Fear of falling, failing, and other things

I was making the number one sport-climber-trying-to-crack-climb mistake when I whipped.  I was trying to lay back an overhanging hand crack in a right-facing corner.  To my credit, I had tried to handjam and jam my feet in, but my hands were a bit too small and the corner was making it really hard for me to get my right foot in.  I probably could have used my fist, but that seems really advanced as far as crack climbing goes and the whole thing felt slippery and insecure, so I resorted to pasting my feet against the right-facing wall and liebacking.  I figured I would move faster through the overhanging section and not get as tired, even if it meant I couldn’t place gear for another 15 ft or so. I had felt strangely confident throughout the entire route.  I’d been consistently leading multi-pitch trad all summer.  We climbed two routes on the Incredible Hulk the previous week, and were now in Tuolumne.  We did Oz to Gram traverse on Drug Dome in the day before, and woke up at 4:30 am that morning to hike 4 hours into Mt Conness to try the Harding route on the Southwest face.  Everyone who actually climbs hard trad (unlike me) told me that it’s rad, but also stout and serious for 5.10c, and that I should probably know how to climb offwidths for the 4th pitch.


Southwest face of Conness – the Harding route climbs the face left of the obvious summit 

I’m a newbie, a clumsy and off-balance fish out of water when trad climbing.  I’m used to carrying the lightest quickdraws (or even fixed draws), clipping (and skipping) bomber bolts without worry, wearing knee pads with duct tape (in Rifle of course), and warming up on 5.12.  I’m not used to managing 20+ lbs of odd-shaped metal hanging off my harness, to deciding and determining which gear to place and when to conserve it, to figuring out how to build a safe belay and not endanger both myself and my partner; nor am I used to crying on 5.9 because I’m worried my gear won’t hold and I’m too pumped to place anymore.  But I’ve been going through these things all summer now.  There is this entirely other part of climbing I’d gone 15 years ignoring and not fully understanding or appreciating, and now here I am, paying my dues, earning those merit badges, trying to learn how to climb.

Oz to Gram

Gram Traverse, Drug Dome

And there I was on the 4th pitch of the Harding route – even before the supposed desperate offwidth section had begun – with sewing machine legs and massively cumbersome #5 and #6 cams dangling from my harness down to my knees in preparation for the wider section above.  I felt tired and was rushing the moves in order to get onto less steep territory.  I shifted my weight into a lieback position, pressed hard with my left foot and was about to bump my right up when it skated off the smooth granite face.  I cartwheeled down the wall screaming.  I waited to feel the protection above me pull out and expected to fall another 20 feet onto a #2 cam, probably slamming into the slab below.  The last piece I’d clipped was an ancient star bolt placed in 1958 by the first ascentionist Warren Harding.  It kind of looked like Harding hammered a bolt the size of a small nail into the rock and attached a key ring to it.  Again – 1958.  My parents were three years old then.  I’d read various fun facts about these infamous bolts on several online trip reports and websites prior to our day on the route; quotes like “clipped them but I doubt they would hold a fall”, “these bolts are more like a historic artifact rather than a piece designed to keep you from decking” and “the old bolts are terrible and would not hold a fall”.  I had this in my mind when I clipped the bolt of course, thinking that if I did fall it would at least slow me down a little, but I really wasn’t planning on falling.  Well everyone was wrong – at least this one time – because the bolt caught me and I dangled on the end of the rope, surprised and relatively unharmed.  That didn’t matter though because in my head everything had gone horribly wrong and I was already crying before I’d had time to realize that it was totally fine.

harding bolt

One of Harding’s old bolts on P4 (photo from summitpost.org)


Caption for this photo: you’re doing it wrong.

