*Editors note: This is a guest contribution from Tyler Scheer. Tyler has a degree in English and specializes in creative writing. He has been climbing for 3 years and got his start at the University of Nebraska climbing wall.
The human body is amazing. It’s a complicated system of bones and tissue, with little wires running through all of it, controlling how it moves and orienting it in space. Right now, the fingers of my right hand are sunk into a sidepull. These fingers, little bones wrapped in skin, are attached to muscles swimming in lactic acid. Nerves running from my brain, branching off to my shoulders, past the elbow, and down to my forearm tell those muscles to contract, pulling on tendons, bending my fingers to help support my weight. Those same nerves send signals back. I’m pumped. The next bolt is close. There’s an electric buzz sending static from my subconscious, overriding the desire in my muscles to let go. This is my first lead climb and the buzz screams at me to get there. The bolt. Get to the bolt.
Every climber knows that voice, that insistent primal thing that comes from somewhere below conscious thought. It’s the brain’s attempt to shove survival to the forefront. That static arrives with the perception of danger. It’s instinct, and right now it’s blotting out everything else. Time is skewed, my thoughts are muddled, there’s no room for them. That giant foothold to the right doesn’t show up. It doesn’t register that if I lean towards the bolt, my handhold becomes useless. I’m not panicked. I’m not even really scared. I’m just stuck in a tunnel of focus. The bolt floats huge in my perception. It’s close. The bolt. Get to the bolt. The bolt is safety.
I lean, my hand slips off the hold, and I’m airborne.
The roller coaster stomach drop is a new sensation. So is the scrape of my shoes on the rock, and the sound of my ankle breaking. It sounds like cracking a knuckle, only with some bass. More of a “thock” sound than a “pop.” I don’t know how long the fall is. It’s long enough for me to register that the feeling in my ankle is not normal before I come to a stop.
The rope comes taut, and I look to my feet. There’s an odd bulge on my left ankle. I roll my foot. Something grinds. I tell Adam that I need to come down, and hear him curse under his breath. He’s worried. As I lower, the mass of electricity in my head is busy rewiring itself. It has learned something new. Falling is bad. Falling means you’re hurt. That gibbering static animal voice is paying attention.
When I fell, my toe caught a ledge less than a couple inches deep. The force of my foot pulling sideways out of alignment pushed my talus bone against the base of my tibia hard enough to lever off the medial malleolus (the bone that bulges out from the inside of the ankle). Think of opening a bottle with a lighter, only less cool.
We are at Shelf Road, Colorado, at Cactus Cliff, on a route called The Raven, March of 2007. Adam, Ron, Justin, Eli, and Matt all help carry me down the cliff, as the path is too narrow to go two abreast, and I can’t put weight on my left leg. Kate and Tommy run to the Bank campground to pick up their Jeep and drive me to Cañon City’s hospital.
A week later I am the proud owner of two brand new titanium screws and a reassembled ankle.
Fast-forward a couple years. I’ve finished rehabbing the leg, picked up climbing as soon as the doctor gave me the okay, and while still limited in range of motion, can do almost everything pain free. I hike without worrying about rolling my ankle. I run and feel strong. Climbing makes me nervous.
Here I am, back sport climbing at Shelf Road, on some 5.10, with a bolt at my feet, a clean fall below me, and a move well below my limit, but the static of that voice washes over that information, drowning it in the hardwired experience that a fall means injury or worse. I freeze, talking myself down, slowing the voice, the energy draining fast from my hands. I’m too tired to reverse moves to the last bolt. I’ve sat too long, watching myself choke under slight pressure until I’m too tired to pull the move. I lunge for the draw, grab it, and clip. I’m a little embarrassed, and I feel frustration bubbling up from deep down.
My brother is unbreakable under pressure, and we share the same blood. I have a friend who climbed through cancer. Another is training for an Ironman Triathlon after a near-fatal car accident and the resulting surgeries to give her metal hips and legs on which to run. An injury this minor wouldn’t slow any of them. This is going to change.
I go to the Boulder Rock Club, and set a new rule. If I can’t lead it, I can’t climb it.
Another year passes, I’ve taken up trad climbing and the summer is upon us. I’m at the crux of the first pitch of Practice Climb 101, a thin corner in Eldo with thinner gear. I have a small cam ten feet below me. It’s good. I’m placing another small cam into a tiny slot right in front of my face. My feet are out wide, pasted onto small edges on either side of the dihedral. I can see the cam, a red C3. I wish the slot was a little deeper, but the placement is otherwise textbook. I extend the sling. This piece can’t torque itself out of position. If it does, and it pops in a fall from above, I could hit a nasty ledge. My next pro is past the crux, which starts as soon as I pull my feet off their last good edges to paste against the wall. It’s a one-move lieback with smeared feet, and a few fingertips shoved into the top of the same slot that houses the C3 I just placed. I’m aiming for a series of slopers of unknown quality. This is as committing as it gets at my ability level.
