Getting Scared pt. 2, ft. Screaming Toes

Five months and five days. I had counted. That was how long I went without rock climbing—the longest stint in my life. Man, it was good to be back.

I had a realization about a month ago that I was simply existing. It wasn’t inherently a bad thing, but it was perplexing. COVID had stripped me of so many passions: concert-going, brewery visits with friends, traveling, and most of all, climbing. And yet, I was numb. Shouldn’t I be more upset, given that these activities are what form my entire identity? Shouldn’t I lament their loss? Maybe I did, back when this began in March. But at that point, I really had just gotten used to feeling uninspired by my daily routine. And that frightened me.

Still, nothing about my situation changed. I knew at the very least, I could go climb, but I needed a COVID-friendly partner, and that I didn’t have. So I went on with my days, doing things—trail running, reading, watching Netflix—to fill what felt like infinite time, rather than doing them out of real enjoyment.

A month later, I had settled into a new apartment back in Colorado Springs with my good college friend Joe, and climbing seemed possible once more. Joe and I have climbed indoors and outdoors over the years, and he’s quite competent as a belayer and at managing rope systems in general. Though I was nervous to return to climbing, I figured, it’s like riding a bike. The safety skills will return naturally, and we didn’t have to do anything too difficult for our now weak arms.

“Do you want to go climbing Tuesday?”

 “Yes. Where were you thinking?”

I didn’t know where I was thinking. I wanted to stay relatively local. I wanted to do something easy. And I wanted to do single-pitch sport climbing—lead climbing, clipping into bolts, up one length of rope, and then coming back down. Also known as my comfort zone.

But before I could express this, Joe asked, “How would you feel about multi-pitch slab?”

“Terrible” was the honest answer. To start, slab climbing can be scary as hell. You’re climbing up a rock that is at an angle less than 90 degrees, which means you’re relying heavily on your calves and friction to stay on the wall. If your feet slip, you essentially cheese-grater down the rock a few feet. Unpleasant, to say the least. On top of the slab climbing, I hadn’t done any multi-pitch in three years, and never outside. I had attended a multi-pitch skills clinic at my college gym—with Joe, I think—and then never put those skills to use.

Joe was hyped on this multi-pitch climb he had done before—6 pitches, a 7th optional—about an hour and 20 minutes away from us, called “Time Stand Still.” He had mentioned this on the phone earlier in the month, and I just casually brushed it off, figuring I wouldn’t ever actually agree to climb it.

“I’d be really nervous to do that. I do not feel strong on multi-pitch, and six pitches is committing. Plus, I don’t know how strong I am right now. And I don’t even like multi-pitch; I don’t like being that high off the ground. It seems really ambitious.”

“All valid. If I can counter-argue…we can go over multi-pitch beforehand enough to make you feel confident to do it. If you do six pitches in a row, you’ll also be so solid on multi-pitch afterward, it won’t be so scary. And this climb is very chill. There’s maybe one vertical, tough move on the whole thing.”

I was being a wimp. He was right. When on earth would I get so much practice on multi-pitch, on a solid, easy climb, not too far away from home? I should just do it, damn it. So I agreed.

6:47 a.m., there’s knocking on my door. I’m feeling stressed, agitated, and groggy. Joe asks, “Are you up?” Bewildered, I realize I set my alarm for 7:00, not 6:30. We never really agreed on a time, though. We’re naturally early risers. In a flustered state, I apologized, threw on some clothes, and brushed my teeth. I was already a bungle of nerves about the climb, and Joe was doing nothing to ease my stress.

Me: “I can take my breakfast in the car if you want to get going.”

Joe: “Well if you can transport it, then yeah, let’s do that.”

Me: *starts quickly prepping oatmeal and coffee*

Joe: “I mean you can slow down and just eat here if you’d like.”

Me: *tries to calm down, sit, and eat oatmeal*

Joe: “But I’m ready to go.”

Me: *feels stressed to get out the door again*

Joe: “Well, actually, I need to brush my teeth.”

Me: *…*

Joe: “OK, now I’m ready. Oh, actually I need to use the bathroom.”

He apologized later for being so unclear about how rushed he was.

We hit the road and I was in a sort of stupor, shoveling oatmeal into my mouth and going over the multi-pitch steps in my head over and over. We reached the turn-off for the dirt road that we’d follow for 20 miles to the crag. I was astonished by how beautiful and seemingly remote the area was, having only driven 30 minutes from home. I vowed to return to the area to camp in late September, when the aspens would be turning.

At last we arrived at the pull-off to begin the scrubby approach to the crag. As we geared up at the car, I tried to maintain a level of calm. While I was worried about the systems, Joe was worried about the climbing—despite characterizing the route as “chill.” I didn’t worry about the climbing difficulty, but I couldn’t stop imagining a faceless TV reporter saying to the camera, “Rescuers in Woodland Park tried desperately to salvage the body of the 23-year-old girl and her 22-year-old roommate.” I was that afraid of somehow failing to properly rig the rope system.

After sufficiently scraping our arms and legs through the bushes to the rock face, I was ready to just get this over with. Once we located the start of the climb, I breathed a sigh of relief: the route was very well-bolted. I decided I would lead first, as that’s how I’d kept the steps straight in my head. And so, for the first time in five months and five days, I put on my helmet, harness, and rock shoes, tied a figure eight knot, and began to climb.

