My first experience with rock climbing was all the way back in middle school. I had gone to an indoor rock-climbing gym for a friend’s birthday party. I don’t remember the day too well (it was twenty years ago, after all), but the climbing itself still stands out in my memory.
I tried climbing three or four times that day. Every time, I’d get paralyzed with fear as soon as I got about ten feet up the wall. Despite encouragement from my friends, I’d end up needing to be lowered down each time. I kept trying, hoping that I could push past my fear and reach the top, but I never did.
I didn’t think much about rock climbing after that until over a decade later when Youtube came around. I don’t know how or why, but I discovered the massive cache of rock climbing videos on Youtube and was completely enthralled by them.
Watching the top climbers in the world stretch from hold to hold was inspiring. Something about climbing looked incredibly satisfying to me. In my eyes, climbing had a perfectly coordinated beauty to it.
Part of me wanted so badly to try it for myself, but another part of me allowed my fears to get in the way.
A Life Governed By Fear
Okay, that subtitle may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I’ve always felt like my phobias have gotten in the way of me doing what I want to do.
In the years after my rock-climbing attempt in middle school, my fear of heights had actually gotten even worse. Looking out the windows of tall buildings triggered it. Driving over bridges triggered it. Even going up two or three rungs on a ladder was enough to make my palms sweat.
At the same time, I was also developing social anxiety. I had the most trouble in crowds, but going to stores and interacting with cashiers made me nervous as well.
As much as I wanted to try rock climbing, these two big fears held me back. I assumed that I would never be able to climb more than a couple feet of the ground, and I also worried about even being able to get myself into a crowded gym.
When I learned about bouldering, I thought it might at least solve one of these problems. Bouldering is a type of rock climbing done relatively low to the ground. It’s traditionally done outside on real boulders, but it’s been increasing in popularity in indoor gyms as well.
No ropes are used in bouldering, and instead, the ground is lined with padded mats for protection. You’ll fall a lot, but not a huge distance.
Even with bouldering, you end up climbing walls that can range 15–20 feet high. I knew that this would still be high enough to trigger my fear of heights, but not as badly as top-rope climbing.
My First Day Bouldering
I went back and forth on whether to try bouldering for over a year. That whole time, I kept watching rock climbing videos online, with part of me really wanting to try it.
Last year, I finally decided that enough was enough. I had been doing a lot all year to try to push my comfort zone, and I figured that it was time to give bouldering a try too.
I found a local indoor gym that was dedicated to just bouldering, without any of the higher walls for top-rope climbing.
At that point, my social anxiety was holding me back more than my fear of heights. I ended up using a feature on Google Maps that showed when the gym had the most visitors, and when it had the least. I chose the least popular day and went on the least popular hour.
I was relieved when I got there and saw that only two other people were in the entire gym. The anxiety subsided and the fear of heights started to come back.
On my first attempt, I grabbed the holds of a V0 (the easiest bouldering routes) and climbed up a few feet. I looked down and already felt like I was too high. On the next hold, I pretended to slip and jumped down the couple feet to the floor.
I felt embarrassed and knew that I really didn’t want to go home without reaching the top at least once. The gym’s walls only went up 16 feet, so I knew that even at the top, my feet would only be about 10 feet above the ground.
I tried to just stop thinking. I shut my brain down as best I could, and grabbed the holds, climbing as fast as I could before I could change my mind. To my surprise and delight, I reached the top on that very try.
It was every bit as satisfying as I had imagined it would be. Maybe even more so. Feeling my hands grasp around that final hold felt so perfect at that moment.
I kept climbing that day, and every single time was absolutely terrifying, but I reached the top of several other routes. I stayed at it for a couple hours, until my arms were so sore that I thought they were going to fall off.
I started going to the bouldering gym fairly regularly after that, although I’ve still stuck with the least popular times of the day. Through bouldering, I’ve discovered a few surprising things about my fear of heights:
- Exposure to bouldering has reduced my fear, but definitely not eliminated it. The first few feet no longer scare me at all, but the top of the wall almost always does.
- The severity of my fear varies from day to day, and I normally can’t predict how I’ll feel until I actually get on the wall. Some days it’s very minor, other days I can’t bring myself to get to the top at all.
- Even when I am terrified, I’ve gotten better at “shutting down” my brain and pushing through it. My ability to do this varies from day to day as well.
I think my fear of heights (and my social anxiety) are both still very much works in progress. I’m going to continue to try to improve them, and I hope to push myself into other types of rock climbing.
In 2019, I’d like to move from just doing indoor bouldering to doing outdoor bouldering as well. I’d also like to try doing top-rope climbing, and see if I can really push myself to “new heights.”