Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I Am Scared of Heights

I've said many times this summer to my friends and climbing partners that I am scared of heights. That is really a huge oversimplification. The issue demands a somewhat complicated explanation.

I could die climbing. It could be in the mountains at a remote location or a a 40 foot high cliff next to a paved road. The thing is I don't want to die climbing.

I went through a phase a few years ago where I saw death as a result of my mountaineering as inevitable. I thought that there would eventually be a day when something happened and I died. I still climbed safe. I thought that my fatal fate would be something out of my control. I guess it is the syndrome where everyone looks at the other people and thinks that bad things only happen to other people, not them. (Like with unemployment...)

Anyway, the significant turning point for me was probably taking a 40+ foot factor two aid climbing fall. I pulled two pieces of protection out of the rock and was stopped only a few feet short of a ledge that would have surely broken me.

During that time I decided that I really did not want to take falls like that. It was not fun. It hurt. I did not want to die at age 28 climbing a mountain. (I was only 22 at the time.) However, emerging on the other side of that phase of my climbing life I have a new respect for heights. Also, a new appreciation for injury and death. That is to say, I do not want to die, but it is a possibility. I take all sorts of precautions to minimize the chance of a dangerous incident. I use ropes. I wear a helmet. I place pretty good protection.

Colin Haley is featured in some new videos on the Patagonia website and he talks in Part 2 about being scared. There is a video of Alex Honnold getting scared on Halfdome, although it is in another language. A similar video of him free soloing Moonlight Buttress is interesting. It affects us all. To say that you are truly not scared of heights is crazy. My theory is that if you are not scared of heights you are not scared of death and as a climber you will inevitably jump off a cliff. That being said, fear manifests itself very differently in me at heights than others. I like heights. They are thrilling.

For example, in the video of Josh and I rappelling off of the diamond, still hundreds of feet in the air at a fixed anchor with tattered slings, there was hardly any fear in me. Rappelling, especially in an alpine setting off of fixed slings, is one of the most dangerous things in the world of mountaineering. It is nerve racking, especially on a six millimeter rope. It is scary. Yet I've been in that situation so many times that I am very comfortable with it.

Another example of me being comfortable with heights was teaching my friend Andrew big wall climbing. Watching him explain what happened is really the best.

Good huh?

So while I am quite scared of heights, I enjoy heights much better than most.

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