I’m still afraid of falling, but this is exciting, not paralyzing. I latch the first sloper and bump to the next above. It’s worse. I’m locked off on a bad left hand, feet smearing on very little, and I move the right back down. I can feel my heart thundering along. The static buzzes louder. I push it back – I’ve been on harder routes with worse gear, I can do this. I know that my right hand will hold. I let go of my left, and focus on keeping my feet on the wall. I reach above with my left hand, and start to slip. I bump it, moving up. I don’t want to fall. That cam looks pretty tiny once you get a little above it. I keep moving. One more hand. A foot. Another hand. A jug. Thank god, a jug. Another couple of moves into a stance, and a bomber cam. I’ve just onsighted an Eldo 5.11 completely on gear, a first for me and I’m stoked. I’m proud as I watch Ian and Adam, both stronger climbers than me, climb the pitch on a rope I put up.
I am still improving my mental game, but I’ve come a long way. I’ve had to work hard, and develop some conscious strategies to get to the point where I can shut down that tangle of nerves that attacks when I’m scared on a route. I’m not an expert in fear, nor in dealing with it, but here’s a little of what has helped me so far:
1) Experience is everything. Before having the confidence to hop on an Eldo 5.11 sight unseen, I climbed a number of routes that were challenging for me, in ever increasing difficulty and seriousness. At the end of this article is a list of climbs that helped me build a base from which I could push the grades a bit in Eldo. The more I climb, the more tools I have available, and the less fear I have of getting stumped far above my last gear. I also pay attention to better climbers. You can make others’ experiences your own.
2) Don’t be afraid to push it, but do it safely. Failing shows me my limits. If I don’t know these limits, both mental and physical, I’ll never improve their boundaries.
3) Fitness is important. I am uncomfortable when leading harder routes while out of shape. If I’m fit, I have the options of reversing moves and taking my time, as well as the ability to hang on for strenuous clips and difficult sequences. When I’m out of shape, I feel fine right up until the moment I’m too tired to hold on, and that makes me nervous. I want to have a good understanding of when I will pump out.
4) Have a checklist. I have a list I run through my head when I’m intimidated on route. How’s my gear? Is a potential fall clean? Could I take a bad swing? Is my belayer paying attention or staring slack-jawed into the distance? Is the rope in the right spot, or could it get behind my leg? Etc. If I can check off down the line, then I can commit to making the moves ahead of me, and put that fear away. If not, then I do what I can to minimize those dangers, and move ahead. If the dangers are too great, then backing off is an option. Better to swallow some pride than end up hurt.
5) Find a mentor. I am very lucky – Adam has climbed a ton of routes, and is a great resource for helping me find lines that push me safely. He has a good handle on my ability level, and is kind enough to drag me up routes that are too hard for me. He also is willing to take time to discuss placements, and the general art of trad climbing. Invaluable.
This is a non-exhaustive list of climbs that are varied in style. They taught me a lot about movement and gear placement in Eldo, and helped me push into more difficult terrain. A similar list could easily be developed for almost any climbing area.
Duh Dihedral 5.6, Trickier than it looks, but plenty of placement opportunities in a variety of features.
Mesca-Line 5.7+, Anytime you see a plus sign on a route in Eldo, you know you’re in for it. This has a tricky crux, but is very fun, and good practice with nut placements.
Gambit 5.8, Great practice, good gear, gorgeous line. Know your multi-pitch systems. Wear a helmet.
Gonzo 5.8, This two pitch line looks terrifying, but is great fun, with mellow moves and perfect gear throughout.
V3 5.8, If you’re feeling comfortable at the grade, bring some doubles and tackle this long, fun pitch.
Positively Fourth Street 5.9 or 5.8, Good gear, short, fun. Go left when it gets tricky to keep it 5.8, or go straight up if you’re feeling good. In other words, go straight up.
White Lightning 5.10a, Good gear, bring everything from micro cams to BD #3’s. Fun cracks from fingertips to fists. You can toprope R-rated Terminal Velocity (5.11b) from the anchors, or lead it onsight, if you’re Adam, in which case this list is useless for you.
Blind Faith 5.10a, Ultra classic. Great gear at the cruxes, really fun.
Darkness ‘Til Dawn pitch 1 5.10a, A little steeper than anything yet on the list, this pitch has every type of rock climbing you can think of. Good gear, long, really fun. Bring a 70m, and be careful when lowering.
Xanadu 5.10a, Sustained, tricky, and committing gear. This was spectacular, but be ready for some runouts on easier terrain down low, then thin gear at the longish, but not too pumpy crux.