(Photo: Nick Kelley)

The Transformation: Fear of Heights Meets Rock Climbing

When you leave your comfort zone, that's when you really grow

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Matt Bell

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Do what intimidates you. It’s my mantra for a simple reason: it always leads to something amazing.

I am afraid of heights. And not just in an I-don’t-like-it kind of way, but in a nauseating, the-world-is-spinning sort of way. So I’ve zip-lined (piece of cake), hiked nontechnical 20,000-foot peaks (vertiginous and, in the Andes, coca leaf addled), skydived (tandem, nearly puked), hang-glided (tandem, on a date with the instructor, pretending I liked it), and cliff jumped (beer plus Hawaii…).

Rock climbing, however, has been off-limits. As in: no f*cking way. Too dangerous, too technical, and there’s no going tandem. Besides, I still can’t shake that dramatic opening scene from Cliffhanger. But with some prodding and the guidance of editor Matt Skenazy, I finally strapped on a harness.

I quickly learned that there is more to climbing than just hanging out in high places. Like strength. A half hour into my first session at the climbing gym, I excused myself to go eat. I was starving, but really I was concerned about my hands, which had been white-knuckle squeezing the colorful knobs that made up the course on the wall. Never before had the cracked skin on my hands ached so badly. And I couldn’t bend my fingers. When I tried to type a text to a friend, it came out in fluent gibberish, and I couldn’t blame Autocorrect. Driving home, I could barely grip the steering wheel.

Any experienced climber will tell you—as Alex Honnold pointed out to me when I asked him for some advice over email—that beginners should focus foremost on footwork. But even if you do, you’re still using finger, forearm, and back muscles. They’re an underutilized group and require concentration; if you don’t want to fall, you must laser-focus on these muscles while strategizing the best route up the wall. The result, fellow acrophobics might be excited to hear: You’ll have no energy left to get dizzy with fear. Yippee!

After one more go at the gym, Skenazy and I took the operation outside. And everything changed.

Diablo Canyon in Santa Fe offers a spectacular 300-foot wall of rust-colored basalt that could have been in a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Much better looking than the inside of a gym, it was also freezing on the day we arrived. And, you know, it’s made of real rocks, which are sharp and feel like ice cubes when they’re cold. Those fiberglass knobs in the gym, favorably colored to show me the way up? Gone. The climbing gym’s padded flooring? Nope. Before me was a steeply inclined, vermilion stone wall with skull-cracking scree at the bottom.

This wall was the endgame. Mastering it would be proof that I’d gone from Gumby to bomber climber who could lead a 40-foot-tall, 5.8-level climb with at least one Genghis crux.

Genghis, huh? Ah yes, if you want to learn to climb, you’ll also have to learn the language, or “you'll be left scratching your head,” Cedar Wright, a climber with The North Face, told me a few days later. “Climbing is so much about communication between you and your partner, it’s important to know what’s going on,” he said. There’s no way to explain even the basics of climbing lingo here—it’s easier to understand than Spanish but harder than Irish brogue. Just know that I had to go from rookie to crackerjack, learn the essentials of the route, and be the guy who clips the rope from the bottom of the rock face to the top on a beginner route that has one intermediate section.

When you “lead”—clipping the rope in first—it means that if you fall, you’ll sustain a much more dangerous drop (but not to the ground) than had you been “top roping,” which is the phrase for going up after the rope has already been laid out. The task on my first day at Diablo Canyon was to top rope the 5.8.

In doing so, I quickly discovered the most meaningful aspect of climbing: you need incredible mental stamina and the will to survive. Dramatic? Maybe. But when you’re clinging to whatever naturally occurring grips you can find on a cold, hard wall so you don’t feel the horror of falling and then slam into a crag, the sport starts to mirror a prolonged life-or-death situation in which no one’s coming to the rescue. Well, except your trusted belayer, the guy on the ground who’s holding you in place. When you start feeling exhausted, you can scream, “Take,” and the belayer will pull on the rope, holding you in place as you recharge. Still, taking isn’t a strategy, Skenazy had to tell me more than once; it’s a last resort.

When your energy gets low, hands start to numb, and you’re not sure which way to go—and any mistake could lead to an injury—how will you act? Will you persevere? Prove yourself? Give up? Take a break every two minutes? Pee your pants?

I wanted to do all of those things all at once. And I may have taken lots of breaks, but eventually I barreled through the fear (rookie tip: think about food—it helps!), the aches, the cold, the uncertainty of the route, and the voice in my head that told me to just give up and settle into a life of stand-up paddleboarding. After a few falls, scrapes, encouragement from my coach, and a good 30 minutes of being stuck on a two-inch ledge while talking to myself like a crazy man, I made it to the top.

The process was tedious but worth it. For one thing, there was the view! But also, as I perched at the end of the route in a nook meant only for birds, I felt awesome, my adrenalin-infused relief mixed with pride. It was like how you feel after you find your lost phone, combined with finishing a marathon.

After a while at the top, I peeked down—and you know what? The world didn’t spin, nor had it been merry-go-rounding the entire time. Had rock climbing just cured my fear of heights?

It had, for the moment. And then it was time to be lowered back down—an operation that should have taken all of two seconds, but now that my concentration was freed up, it ended up being a little trickier (read: spinnier). I remembered a toddler in the boulder room at the gym. He was dangling from a nub about six feet off the floor (no harness or ropes), giggling and saying “Magic!” to his parents, who didn’t look nearly as concerned as I felt. Out on Diablo, I was completely strapped in and still couldn’t bring myself to lean back over the four stories of empty space. It’s funny how children have no fear. And how they believe they are magic. Kinda like adult rock climbers. Anyway, soon I found my calm and bounced down the wall, Mission Impossible-style.

Over the next four weeks, I hit the climbing gym nearly every day and practiced at Diablo Canyon a few more times with my coach. A month after first putting on that awkward harness, I successfully led the climb without falling (or taking too many breaks).

Knowing I tried my hardest would have made me content. Succeeding would have been a bonus. But the real win came in doing both things and in discovering that—lo and behold—I like rock climbing! And in the process, I wrestled with and overcame my fear of heights yet again.