This time last year I had never been on a climbing wall. I heard a talk from mountaineer and climber Bonita Norris, and she said she got into it because she went with a friend to try out climbing and didn’t know whether or not she would enjoy it. She advised that if anyone wanted to climb Everest, the climbing wall was a good place to start. Seems simple enough but I have always been afraid of heights.
Now I’m not saying I want to climb Everest but I did want to conquer my fear. It’s something I’ve been battling with as long as I can remember; I’ve done charity abseils, skydives and bungee jumps all in aid of this, but never have I been able to shake it. A friend persuaded me that I should try bouldering because they weren’t comfortable with heights either but they were surprised at how they didn’t notice it.
I booked myself a climbing taster session, which was great fun. The next day I went to the bouldering wall. A week later we discovered a new venue had opened locally and thought it sounded like it was worth checking out. I tried a couple of different colours, not really understanding the V number grading system, and soon found that I was so engrossed in the technical challenge, the problem solving and light competition between our groups as we each attempted routes, that I was having a great time.
We found a nice little yellow route that we were all struggling with (it was a V2) and as I was working my way up it, I looked down at my friends who were all egging me on and realised I was actually quite high compared to what I was used to. I had a momentary drop of the stomach but then I turned back to the wall and thought, “I’m nearly there, I’ve got to make it up now.” I am so glad I did.
That one simple thought taught me everything I need to know about my fear: 1) I can choose to ignore it, 2) I can acknowledge it but deprioritise it, and 3) I can conquer it just by focusing on the task in hand.
It was such a simple little thing; the route itself was about eight moves long, with a slight traverse along the wall. When I reached the top I made a point of looking down and realising that because I felt safe, comfortable and most importantly confident, I knew I could do it and in that scenario my fear had become non-existent. After that climb, I had been climbing twice a week and steadily getting better until I had a fall off the wall back at Easter and injured my ankle.
I can’t deny the fall did knock my confidence a bit but it taught me one important thing: that feeling of confidence when I know I can do something, even if I am challenging myself, wasn’t the feeling I had before the fall; I had fear in that moment because I knew actually I had overstretched myself by taking on an overhang before I was ready. Sometimes fear can teach you caution. I did an overhang back in May after I had been working on my technique and upper body and grip strength and I aced it. It was a fantastic feeling because again I had that feeling of confidence that I recognised from that first time.
A few weekends ago I realised how far I had really come when scrambling up the Tryfan North Ridge in Snowdonia and up Bristly Ridge on the other side. We were pretty high up and parts of it were either very steep or over narrow ledges but I wasn’t bothered. I just remembered that I was OK because I felt OK. Actually I felt great! Being able to do that wouldn’t have been possible without that V2 bouldering route last December and because of it, there’ll be plenty more to come!
Climbing has been teaching me a lot and it’s so fun; I’ve become slightly addicted! I’m hoping to get back on the wall this weekend; it will be the first time since my injury flared back up in June (lesson learned: always do your physio exercises!). I honestly can’t wait, I know it’s going to be harder again due to fitness but the teachings still remain and that’s going to give me so many new opportunities on the wall and in my outdoor adventures; maybe it’ll soon be time to try climbing outside!
Name: Sarah Stead