You Ain’t Scared, Are Ya?

When you tell the story later, you are a little less descriptive of the moment you experience pure dread and barely-controllable fear. You say things like “I was totally pissing my pants.” If you even talk about being scared at all.

We had assumed the finger crack was part of the route, or some route on Symmetry Spire, at least. I love mellow mountaineering routes with vague descriptions like “pick the easiest line,” because then you can just romp and follow your nose, no beta needed. Brian and I had climbed two pitches of 5.6/5.7, and I built a belay at the end of the second pitch, at the base of this crack. Brian took a shot at it, placing a cam a couple feet underneath a fixed piton, then clipping the piton and climbing above it. It was steep, and searching for handholds, he had stick his hand in a small crack, dusting broken pebbles out of it. Under the roof, Brian decided to lower off.

I figured it maybe just seemed a little steep to Brian on his third alpine rock lead ever, that we were still on the original Durrance Ridge, 5.6, and that maybe it was sandbagged because it was put up in 1936, when the hardest climb in America was 5.8. I told myself it was probably a short steep section and then would relax. It was a little spooky, halfway up the ridge, 3,000 feet of loose gully down to the lake and then two miles back to the van, not knowing what was above.

I climb to Brian’s high point, breaking more loose rock out of some holds, then through the roof. I stand on two marginal knobs, look above me and realize I’m in the worst position I’ve ever been in as a climber. No protection above me for the 15 feet of rock I can see, questionable, steep, and I’m 10 feet above my last piece, a piton placed in who-knows-what-year. If I fell, I would fly through 20-some feet of air, and would definitely hit Brian, perched on a small ledge at the semi-hanging belay.

There is not enough chalk in the world to dry my hands. I pull an alpine draw from my harness, tie a slip knot in it as I let out shuddering exhale breaths and try to tell my heart to stop jackhammering because if I so much as bump the wall with my chest I’m going to go flying. A chickenhead the size of a can of soup sticks out of the rock three feet to my right, and if I can lean over just enough to lasso it, it might might might hold a short fall even though the top is sloping downward a little, but the hell with it, because I got nothing else now.

I am on a window ledge a thousand feet above the street, I am about to step onto a highwire with no net, I am trying to not make any noise as I hide in a closet from the bad guys. I want to scream, cry, call my mom, get the hell off this ledge what the hell am I doing out here I am never going climbing again not this high not in the Tetons not on a long route like this goddammit just give me a fucking handhold one single jug and I will pull myself out of here on pure adrenaline.

Calm. The fuck. Down.

I chalk up my left hand, hold onto a sidepull, work my fingers in further, further, reach out to my right with the sling in my hand, focusing on the chickenhead like it is the 8 ball in a million-dollar pool tournament. I sling it, clip another draw to the sling, and clip the rope. I am not going to die. Yes I am. Look at that thing, the sling is going to slide right off it if I fall. Jesus.

I plug a .75 cam into a horrible crack at my waist, two lobes barely far enough in, the other two completely tipped out and touching nothing. Brian will later call the cam “worthless” and tell me that he pulled it out without even touching the trigger.

I make one move up, stepping a few inches higher, and if I stand there one more second I’m going to fall, so I make a quick move up, and I find a single halfway decent handhold. How do I get my leg to stop shaking so my foot doesn’t walk right off this foothold. I will try humor. I say to Brian,

“If this thing is 5.6, my dick is a fuckin pumpkin.” Brian does not laugh. Later he says he thinks the pitch is 5.9.

I move up on marginal holds. Two feet above is a jug, both hands fit on it, and I am happier than a dog in a kiddie pool full of T-bone steaks. The angle eases, and I ramble up, 40 more feet to a ledge where I build an anchor and sit down.

Six hours later, on flat ground, I still don’t know what to do with it. The weekend before, my friend Chris and I had talked about the scariest moment each of us had ever had while climbing—whipping on a tiny C3 from 15 feet up, climbing the 25 feet of unprotected slab at the start of Pear Buttress or The Bulge in Eldo. That was last weekend.

Most of us don’t talk so much about fear. We talk about great moves, speed, views, big air, powder days, good times, fun. But really, don’t you get scared sometimes? Before a big race, a big jump, a big move on a climbing route, a big drop, hell, even a big presentation at work?

