There was something profoundly terrifying about watching my climbing partner’s left shoe float away from his twisting body and fall a thousand feet onto the boulder field below us.
The nut Will Skinner was standing on had just pinged out of the crack and Will was falling backwards in what seemed like slow motion. After having just back-cleaned the last two placements, he was going for a ride. Presumably tripped by the rope, which had ripped his off shoe, Will was in the middle of a back dive that may have been beautiful had he been headed for a pool.
Instead, it was horrifying.
Perhaps the scariest fall I had ever witnessed. Due in part to the steep overhanging nature of the Leaning Tower and due in part to a dynamic catch, Will’s back contacted the wall with no more force than a hearty slap. Besides being a bit shaken and wearing only one shoe, he was fine.
I sent him up one of my shoes on our tag line and he finished the pitch in proud fashion.
This was not the first fall of the day. Earlier that morning at the outset of the third pitch and my first lead, I too had taken a whipper. The pitch began steep and technical, too hard for me to free-climb, but I was looking for my opportunity. You see, one reason Will and I chose this route was to dial in our aid climbing skills in an attempt to speed up our sluggish pace. One way to speed up aid climbing is to get out of your aiders whenever possible and climb free, even if only to make a few moves.
About 25 feet from the belay, I reached a decent enough looking bolt near a shallow dihedral that allowed me the stance I needed to bunch up my aiders. From there I could attack an otherwise tricky section of C2 aid using good ol’ fashion pull power. The free-climbing felt great even in the absence of protection. After about 15 ft., I reached a roof that began a mean section of overhanging 5.12d. I opted to get back on aid. Balancing precariously on thin edges in my clumsy approach shoes I plugged a small offset cam in what looked to be a tight but flaring pod.
Now came the tricky part– transitioning from aid to free and back to aid which is more awkward than it sounds. It became apparent that this was an aspect of my big wall game that needed some work. As I fumbled the twisted mass of aid ladder and daisy chain, I hung one-handed, a la French free, from the offset cam in the roof above my head. CRUNCH! I was airborne. The rope pulled taunt and I swung towards the wall. As the rope steched, Will was hoisted from his meager stance, and I contacted the wall lightly with both feet. Safe. Looking down at my left hand I had a white-knuckle death grip still wrapped around the webbing of my failed cam. I was scared, but managed to force the fear to the back of my mind. I re-worked the free moves, got a better placement in the roof and finished the pitch.
By early afternoon, Will reached the top of the sixth pitch which was to be our high point for the day, and rapped back to meet me on Guano Ledge. The sun was on us now and besides the occasional cover from scattered clouds, we were cookin’. Instead of cleaning the pitch then, I suggested laying low to conserve water during the heat of the day. I suggested cleaning the pitch nearer to sunset. I’ve never slept well on the walls I’ve climbed and until we laid down to nap I’d successfully suppress the fear that was building through the course of the day. Closing my eyes brought horrible images of Will in free fall, his shoe drifting above his body then disappearing to a dot below, and the sound and feel of my cam ripping from the wall. Sleeplessly, I writhed, baking in the afternoon sun.
By the time I was ready to clean, ascenders locked into place, fear had thoroughly permeated my body. My heart was racing, my palms were sweating, and my mind would only let my feet shuffle along the ledge, .The first move off of the ledge involved a pendulum that required me to swing into space leaving me dangling with nothing but air and the boulder field far below my feet. I moved slow and shaky but managed to make it back to the ledge before dark.
Did I mention a thunderstorm was in the forecast? As if I wasn’t rattled enough already, clouds full of electric potential began to flash to the west just as we slid into our sleeping bags. As I “slept”, my nightmares included being soaked in a downpour and struck by lightning in addition to the usual dreams of rock avalanches and free falls.
The next morning I spilled the beans. “I’m feeling rattled dude,” I confessed to Will. “I slept like s**t. I don’t know, my head’s not in it.” Much to my relief, he admitted to feeling the same way. Simply talking about the fear and knowing that I wasn’t alone really helped take the edge off. I jugged to our high point and set out on my first lead. I planned to link pitches 7 & 8 and by the time I reached the top of the the 7th I was feeling much better. Before me ran a series of beautiful cracks that seemed climbable. I was so psyched to get out of my aiders that I free climbed the entirety of pitch 8. When I reached the belay I felt refreshed. I could relax knowing that was my last lead. Will led pitches 9 & 10 , I cleaned, and we hugged it out on top feeling the way that only finishing a big wall can make you feel– like an f-ing champion!
When people asked me how the climb went, I’ve taken to this one line response: “It was the most psychologically demanding route I’ve ever done.” Since coming home I’ve thought a lot about what caused such a visceral fear response. I’ve certainly taken and caught my share of falls in the past, so that alone couldn’t have been it. The overnight lightning show certainly added a thrill, but naw, that wasn’t it either. It must have been the exposure. For so much of the route the very base of the wall was in plain view, pulling on my psyche. Watching Will’s shoe plummet let me imagine my own long freefall. Honestly, this is a safety paradox since it was the steepness of the wall that kept my and Will’s fall so clean. Clearly the effect was psychological.
Ultimately, climbing Leaning Tower was a lesson in fear management. Lying down on the ledge and replaying the falls in my mind that afternoon had allowed the fear to take hold. That began a snowball effect that culminated in my secret wishes to be home with my girlfriend and beautiful baby girl. On the flipside, climbing free and focusing on the logistics of big wall belay management allowed me to regain my focus and enjoy the climb.
Coincidentally the week before our climb I began reading a book called The Fear Project by Jaimal Yogis. In the early chapters, Yogis delves into the neurobiology of fear. Does it help to know that fear emanates from the amygdala? I don’t know. Perhaps more importantly, Yogis goes on to describe modern experimentation in overcoming fear. Specifically, the research indicates that exposure to the object of fear in a safe and reassuring setting can help the brain overcome the fear response. On the other hand, simply thinking about the object of fear, without action, will only reaffirm and further cement the fear response. More exactly, it seems possible to train our advanced human neocortex to dull the fear impulse that emanates from our primitive reptilian brain. Unwittingly I had made things much worse by lying on that ledge when I thought I was simply taking a break. Conversely, by continuing to climb I was reliving my fearful experience but overriding the experience of fear with the more familiar experience of the joy of climbing.
Rock climbing is always going to be scary. Fear of heights is what experts call a primitive fear (versus an acquired fear), but that doesn’t mean we have to allow that fear to control us. Go climbing. Be sure to build a solid foundation of positive, safe-feeling experiences so that the fearful moments are fleeting and never allowed to take root. Most importantly, don’t forget to have fun.
See ya on the cliffs!