Subliminal Subluminal – Tackling Fear

I remember hearing Paulines scream like a physical pain, white raw as she watched Alan disappear down the vertical edge of the path with their son Jonathan on his shoulders.

It is strange for two reasons. It was so long ago I was making stupid faces at Jonathans 18 month old daughter this weekend and also, at the time,  I was about 10 feet further around the path than Pauline and could see that Alan dropped a smooth 10 feet down to a curve in the path further along. Unnerving, painful, but perfectly safe.

The safety, and hindsight, are irrelevant. The memory still makes me shudder. Fear is overwhelming.

I developed anxiety and fear of others being at risk at quite a young age, I don’t exactly remember when and it certainly developed as I grew older. Not helped by being ‘the clumsy child’, to the point of being nervous walking across a cattle grid.

Two years ago I trembled my way up a steep staircase cut into the Wye Valley, my own anxiety exaserbated by concern for my blind collie who was struggling with steps but not, obviously, the steep drop and would have probably found it easier without me!

One year ago I was scrambling down the same valley side, completely off-piste, trad rack janking like an overdressed mountain goat, looking for a curve of rock to climb.

One year of climbing – this is what it does…

And a lot of other changes in my life as well but still, from shaking my way up my first lead climb to being close to tears trying keep up with Roly as he bounced his way down the really quite safe path to Blacknor South, Portland. It has been small steps to finding my strength. Small, but fast, and frequent. I’ve scrambled across the scree at the base of a Glacier on the Marmolada, sat in a hanging belay over the valley of Sa Gubia, slipped and skittered along slab edges at El Chorro, walked home in the dark and fog from Froggat Edge. The strength I got from climbing, the ability to analyse fear and recognise the difference between actual risk and irrational nerves, got me to temples in Myanmar and is why, for the second time, I have no idea what I will be doing in September.

It has to be said that I am really quite physically strong (I can be so much stronger), my endurance is very good (it can get better), my techniques are improving (ish, manipulating position of centre of mass is a work in progress). Yet these skills are not reflected in what I am able to climb.

And that appears to be pretty much about head game.

I am a world away from where I was, but my brain is holding me back. We’re not talking ability to assess risk here, we’re talking chemicals. It’s most obvious when bouldering / leading – it’s the last (highest) move, or pulling out slack rope to clip, where I falter. I know I need to work on this, and I thought I had been.

Last Sunday in Subluminal I had the biggest back step I have had in such a long time.

We abseiled in slightly away from the routes we wanted to climb (it was busy, there was an ab route set up, it saved time – lol), the guidebook says ‘walk round the ledge’. It fails to mention jumping the gaps. I hadn’t abseiled smoothly as I was using an extended belay and just getting used to it, this was fine but made me a little shaky. The first gap to step across I got across but in hindsight I was already letting concern get the better of me. I was not going across the next gap without a belay and when I looked back my brain could not comprehend getting back across the gap I’d just stepped over. By the time we had the belay set up I was a wreck. You had to step off the ledge, a few inches down the gap, then step across to part way up the gap. It was fine, the belay was not ‘necessary’ but sensible (it didn’t take long to set up – why take a risk if you don’t need to)…. I was so scared I was having to turn my head to get full vision, Roly had to tell me to move my feet.

Climbing was then obviously a mess.

When I looked at the route I was meant to be leading I couldn’t even comprehend getting on the wall. Ben led and I followed. I got completely pumped out, my wrists freezing up and I couldn’t get my feet to stay on the rock. The route was a severe (I have seconded Roly on E1), I was on top rope (rope is above you and you can literally sit down if you need to), and it was 10m high (I climbed up, and down a harder route on the wall 3 days earlier – 14 times).

I took a break

Did some photography

Relaxed in the sun

Lead a lovely easy climb (diff – Highstreet, gorgeous climbing, don’t miss it)

Seconded a Severe climb Ben led and realised it was just fine…

And it was time to go home.

It was still a fabulous day, there was more interest / comedy fun in Roly accidentally starting an E2 rather than a VS (leave the boys alone for 3 minutes…) than my little melt down.

But… my fear was overwhelming and that’s potentially dangerous. That’s not about seeing and analysing risk (it was sensible to put up a belay and both boys used it to cross over), but a fear that becomes the ruling factor can stop you being able to accurately assess, make judgements or even move properly.

So I’m really going to work on this. Properly. With research and everything. And that’s a little bit of a problem because most of the people that most of the people are interested in are really rather good.

Obviously I’m not a pro-climber, or a semipro climber or even a particularly good climber

You know, the ones who say ‘oh yes I feel the fear’ and we’re so impressed.. but we don’t really believe they feel the fear. Not really. Not like we do.

So I’m going to look into this, obviously a lot of the techniques suggested are still relevant and I already use a number. But I’m going to try and keep a record and track progress and maybe it will be useful to somebody else.. I’ll try to do this regularly and shove it in between the adventuring posts (if I can work out my tagging / categories correctly hopefully this wont’ get confusing!) I’ll complete a post of the plan in a few days, but if you also have suggestions / advice – I’m building up a list.

Fear is not the enemy. Fear can be the voice of reason and truth. Someone once said ‘the only people who tell you the truth are children, or drunk’. So I just need to be able to spot when fear has been cracking open the whiskey, or is trying to persuade me that the large rock is a dragon – I think I’ll be on to a winner.

0 thoughts on “Subliminal Subluminal – Tackling Fear

  1. It’s so refreshing reading this Jenny. I had a freak out at Portland 4 years ago on my first trip away. 4 years later and I did the same walk, only this time it was even worse. The first time I was doing it blind so to speak, not knowing what lay ahead. The second time, I knew what lay ahead.
    I completely froze and ended up having to be lowered on a rope to near the fallen slab. This then led to another adventure of tackling the rocks at the bottom to get to the slab.
    It freaked me out so much that I thought I’m just not cut our for climbing 🙁
    Reading your blog makes me feel comfortable knowing I’m not the only one who has to deal with this and I understand your fear. Yet you carry on 🙂 That’s an inspiration, so thank you 🙂

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