It feels like a bit of a taboo subject, to be a climber and suffer from vertigo.
I've always suffered from vertigo, a debilitating if fairly rational (to a certain point) fear of falling and heights. Put me on a precipice and watch me tremble. Even writing this makes me feel a little strange. I feel like I am coming clean and admitting to a drug addiction. My work counts on me being able to cope in and be at ease in mountainous areas, so vertigo is my dirty little secret that I keep hidden away, buried deep inside.
At the time in my life that I decided to learn to climb I was looking for something - I hadn’t a clue what, maybe it was a challenge I needed, something to take me away from a job I was disillusioned with, in a city where I was feeling increasingly alone. I needed something to make me feel alive. Confronting my fear, I decided, was a sure fire way of hitting the nail on the head - plus much cheaper than alcohol.
I clearly remember googling “rock climbing with vertigo” before I went for my first climbing lesson, and read a blog post in which a climber categorically stated that, "If you suffer from vertigo then don't bother trying to learn to climb, it's a waste of time and you will be a nuisance to others”. How reassuring.
My first climb was terrifying.
The day before my lesson I dropped into Sports Direct to buy a cheap pair of white trainers - the kind of bright white trainers you would have on your first day at school. Turning up at the wall my brand spanking new trainers were swiftly taken off me, to be replaced which what looked to me like hardcore ballet shoes. I simultaneously thought I was going to vomit or pee myself, however every worry and moan I had about life had been tucked away to be replaced with cold hard fear; but the fear was good. I told myself that I could deal with fear - it was just the one emotion, easy to place and easy to understand.
I can still remember Mike, the instructor. Halfway up my first climb my legs began to shake uncontrollably, I didn’t trust my harness, what the hell was I doing; dangling on a rope, with sweaty hands clinging to rough bits of plastic four metres off the ground? I froze. I couldn’t move up or down. My arms were aching and my legs had taken on a life of their own. Mike told me to let go of the holds.
I looked down at him from my dizzying height. Let go? Was he insane? The last thing I wanted to do was let go. I watched next to me a group of 10-year-olds zooming up and down the wall. I could feel the vertigo-induced panic building inside, bubbling away like a horrid swirling swamp, gurgling up my throat and threatening to flood me. In the past when vertigo reared its head I would just move away, back to safety; why push it when it’s much easier to just surrender? But now I was caught and I couldn’t escape. I had never felt like this before and I didn’t know what to do. Isn’t it funny how rational thinking can so soon become overpowered by panic? It doesn’t seem to be a very evolutionary sensible reaction to danger.
Letting go of the holds was the best thing I did. In that moment I trusted my harness, I trusted Mike to not let go of me, I knew the rope would hold me. I forced myself to look down, to relax and take stock of what was going on and to rationalise my situation. Thinking back, I like to think I probably did a little jiggle in my harness. I got to the top of my first climb and I felt empowered, capable of anything, strong, successful. It lasted all of about 10 seconds until I learnt how to get down.
That one 60 minute lesson changed my life beyond all recognition.
I've been climbing now for 8 years, I've competed (not very well), I've fallen (lots), I've frozen, panicked and had tantrums (regularly), I've gradually pulled myself up the grades (each grade a two-fingered salute to that blogpost), but my vertigo has taken me on a journey from a stuffy London office block to various continents, it's given me confidence, upper arms that don't fit into shirt sleeves, new friends, a husband-to-be, a business and it's brought me home, to the Yorkshire Dales, close to where I grew up. All in all, that first ever climb was quite a memorable one.
A short climbing story by Ellie West, "Just Let Go"
- April 29, 2016