vertigo2-8416-2(As always, click on the image, sit with it for a while.  It has a lot more value if you do that.)


I am a firm believer in the rather idiomatic expression that you should seek out and do things that scare you.  Not because I am an adrenaline junky, or because I like being scared, but because I think it is a fundamental portion of pushing (and often maintaining) skills.  This is part of my larger stance on antifragility (as defined by Nassim Taleb), which means that one has to be careful in finding the appropriate dosage.  In the mountains it is very easy to quickly overstep the line that separates the evolution of ability and find oneself in the realm of stupidity.  The thing I am ruminating on right now is how we (as people looking to get better at skills involving spaces that can kill us) should best go about determining where that line is.  After all, the growth comes, not from being scared, but from learning how to sit with that very reasonable fear, and not be paralyzed by it.
A friend recently messaged me asking for advice on how to get over being gripped.  It seems timely.  She froze up in a space where she wasn’t comfortable, that was well outside of her own opinion of her abilities.  Fear makes sense in that space, the instinctual part of our physiology that realizes that sliding down a hard surface above a rather certain demise is likely a bad decision.  So it gets us to freeze.  The problem is that that doesn’t help us.  Being paralyzed by fear is usually what is the most likely thing to get us hurt.  Yet, to tell people to just suck it up and move forward is foolish.  Fear is not a thing to ignore.  It is the thing that keeps us alive in the mountains, or when being chased by furry things with sharp appendages in the dark, or any host of other scenarios.  Given this, I offer up, my short list on sitting with fear, and how I think we can best go about doing so without getting ourselves killed.
  1.  “Be okay with being afraid.”  I think there is a silly notion out there that athletes who do “extreme” things aren’t scared.  I certainly know that most of my friends who are reasonably good at doing things that most people consider suicidal, get scared.  The thing is, they own it.  Acknowledging the fact that I am gripped is usually the first thing that I do when trying to push myself into a space where I am uncomfortable.  You can’t try and figure out why you are afraid, or whether or not that fear is reasonable, until you have at least admitted to yourself that you are scared.  This last weekend, I was climbing down/traversing into a north face line which required some swinging about on rocks above a drop onto a 50 degree face.  My good friend Nick, knowing his own lack of comfort with climbing decided he was more comfortable airing into the face off a twelve foot cornice, whereas I was stubborn and didn’t want to back down on a climb.  Step one when faced with swinging myself out and into the line; admitting that I was scared of doing it.
  2. “Don’t have an exit.”  I think it is handy to have an out.  This is ironic because I largely always put myself into positions where I am left being forced into committing to the thing that scares the hell out of me.  So maybe this is bad advice, but I am working with what has worked for me and my friends.  As awful as it sounds, being forced to commit helps one move forward.  Last year, Brandon and I climbed some steep mixed snow/rock/ice/bad decisions with verts and axes, only to find ourselves perched about fifteen feet above the couloir that we wanted to be in.  It should be noted we had climbed this way to avoid the cliff in the couloir, which we were now above.  I jumped in.  Brandon pretty much had to.  We had nowhere else to go.  We had to sit with being scared, and eventually we were forced to act.  However, this requires a very crucial step:
  3. “Have a very honest understanding of your abilities, before you end up in a position without an exit.” I think this is where my friend went wrong in Europe last year.  She ended up in a space where she lacked confidence, and lacked the skills and experience to be able to make safe decisions.  I think that part of sitting with fear is understanding that you can manage the fear, and the causes of it.  If the fear is based in a lack of skill and being in a dangerous position, then it is a very reasonable fear.  If you find yourself in that space, then it is time to break down the things that we need to do to get out of the position alive, even if our ego takes a beating.
  4. “Sit with it.” There is nothing wrong with being afraid.  I highly recommend it.  I think the thing is to not shy away from it (see item 1), but rather to sit with it.  To hold it close and know it.  You have to know why it is that you are scared.  Most of the time that I find myself #puckered it is prior to committing to something with unknowns involved.  This is the part that shouldn’t be rushed, you need to embrace that fear.  It is the deepest part of you screaming that you are about to do something stupid.  It is worth listening to (see item 3).  However, many times, our tiny ego is just scared of the things it doesn’t know and can’t control.  If you are pushing yourself, then fear should be expected.  However, it is good to know whether we are scared because we are doing something we haven’t done before, or because we have been lying to ourselves (and everyone else) about our ability to do something.
  5. “Find the appropriate dosage.” In the wrong dose, anything is poisonous.  Fear included.  Finding experiences that help push us out of where we are comfortable is a good thing to do.  The trick is to find that dosage that scares us, but doesn’t actually have a huge chance of killing us.
  6. “Breathe.” If all else fails and I am gripped, out of my depth, and where I shouldn’t be, I try to remember to breathe.  If I really am fucked, then I might as well breathe and try and relax, if I am going to die, I might as well do it with dignity and with some breathe in my lungs.  So far, this rather simple and often understated piece of advice has helped me get myself out of most positions.  Either by finding a solution to item 2, or by committing to the position that said item has induced.  Breathing has a wonderful effect at leveling us out.  It also helps run through the rest of the steps I have highlighted.
So those are the basics of dealing with being gripped, however, there are a lot of commentaries to be had on flow state, the loss of fear, and meditative movement in general.  Fear is usually the catalyst that pushes me into flow.  It seems that I have to make fear my bedfellow if I want to end up in that space where the boundaries disappear and consciousness expands.  Meditating regularly has a rather handy effect on helping me slip out of fear and into flow, much as being regularly in spaces that scare the piss out of me helps me be more comfortable with being in that space.  In the end though it doesn’t always work, sometimes I do things and it is scary from the point that I leave the ground to the point that I am home safe in bed.  On the really bad occasions I find myself waking up scared weeks and months afterwards.  That is when the dosage is too high.  When I find it running the other direction, when the fear mounts that high months in advance to doing something, I try to run through the list and figure out why I am so scared.  If it comes down to guts, sometimes I make new plans.  It is, at the end of the day, all about honesty.  Fear is the great levelling factor that demands we be honest with ourselves about our abilities.  If I am scared of something, then it is often because it is outside of what I can do.  This means the trick is to go and get good before I tackle the project.  Rainier scares me.  The North face of that mountain holds a project that will kill me if I don’t approach it with respect.  Fear keeps me training.