I hate heights. I hate heights so much that I have gone into panic attacks over crossing bridges, was medically excused from all activities involving heights in the military (mostly because I would tremble till I fell off the height obstacle), and looking at photos of those terrifying death hiking trails makes my palms sweat immediately. I hate heights so much that I have nightmares involving getting through staircases that have no railings, that require me to jump from step to step, that require moderate amounts of balance to navigate that I simply do not have because I hate heights till my entire body shakes and I cannot control it. I hate heights so much that it rather surprised me that I turned up at that first rock climbing training, one year ago; and it still surprises me that I love climbing.
This is, of course, the turn of phrase that is supposed to catch you and hook you in, and which traditionally is supposed to be an “ah-hah! He’s going to talk to me about conquering his fears now, because #college!” Unfortunately, no. I didn’t join rock climbing to #conquermyfears or anything quite as sophisticated; it was mostly a mixture of laziness, because, you know, a full body workout means I don’t need to spend as much time in the gym, and vanity, because, you know, six packs are nice. (the six packs, while kind-of present last year, are now desperately in the midst of being resuscitated) And so I found myself staring at a bouldering wall, one year ago, wondering what I had gotten myself into.
The thing about climbing, though, is that it hooks you in, if only because you know you can always fall; because as much as reaching the top is scary as hell those first few times, knowing, and actually dropping onto a crash pad safely, teaches you not to fear that height. And as you get better at it, as I got better at controlling my body and balance, knowing you can always hold your position, or down climb, completely in control, turns that height into a variable that no longer controls you. And when you’re on the wall, the only thing you’re thinking about is the wall, and nothing else; partially because if you weren’t, you would be falling, but also because it becomes a physical puzzle: how can I move through this, knowing what my body can and cannot do? Climbing was scary as hell in those first few weeks, but it quickly became something I looked forward to, a way to get my mind off homework and classes and just focus on moving.
Even with that, I still hate heights; slightly less, but definitely still was not able to get more than a few feet across the Golden Gate Bridge before I headed back to the Presidio, which was a lot more comforting with its masses of soil rather than empty air leading to the sea in which I could die. I hate top-roping, if only because there’s a certain height where my body fails me and I can’t do moves I would be able to do while bouldering. As much as rock climbing was the biggest test of my fear I ever chose to take on, running head on didn’t result in overcoming fear as much as it only dented it partially.
But, isn’t that why we do crazy things? There are many glory stories about people confronting their fears head on, about people becoming crazy confident in situations that would have previously freaked them out; but I think there’s a certain quiet glory too, in knowing that even as you cannot overcome fear, you get better at negotiating with it. That as much as I hesitate before taking each step upwards, to the highest points in each city I visit, bouldering has taught me to make that step and keep my balance; that when a wave of fear hits while going down, watching all the ways I can fall, the knowledge that if you can up-climb, you can down-climb, pushes me on. We do crazy things sometimes to test our limits, but we don’t always need to break them; sometimes we only manage to shift them, but it gives us so much more knowledge of ourselves, and what are our true limits. I think that’s good enough; to just get that bit further, just from running straight at what scares you.
Also, the six packs were nice.