Throwback Thursday #1 – No Fear
Throwback Thursdays will reproduce features which have appeared in past issues of The Climber magazine. We'll slowly build up an archive of great features from the print issues that spanned 1992–2020. First up we have Erin Stewart relating the difficulties of regaining confidence in your climbing after experiencing a nasty bouldering fall.
Flock Hill, Labour Day weekend, 2011. It’s way too hot to be climbing so most of the day is spent snoozing in the shade, but people are amping to send before Flock closes for the season. Psych is high. The whole crew caddies for me on a field classic V4. I flash the crux feeling strong, confident, in control. Then comes the awkward, grovelly, smeary top-out that I haven’t looked at or prepared for. I don’t know where the holds are, and I don’t know which feet to use. Hesitation, indecision, analysis paralysis. Despite much encouragement and beta from below, I’m stuck and decide to bail, but also not really knowing how to downclimb or fall properly, I land badly. The arch of my left foot briefly makes contact with my left ankle bone, completely rupturing four out of six major ligaments—the other two are left ‘hanging by a thread’—and fracturing my cuboid. Ouch.
Physically, the injury wasn’t much to write home about. More inconvenient than anything. I got lucky. But mentally, it was catastrophic. I finally had a real-world consequence and label to put to the subconscious feeling that had always dogged me while climbing—The Fear.
Over the next few years, The Fear ruled and grew. I hesitated on every move, questioned every foot placement. When I later fell pregnant and was physically unable to climb anymore, it was secretly a relief; I could finally relax and stop battling. After a three-year child-wrangling hiatus, I had to make a choice: give up climbing forever (and my life as I knew it), or commit to starting from scratch and relearning everything.
What followed has been an intense and, at times, exhausting exercise in self-discovery and reflection. I’ve had to face up to and accept many unpleasant truths about myself, and learn to manage feelings of embarrassment, shame, failure and self-pity. The break from climbing had compounded The Fear to monumental proportions; for the first year or so back, I couldn’t boulder more than a couple of feet off the ground, if that. It was ridiculous and embarrassing. I felt lost and hopeless. The challenge seemed insurmountable. But I couldn’t bring myself to give up. I still loved climbing, the places it took me to, the people that came with it. If I was ever going to enjoy climbing again, I was going to have to let go of my ego, accept my limitations, and ultimately stop beating myself up and learn to be kind to myself.
Slowly, and with the encouragement of some very supportive, patient and kind friends (one in particular, you know who you are), I started to quietly embrace the ridiculousness. I turned it into a joke, a classic self-defence mechanism. To my amazement, allowing both myself and others to laugh at it took the power out of it. I became known as the ‘Lowball Queen’. It stopped mattering that I couldn’t (wouldn’t) climb like everyone else. I was having fun again.
Around this time, I listened to Arno Ilgner, author of The Rock Warrior’s Way, on the Enormocast. He discusses ‘intuitive vs analytical’ climbers, a concept which struck a chord, especially his theory about never trying to push yourself (or allowing others to push you) past your limit. Despite having heard this before, this time it triggered something of an epiphany for some reason. I could suddenly let myself off the hook, stop trying to conquer The Fear, and stop forcing myself to try things I didn’t want to, which had led to suffering guilt and shame when I inevitably failed. Adopting this strategy gave me the mental freedom to learn. I stopped worrying about holding myself back and being embarrassed about it because I had a plan. I started focussing only on what I could do and trying to improve on that, and lo and behold my overall skill-set slowly started to grow and expand, and my confidence along with it. Removing perceived expectations and reframing my mindset to be about enjoying the moment allowed me to try harder and still feel a sense of achievement, even if I didn’t send (which was most of the time).
Skip ahead to now, four years on in the journey, and this approach seems to have started paying dividends—I succeeded in climbing several ‘normal-sized’ boulders at The Hill this last season, even ticking some respectably-sized projects at my grade limit (not high by any means, but not bum-scrapers either). The summer project is learning how to lead climb on a route at the Cave (I’ve only ever led one route before, six years ago)—an odd choice for learning some might say, but by some miracle of miracles, I’m not terrified of it. Nervous, sure. Anxious, definitely. I have a lot of mental and physical fitness to gain before I’m anywhere near close to sending the route, but the trajectory of progress is steep and that is more than motivating enough to keep on battling. I’ve learned that I must know every hold and move intimately—I am not an intuitive climber. Knowing precisely what to do and when and how to execute every single move keeps The Fear at bay and allows me to try hard. I even take whippers. It’s surreal.
I stubbornly force myself to be proud of my achievements, however meagre they may be, and of how far I’ve come. While I have not overcome The Fear (honestly, I doubt I ever will) and I still have a long way to go, what seemed laughable and impossible at first has become not only possible, but enjoyable. I still struggle with shame and embarrassment and bouts of self-pity, but I now know from experience that those feelings will be crushed by the high when I eventually succeed, even if that success is only linking a couple of extra moves.
Photo: Derek Thatcher