I assured Adrian that I was ok and then sobbed and cried for a while more, which actually isn’t quite as dramatic as it sounds, because I tend to cry during stressful situations, as do alot of girls.  I hauled myself back up the rope and continued trying to make my way up the pitch.  I climbed into the widest part of the crack, only 30 feet from the massive belay ledge, and according to the topo this section is 5.8.  The footholds outside disappeared, leaving me wedged in the crack, desperately trying to bump a 6″ cam up with me but realizing very soon that the crack grew far too wide to fit it any higher than 20 feet or so below the  ledge.  (In hindsight, I probably should have watched this video before trying to climb any sort of offwdith – maybe it would have helped.) That’s when I really melted down.  I kept trying to move but couldn’t figure out how to make upward progress.  My confidence was shattered.   Instead of resolving to just go for it and commit to groveling my way up, I was frozen with fear and unable to figure it out.  10 minutes passed, then 20, then 30, and so on.  Up and down, up and down.  I was envisioning another fall, an awful sideways crater-type whipper into the slab that would surely damage me.  We were the only ones out there that day, far away from any help.  I let all the nightmarish scenarios creep into my consciousness, my worst fears in climbing,  and I started crying again (of course).  But this time it was dramatic.

“I can’t do this. I really can’t. I don’t understand how to climb it!!! AND I’M REALLY SCARED!” 

I sobbed down to Adrian, as if he had some miraculous solution for the situation I’d gotten myself into.

“Ok. Do you have a plan?” He was annoyingly calm about it.  I noticed his demeanor immediately and made note that as a mountain guide he’s most likely dealt with far worse meltdowns in the past and this was probably a very minor issue. “Crying terrified girlfriend stuck in crack.  NBD.”

Of course I had no plan.  In sportclimbing, one can just lower to the ground, chalk it up as a bad day, and soothe the disappointment with a cold beer or four.  600 ft off the ground and 3/4 of the way up a 200 ft pitch, just lowering was not a viable “plan”.  Of course there were options for bailing, but it would have cost Adrian most of his rack since there was very little fixed gear on the route and rappelling 600ft because I got scared on 20ft of 5.8 climbing seemed pretty ridiculous, even  in my hysterical state.  I was wasting time and valuable daylight though, so I decided to let Adrian have a shot at it.  I lowered a bit from my #6 down to two of Harding’s key ring bolts.  I figured that if one of them held me in a fall two of them should be ok to hang on, right?  I equalized them as best I could and backed the entire system up with my #6 above, which I had made sure was bomber.  Adrian climbed up carefully and met me at the belay.  Still calm, he reassured me that everything was going to be fine and he started leading up the 5.8 horror show.  To my slight satisfaction, he groveled and grunted and then admitted to being gripped at one point.  I thought he might fall on the slab move exiting the offwidth but he executed the moves solidly and scored himself a spot on the big ledge above.  I followed up, still feeling awkward and insecure, but managing.  I had mellowed out a little bit by that point and was ready to keep moving.  It was getting late in the afternoon, the wall had gone into the shade, the wind was picking up, and we were getting cold.  I knew there was only one way to get us out of there with some daylight to spare so we could hike out, and that was to keep climbing.


determined not to cry. again.

I rallied and lead the next pitch – an exposed 5.10 with a nice (insert sarcasm) 5.8 chimney at the top.  I got really scared again but managed to keep climbing and not fall or freak out.  Adrian lead the next pitch, an amazing 5.9  crack system that lifted my spirits a bit, and then we faced nothing but two more easy 3rd and 4th class scrambling pitches to the summit.  We arrived there at 7:50 pm, thanks to my offwidth epic and slow anchor building skills, which I am still learning to be efficient at.  The summit was getting nuked by the wind and the smoke from the Rim Fire made for a vibrantly surreal sunset.  The whole scene felt apocalyptic.


Yipppeeeeeeeee we made it to the top!


