) and your climbing buddy for the day is flying up a 5.11 (very hard), you feel a bit like a joke. Or at least, I do.

A couple of years ago, a careless mistake in a climbing gym (my mistake, no less) led to an accident — a 12-foot fall to the ground. I wasn’t properly clipped in and I fell hard. The fall knocked the wind out of me and left me with a couple of ripped fingers (I tried to grab the rope on the way down) and a twisted ankle. But mostly, it just left me shaken up. In a split second, my security was gone.

It’s the kind of thing that you just can’t even believe happened — frustrated with a route I was attempting to master, I unclipped myself to reevaluate my method. I stood back, worked out a new plan, and then went back to climb. I didn’t look. I didn’t see. I didn’t comprehend that my safety was at risk — that I had not properly clipped in and if I fell, nothing would stop me from plummeting to the crash-pad flooring, which is exactly what happened.

I picked myself up off the ground, gingerly put some weight on my hurt ankle to assess how badly I’d messed up and glanced at my fingers whose skin was opened up from the friction of the nylon rope. I caught my breath, got a sip of water and walked into the locker room, where I sat on the bench to process what had just happened.

And then, without even really thinking, I left the gym and I didn’t come back for over a week.

More than anything the experience was humbling — I saw just how quickly, easily my mistakes could take a fun experience and turn it into something that transformed me into a bundle of nerves. But my biggest mistake after the fall wasn’t that I beat myself up mentally (though I’m sure that didn’t help), it was that I didn’t immediately get back on the climbing wall.

When I did, I clipped myself into the auto-belay, took a deep breath and nervously grabbed the handhold. Then another. And another. My feet were probably 3 feet off of the ground — I’ve hopped off of counters higher than that. But I couldn’t shake the need to check my harness every .4 seconds. Clipped in? Good. Grab a hold. Clipped in? Good. Grab the next hold. But as I glanced down, I could actually feel the blood leaving my face. And then I put my foot on one hold lower, another hold lower, until I could step back down onto the ground. I was done after climbing 4 feet.

I tried climbing one more time that summer before deciding that I needed a break. My (relatively) fearless self became paralyzed by nerves and apprehension. Almost two years later, I joined a climbing gym in San Jose (actually, it’s in Sunnyvale, but whatever). I signed up determined to conquer whatever lingering fear was there — I’d been away from it for almost 2 years . . . that’s enough time to suck it up, right?

Well, I’m not there yet. I’m still incredibly nervous when I start climbing over my belay partner’s head. I still check my harness with almost every step up. And I still grip those handholds like my life depended on it — because when you’re climbing a 50-foot wall and you’ve had an accident before, you’re acutely aware that at such a greater height, your life could be dependent upon it (not to sound all dramatic, but it’s pretty true).

But in spite of all of my nerves and apprehension, I still love doing it. It exhilarates me and leaves me so proud of the accomplishment, even if it’s a lower-grade route.

For me, climbing has become more metaphorical than just a fun exercise, which is what it started off as. I started climbing when a dear, sweet friend‘s enthusiasm for the sport sparked a curiosity, an interest and eventually lit a flame for a new hobby I wanted to pursue.

Now, I’m learning how to fall back in love with the sport one foothold at a time as I’m working through releasing the fear and anxiety that come with climbing higher and higher. I guess the moral of the story is “Please don’t ever think you’re infallable . . . because you’re really not” “Always check. Always be careful. They don’t warn you about this stuff for no reason — especially when you’re taking on a hobby where safety truly matters.” (And the secondary moral would be, “Please bear with me — I’m still learning!”)

And I’ll get there — the grace of my climbing buddies and my determination to kick that anxiety to the curb will really help, I’m sure.

(And if you ever see me at the gym, hugs are always appreciated — they’re heart-healthy and have nerve-calming properties.)

Climbing? Climb on.

P.S. On a completely UNrelated topic . . . I came home to find one of my fish eating the other fish. I have a cannabal fish and I do not know how to process this (aside from being a bit grossed/freaked out.)

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7 responses to “Climb on.

  1. It’s so easy for an accident to make one a little gun-shy. With the auto-belayer, you had no partner to double check you. That’s why climbing with another person – regardless of grade difference – is not only more fun, but far safer.

    You check yourself, and they check you, too.

    Then, climb on. If you’re not sure you’re clipped in, think back on how you checked yourself and they checked you and trust in your checks.

    Granted, I still check myself from time to time, often without thinking about it, and sometimes at the very top of a long route.

    The best way through is climbing more and more and more and rebuilding the good, confident memories.

    As for the grades, one of the best parts about climbing in the gym with friends is that your partner can be light years ahead of or behind you and it doesn’t matter – you each climb what’s right for you and the belaying is the same.

    Now with that being said, you coming to Planet Granite tomorrow morning to climb with us? 🙂

  2. That’s a big [scary] thing to overcome… sounds like you’re working through it slowly, which is probably best. Good luck with your future climbing adventures — hopefully none as scary as the previous! XO

  3. I just blogged about the whole scarededyness + climbing conundrum. You’re not alone, honeybear. I’ve taken an autobelay fall, too…and while I can still climb using them, it’s not the same after that. I’ve had many a chat with other staffers and gym climbers and the verdict is pretty solid. It is almost a guarantee that it will happen to you, you just have to do your best to not let it, and when it does, hope that you don’t get hurt, and learn.
    Climbing is a great equalizer. The rock doesn’t change. If we’re in a gym, the holds might, but the character of the wall or the rock is the same all the time. It’s us, what we bring to it, what we expect from it, what we learn…I think that’s where it’s at. 🙂

  4. Wait, wait, it’s a guarantee that you’ll fall (meaning the system will malfunction) if you climb using an autobelay? (Maybe that’s why my gym took them out.)

    Maybe you shouldn’t use them then! Seriously! If you’re climbing with a partner on TR and actually check each other before leaving the ground, the system works pretty nearly 100% of the time.

    • It’s almost a guarantee that you’ll fall someday, due to user error. They remove the partnership that comes with checking each other before climbing, and even the most diligent climber on a distracted day is liable to forget to clip in. Machine errors are almost nil…user error is where the system fails.

      I use them when I’m sans partner or looking to do laps mostly, fully aware that I assume liability for myself to check and double check. I won’t likely stop using them anytime soon…but I won’t necessarily advocate for them either.

  5. I completely understand leaving the gym and not coming back for a while, I’d be nervous too. Kudos for getting back on the wall!

    Regarding auto belays, the ones in a local gym here were removed, I believe it was related to the recall: http://climbingnarc.com/2009/12/msa-redpoint-descender-auto-belay-discontinued-indefinitely/

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