Welcome to our inaugural edition of Seeking Higher Ground – a column about climbing, women, and women climbing – written by Bouldering Babe Athlete Anastasia B.
It’s 100 degrees outside, and I’m halfway up one of maybe ten bolted routes in the whole of Zion. I’m not sure what grade the route is, only that I’m hot, it’s hard, and that I’ve never been in this far over my head. From the ground this seemed like such a sure thing, but I am afraid. I am gut-wrenchingly, mind numbingly afraid.
All thoughts of ‘I’ve got this‘ are wiped clean by the spastic shaking in my calves and the pump spreading from my forearms, my rational self effaced by white hot panic at being five feet above a bolt. Somewhere in the explosion I can remember enough about technique to know I’m overgripping, pulling up too far on my forearms, that if I could just relax and remember myself and why I do this I could pull through. I’m so close to safety, so close to the next bolt. I let go of the rock with one hand to reach for a draw when I start to slip. I bite down on the dogbone and grab onto the rock with both hands again. My breathing is ragged and shallow; I am a thin shell of skin stretched across a blossoming corona of panic hotter than the desert sun. I imagine the fall I will take, crumpling against the column behind me, the recoil from the rope sending me face first into the hueco below my feet that’s filled with hornets. A hornet lands on my leg and my fingers slip even farther.
When fear takes over the brain, escape is the only system that remains online. Fright activates the fight-or-flight response through the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped part of the brain that interacts with the thalamus to put you on high alert, the hypothalamus to activate the motions of escape, and with other, more distal parts of the brain to activate long-term potentiation, the act of writing memory to storage. Get too high above too many bolts, chicken out too many times, and the fear becomes a hard-wired response. Once that fear crystallizes, it’s powerful enough to ground you in a lot of different ways.
After the Zion trip, every lead was a fearfest. Every time I yelled “take” above a bolt and down climbed to avoid a fall just reinforced it. Eventually, after a particularly hairy Rumney trip and a 10d arête climb where I grabbed every single draw, I was done. What was the point of leading if I was going to feel like dying every single time? Part of this was because I’d painted myself into a corner and didn’t believe I had the guts for it, and part of it was ego. I was a solid 5.10 climber in the gym, why shouldn’t I be a solid 5.10 climber outside? I’d get on hard routes without warming up, terrified and sour. They would be rightfully impossible, I’d get spit off, and instead of realizing the ego trip I was on, I would just sink deeper into it. After a few months of leading motivated by a misguided sense of obligation, I found myself making excuses for not leading.
In the months that followed, still jagged from a bunch of bummer climbing experiences, I took a hard look at myself. There were a lot of places I was opting out of because I was scared of how well I would do, not just on the rock. It was just easier to see it there. When I first started climbing, I climbed without thought for anything else in the world. It was me, the rock, the sky, and the elation of being out in the woods. On toprope it was a place of peace and quiet, where I could lean back into the sky, ecstatic that I was alive and present. When I started leading, it stopped being easy, and I found my response was to panic rather than to persevere. I met a different version of myself on the rock, one that was belligerent and full of self-doubt.
Two years after the Zion trip, I’m back at Rumney. We’ve come for a week of climbing and soaking in the Baker river, and I’m the only willing leader in the group. I hadn’t led regularly for a few months, but I’ve spent my time getting strong and steady. Instead of hopping on a 10c, full of bravado, I cruise some 7 and 8 leads over the course of a few days. They’re well bolted, with good feet, and off-vertical enough that I can just keep going without good hands. It felt easier and easier after each route. I suddenly remembered it was possible to climb without ego, without needing to push myself far, far past where I was comfortable. It was enough to be on the rock, to be getting the experience, and to be finding my feet under me. Leading outside could be joyous in the right circumstance. After three days of leading easy routes, I was ready for something harder. For the first time, I felt like I could read the rock – blank faces were suddenly populated with crimps, slopers, pockets, jugs, cracks, sequences unlocked themselves as I reached for them.
D and I stood around debating. We knew that there was probably only one more climb left for us in the trip – we had packed our tents ahead of a storm coming across the mountains, and the sun was starting to set. Were we going to do the 5.9 chimney, or the 10c face climb? I remembered how it felt months ago to climb above my grade, and decided that climbing a chimney for the first time without ever having practiced the techniques would lead to a bad end to the trip. It was also wet, so that helped. We opted for the 10c, warm and golden in the late afternoon light. He took the first section, leading through the first four bolts, climbing easily until the route passed into the sunlit slab section. He went for the next move and stepped back down, laughing. “No way, man. You wanna try?”
We switched off, and I climbed to his high point and looked up. Three more bolts and then the anchors. The slab above me looked blank, no neon holds or tape to guide me to the anchors. The rock felt unforgiving under my tender tips, and I felt a flash of angst. Ugh. Do I even want this? I stood up past the bolt and slapped around the chalked up rail to the right. Nothing. My feet scrabbled on the rock, tiny ledges barely gripping the worn rubber on my toes. I started overgripping again, feeling the shake building in my legs, threatening to end me before I had even gotten a foot above the bolt. Finally, after a few tries I found a side pull hidden around the corner.
I looked out onto the valley below, where a thin mist was rising on an open field. Overhead, clouds were rolling in, and through the trees the river reflected the last of the sunlight. Somewhere over the mountains was home, and work, and the demands of real life, where you’re always somewhere above the last bolt. I stood up to the sidepull and stepped up. A layback here, a crimp there, a heel hook around the arête and a dynamic push past a blank section just before the end led to a fat, quartz crystal pinch sitting like a cherry on top of the route. I leaned out and clipped one anchor, then the second.