Sunset & smoke

We hiked down in the dark  in 2.5 hours and drove straight to In-N-Out.  I was so exhausted and happy.  Everytime I’ve gone on a big trad climbing adventure this summer I’ve felt so scared and uncomfortable and out of my element.  I bleed and cry, my ego is stomped on repeatedly, and my threshold for suffering is tested.  These feelings never fail to show up.  And yet everytime it’s over and done with I feel the greatest sense of happiness and peace.  There’s nothing like it.  I always want to go back and do it again.  It didn’t matter that I fell this time.  In fact it’s probably the best thing that could have happened to me.  That’s the beauty of learning something new, the definition of success changes and becomes far less about the grade or difficulty and more about the effort put forth, lessons learned, and the eventual reward that comes in the form of a good story and memories shared with your partner.  I know that nothing I have done this summer was notable or unique, but it was an intense period of struggle and growth for me personally.   I’ve never been so scared on the wall, so confused about how to actually execute a certain move, or felt such a lack of confidence and insecurity about my climbing abilities; but I’ve also never been so satisfied after a day of pushing through those mental barriers and struggling to face those uncertainties.


Double Double!

My summer here in California is coming to a close.  Another season gone with a new one quickly approaching.  Our living room floor is scattered with all of Adrian’s expedition gear in preparation for his trip to Tibet next week.  I’m leaving for China the week after for a National Geographic trip, then to Nepal to hopefully climb a mountain.  I am beyond excited for the travel ahead, but this summer felt especially meaningful for me, and I have that slight melancholy feeling that it’s ending.   Guess that means it was a good one.


Goodbye #summertimestoke


14 responses to “Fear of falling, failing, and other things

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this post! I freak out leading trad climbs so often that I wonder if I should stop trying to push it. Knowing that a hard climber like you has those same fears (and tears), even on moderates is really comforting! I always seem to forget the climbs that I cruise, but the ones where I had freak-outs and pushed through really stick with me as points of pride.

    • Hey Alissa – thanks so much for reading and for your comment. I think you’re right! Those struggles are the ones you always remember. I hope you keep pushing yourself, I think that’s the only way to work through it! Best of luck 🙂

  2. Emily,
    Thank you for this. I almost felt that I could cry right there alongside you. As a sport climber, I have not yet had to place my own gear (though I have followed on trad) and can’t relate so much, but I can say that just the thought makes me nervous. This may sound weird, but hearing you talk about some very human emotions (and sometimes some very female emotions) makes me remember that you are still human and not immune to fear. I am a big fan of yours.

    • Thanks Elena, your kind words mean alot and it’s always nice to hear when people appreciate those real human stories since they tend to be the most meaningful to me personally. I am definitely NOT immune to fear. I think I’m more scared than most climbers when it comes to exposure/falling/etc. I guess you just have to learn how to manage that fear? I’m not sure yet. Still working on that one. Thanks again for writing!

  3. As a guy I don’t think I’m allowed to cry, but I’ve certainly been scared out of my mind, and turned into a sloppy, jittery mess every time I’ve attempted to go lead 5.6 on gear. Its terrifying, but every experience is infinitely rewarding. I live a mere 3 hour drive from the bugaboos, but despite being a pretty solid 5.10/11 sport climber, I’m terrified to go and try the 5.6 granite cracks. I guess I’ll have to wait until my desire to climb there overtakes my fear.

    Thanks for this post, I don’t feel like such a pansy anymore.

  4. Yes! Thanks for expressing your vulnerability here. I’m learning to lead trad as well, and I find climbing to be quite emotional, but it’s rare to find women writing about it. Thank you!!

  5. Thanks for such an honest and refreshing post! I’ve had similar freak outs and pushed through. It’s hard to have the mental fortitude to get over it and finish what you started. Nice to know that I’m not alone!

  6. What an amazing article. I’ve had a couple of classic crying moments myself but like you, I always get through and keep going and the satisfaction of surviving the fear is huge. Thankyou for sharing this post x

  7. Thanks for being real. For me, fear in climbing never goes all the away when it feels hard…even after 37 years of climbing

  8. Pingback: Why do women cry at the crag? | Paige Claassen·

  9. Thank you for this post- I love it! I love your honesty about your emotions, and how scary trad climbing can feel. And the comment about your boyfriend being annoyingly calm was great- I have totally been there.

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