It was immediately evident why there were so many bolts on the first pitch. it was a freaking scary slab. My climbing head game gone, I desperately tried to remember the confidence I once had to step on pebble-sized foot holds and ascend. It seemed like there was just nothing to step nor hold onto. My calves were soon aching terribly, and I just became more afraid. I even dropped one of my quick draws on the second or third bolt, meaning we’d have to rescue it later. I kept trying to slow my breathing down and remind myself how safe I truly was, how attentive a belayer Joe is. I couldn’t place why I felt so afraid. Was I afraid of falling? Not really. So what was it?

“Joe, I’m really scared right now.”

“Joe, I’m not having any fun.”

“Joe, I don’t know if I can do five more pitches of this.”

I knew—knew—I could make it to the top of this pitch. And I was willing to practice multi-pitch to belay Joe to the top, too. But I was seriously not feeling this climb.

When I reached the ledge, I breathed an enormous sigh of relief,  ripped off my rock shoes (I had brought a very aggressive, down-turned pair, not really thinking how uncomfortable they’d become over the course of six pitches), and focused my attention on the nerve-wracking part: rigging the belay from above.

I had rehearsed the process so many times in my head, it came naturally, like Joe said it would. I established an anchor, clipped in, went off belay, hauled up the rope, and rigged the belay device. Now was the moment of truth: Joe would start climbing, and my system would either bring him up safely, or, if set up improperly, let him fall to the ground.

This all sounds rather dramatic. At the end of the day, there’s this much risk every time you climb, no matter the type of climbing. Maybe you tie into the rope incorrectly. Maybe your belayer takes their hand off the brake strand. Maybe (though incredibly rarely), the anchor bolts break. The possibility for failure is really infinite. The reason we can climb despite these risks is that we double, triple check everything and each other. We practice building and cleaning anchors over and over until we can do it in our sleep, and then we still pay full attention when building and cleaning them. The reason we don’t have to fear climbing is we can make it extremely safe.

To any seasoned climber reading this, they’d probably say I was blowing the nerves I had about multi-pitch out of proportion. As Joe said to me, “You’re not going to mess up, because you’re going to be so focused on setting the belay up properly. And you know intuitively what could be incorrect about your set-up, and know how to fix it.”

At the end of the day, you simply have to know the “why” behind every step. Why you make everything about your anchor redundant. Why you need the brake strand down, the climbing strand up. Why you need to be taken off belay. When you know why you’re taking these steps, they’re a no-brainer.

Obviously, I rigged the system just fine. Joe reached the top, commenting on how spicy the pitch had been, giving me props for leading it, acknowledging that the pitch probably was the most difficult of the six. Even though he asked me out of courtesy if I really wanted to head out, we both knew it would be incredibly dumb to leave at this point. We soldiered on.

It took us about three hours, when all was said and done. Joe was pretty impressed with us, as the last time he did it, it took far longer. With each pitch, I felt a little more secure with the process, but my toes and calves had taken a beating by the first pitch, and I quickly fatigued. By the last pitch, I was pretty sure I had mild altitude sickness, as I felt quite spacey, tired, and complacent. I told Joe, “I’m going to take a long time at the top of this to set up the belay, just so you know. When you’re tired, you make mistakes, and I don’t want to make a mistake.”

Thankfully, Joe never lost steam the entire time and was able to lead the second, fourth, and six pitches efficiently. I am eternally grateful for his support throughout; I also very much resented this choice in climb at times.

At the top, we had a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and valley below, and I felt so happy to put on my sneakers, I could have cried. I didn’t mind that we’d have to hike all the way to the bottom, nor that we’d have to hike to the base of the crag again to rescue my dropped quickdraw. I had done my first outdoor multi-pitch. I had done SIX pitches. And now, as Joe said, I felt incredibly confident in the multi-pitch process. I felt good.

In retrospect, would I have picked so ambitious a route to do after no climbing for five months and five days? Absolutely not. Am I glad I did it? Yes, definitely. But if I had it my way, it would have been three pitches, vertical instead of slab, my toes and calves wouldn’t have constantly screamed, and I wouldn’t have gotten altitude sick. But you can’t have everything.

I felt inspired to write about this experience because I still often need to remind myself how good it can be to get scared sometimes. While life can be downright scary during this pandemic—between falling severely ill from the virus, financially plummeting, falling into depression, etc.—it does not offer these types of risk as often. We’re mostly at home, just trying to stay healthy and support one another. I didn’t climb in large part during the pandemic because of the added dangers it presented. At a popular crag, you could certainly contract COVID from other climbers being in close proximity and using the same holds and gear. If you have an accident, you’re obligating Search and Rescue to possibly subject themselves to the virus in order to help you. And if you haven’t been quarantining with your partner, you could get COVID from them.

I get scared climbing all the time, but this was a new form of scared. As I said, on pitch one, I felt so afraid and couldn’t localize it. It’s important to recognize these moments and the irrationality behind them, because just as practice minimizes risk, so too does mindfulness minimize fear.

It’s been almost a week since I completed that climb with Joe, and I honestly can’t say when we’ll be out again. All I know is next time, I’m picking the route.

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Journey / Inspiration

September 29, 2020

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