One of the biggest reasons I do anything in the outdoors is the fear that accompanies it, and how I deal with it. Hell yes I’m scared. Scared of getting lost in the woods, getting caught in a storm up high, getting on a route I’m not strong enough to climb, falling, getting hit by rockfall, running out of water, twisting an ankle five miles down a trail, avalanches, bears, mountain lions, altitude sickness, sharks, falling ice, the list goes on and on. People say sometimes they don’t climb because they’re scared of heights, and I just say Me too.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s better to run from it or run into it.


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12 replies on “You Ain’t Scared, Are Ya?”
  1. says: Gary G

    Oddly enough, I got into climbing because I was afraid of heights. As a lover of the outdoors, I didn’t want to live in fear during my various adventures, and so I thought climbing would get more accustomed to exposed places. It did. But as it turned out, I fell in love with climbing, even though it scared me silly. It was too much of a high, and I couldn’t stop. I’m not the bravest lead climber, not by a long shot. But I’m out there, having fun. Well, sometimes.

    Erica Jong said it best: “Always do the things you fear the most. Courage is an acquired taste, like caviar.”

  2. On my very first trad lead, which also happened to be 2 pitches, 3 total (the 1st pitch was sport), I think I placed exactly 3 pieces besides the hanging belay at the end of P2. Granted, this was a very low angle “Conn route” in The Black Hills, but as I was scrambling from crystal to crystal, 40′ above my last piece and traversed around a feature so my belayer could no longer see me, I may, or may not, have asked myself, “what the fuck am I doing?!”

    But as you said, deep breaths, one hand, one foot in front of the other, and I made it to the next spot to place gear. And that’s not even my scariest moment climbing or outdoors. I’m never one to shy away from admitting how chicken shit I am.

  3. says: Tom Mrotek

    Whew! This brings back all sorts of fearful memories of alpine 5.6s. Good memories.

    I just keep running into fear. I can’t abide by sitting it out though. Just the other day, I was riding my touring bike on the North Cascades Hwy down the Skagit River Gorge. I was rounding a bend when a HUGE crosswind hit me and I saw myself headed for the guardrail doing about 30mph. “Oh fuck” I thought as I had that moment of instantaneous clarity where the situation is somewhat out of your hands and you visualize what’s about to happen. Disaster was averted and I went on to do this for 25 more miles because:

    a) I had to
    b) I wanted to

  4. says: Chris K

    This has been a year of fighting fear. I don’t know why, but for some reason I’ve been scared, sometimes seriously so, on pretty much every trip this year. It’s not all that much fun. It’s been tempting to just turn around and sit on the couch. It’s been a huge struggle for me.

    I’m mostly managing to trick my brain into believing that this is part of the process of getting better, that I’m pushing my boundaries and the fear comes with the territory. But, shit, can it be over now, or at least dialed back a little?

  5. says: KatieSue

    The start of the Pear Buttress was freaking scary. I love these stories that I can relate to so much, way better for me than some pro working a 5.14 for a month in a country I’ve never heard of. Lately I’ve been getting terrified on lead doing 5.7 trad stuff I know should be easy for me. I’ve been reading The Rock Warrior to try and get it under control, but maybe I should just embrace it and enjoy the feeling instead. What the hell I’ll give it a try.

  6. says: ej

    Just discovered recently the value of a sane conversation with my belayer, when if there had been silence or just me cursing I would have probably melted into complete panic.

  7. says: Eric

    Durrance was my first alpine climb ever! I felt great after scrambling the class 4 cliff band below the spire to save a some time. The first 2 pitches went smooth, 200 ft pitches fun climbing and moving fast. We thought it smart to just climb in approach shoes, it was 5.6 after all. I’m not sure if i encountered the exact same spot as you, but the crack was thin, there was a good looking, but very old piton at the crux and I about crapped my pants, but made it through it. I thought for a long time after the climb that I was not cut out to be climbing at all because of the fear, but then I would think about the first pitch after we switched over the SW ridge and how amazing, and unbelievable it was! Thinking back on that piton my knees tremble, but I managed to not crap my pants, keep it together and somehow move forward. I will always remember that climb, looking at Mt. Owen and the North Face of the Grand peaking over the top and dreaming about what was possible and what was I made of. I guess I just wish people weren’t so scared to be honest, and that, the at times alpha male, alpha woman ethos that can be some prevalent in climbing would relax a little and just enjoy the gifts we are all given. Thanks for the articles Brandon, this was a great one to come across in the archives!

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