Climbing is frightening. That’s part of the point. Breaking through a fear barrier, physical or mental, brings a euphoria that would take you months of running to approximate (I’m estimating, there; I’ve still never had running euphoria). In the general run of things, it’s hard to scare yourself, without incurring life-threatening risks. So climbing is a simulation exercise, really, in going to the brink. It cuts both ways: either you get the rush of a challenge met with adequate confidence and skill, or you get too scared and end up clinging, sweaty-palmed, to a wall, slightly too high up to leap off, too jessie to look down, trying to feel your way to safety with blind and jittery feet.
Bouldering on an indoor wall doesn’t let you go that high. Holds that involve more dynamic moves – effectively leaping from one to another, with a split second of “holy-shit” in the middle – tend not to be at the very top of the wall. But actually, your body doesn’t listen to reason: I can get scared when I’m two feet from the ground, a height where falling off on to the padded crashmat flooring would be no more consequential than jumping into bed in a lively fashion. I can also get scared when I’m on a totally secure hold at the top of a wall, nothing but a blank brain and a thumping heart. I can get scared on a novice route (or “problem”), or on one I’ve done five times before. Obviously it’s not a competition, but your mind can do things to your body, liquefy it in a way that no muscle in the world could withstand. But remember: you don’t want never to be scared or you’ll never get your mojo.
Stuart Amory has trained people in both the things that scare us the most: swimming, and heights (specifically, in his case, parachute jumping for the military). In the water, the fear can seem wholly reasonable; people who can’t swim, drown. Before you can work on technique, he says, you have to discover your natural buoyancy. You will never trust this from anyone else; you have to see for yourself how much your body doesn’t want to sink. Lie on your back in the shallow end and take a deep breath: your full lungs will help you float.
Heights are more complicated, even Amory says he found his fear building rather than retreating the more parachute jumps he did. Then you berate yourself because you’re suddenly afraid of something you’ve done before. His answer (in precis, because it was too rude to print verbatim) is to think of a person you hate who you know has done the very thing you’re scared of. If they can do it, you can.
Finally, you can get ahead of your fear, by constructing whatever it is as a challenge, which directs the focus of your mind differently. “I always point to my clients,” Amory said. “Point to their bodies and say, ‘What is that capable of? What’s the most it could do?’” To find out the answer is the challenge in itself.
What I learned
If like me, you’re most scared of developing an injury, make sure you always warm up properly.