Perseverance: When Fear Raises Its Ugly Head…Again

The author, Hilary, in the background working Predator, 5.13b/c

The author, Hilary, in the background working Predator, 5.13b.

We all have struggles in life. Whether it be with family, relationships, injury, or something else – we all have our own battles. What separates us from where we want to be is how we choose to deal with our struggle. Do we accept it as just the way it is or do we fight for what we want?

November of 2014 I was the most confident climber I had ever been. I was leading climbs that would have previously seemed too scary to consider but I was able to push forward without a second thought. I was feeling safe, secure and strong. Maybe I was too confident, maybe I was bordering hubris. In an instant everything changed. I slipped on a wet hold on my warm-up prior to clipping the first bolt. A climb I had done hundreds of times before with ease now spit me off and sent me tumbling backwards off a ledge. The accident left me with two broken heels, a fractured vertebrae and a shattered ankle.

Leaving the hospital with husband, Jed, post accident.

Leaving the hospital with husband, Jed, post accident.

During my recovery I tried to do whatever I could to maintain some strength. This included leg lifts from my bed, 5 pound bicep curls, and a freestanding hang board that my husband built for me to wheel my wheel chair under. Unfortunately, there was nothing that I could to address the fear I felt about climbing again. Mentally, it was like starting from square one. Actually, if it’s possible to start from negatives, that’s probably where I was. I found myself not only scared on top rope but I was struggling going down stairs. I would find myself death gripping the stair rail, envisioning myself going head over heels hitting every step on the way down. It seemed so real I could almost feel the impact. I would hesitate, hiking across narrow trails that I would have never even noticed before. I expected that it would be hard to start climbing and leading again but I never envisioned the panic I would feel simply standing on top of a 3 foot tall boulder to belay. I didn’t know how long the road ahead of me was, but I really wanted it.

Maintaining strength during recovery with the help of a wheel-chair accessible hangboard.

Maintaining strength during recovery with the help of a wheel-chair accessible hangboard.

Unlike the first time I had battled fear years ago, I had the advantage this time in knowing that it was possible to work past my fear. I had done it before. I also had an intense desire to get back to where I was, pushing my limits physically as well as mentally. I heard a podcast interviewing pro climber Hazel Findlay where she described working on one’s fear like stretching a muscle, the more you push through it the easier it is to stretch the next time. I completely agree. After 2 months in a wheelchair and another month with crutches I was finally able to start climbing again. The first few top ropes were a combination of excitement to be finally doing what I loved and had been missing but also so much anxiety and fear. I found it helped to be choosy about who I had belay me. I only let those I truly trusted and could feel confident that I would have their full attention belay me. After a month or so of top roping I was starting to feel more confident and safe. So, I started leading in the gym, steep stuff at first and only climbs that I was confident I would not fall on. Soon, spring arrived and it was time to start facing my fear outside, back at Rumney.

From dealing with my fear in years past I knew the only way to start feeling comfortable falling again was to take falls. For me, avoiding falling only makes the fear stronger. I need to be reminded that falling under the right conditions is safe. I picked a climb that I knew well and was steep and safe. With a well trusted belayer and friend I was able to take a bunch of lead falls. It was hard but I knew it was what I needed to do. The more falls I took, the safer and less scared I felt. The next step for me was getting back on the climb I fell from. I knew putting this climb behind me was necessary for rebuilding my confidence and that the longer I waited the harder it would become. I fought off the tears as I tied into my harness, looking at the rocks that I hit as I tumbled to the spot where I had finally landed. I asked my husband not to speak to anyone else at the crag so that I would know I had his full attention. It took everything I had to remain calm and continue moving up the climb. The relief I felt when I landed safely back on the ground was overwhelming. I knew I had taken a huge step towards my recovery. Afterwards, each day got a bit easier and with the support from my husband and friends I was able to keep pushing.

Hilary climbing on Predator, less than a year after her accident.

Hilary climbing on Predator (5.13b) this September, less than a year after her accident.

Fast forward to now, I’m getting better. I’m regaining my confidence and I am feeling less scared. I still have days that are harder than others, where the fear creeps in more. On these days I feel like my hands are opening and my feet are slipping. Nothing feels secure and I find myself checking my knot multiple times while climbing even though I know I checked it before I left the ground. On these days I try to be patient with myself and not get frustrated, it’s hard. When I feel panic while climbing or even going down stairs I try to breathe and ask myself if my fear is real or irrational. I do the same thing when I am scared climbing. Most of the time it’s irrational but that doesn’t make it feel any less real. Sometimes acknowledging that the fear is not real and reminding myself that I am safe helps. I know it will get better. I just have to keep pushing ahead. To those of you struggling with climbing or otherwise, keep fighting. Be patient with yourself but don’t give up.

Climb on! ~Hilary

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3 thoughts on “Perseverance: When Fear Raises Its Ugly Head…Again

  1. Valerie says:

    Knowing that people that can climb 5.13’s outdoors and still have fear makes me feel much better about having fear at lower grade levels… I assumed people that climb that hard no longer have fear.

  2. Lisa Wang says:

    I’ve had 2 ground falls and one ledge fall. I’ve ripped out my own gear from 15 meters only to have my landing softened by rope stretch. I’ve hit the ground full force with my unprotected head from 3-4 m because my belayer dropped me because of a too-short toprope. The ledge fall, was well, going off route in the Dolomites and a foothold broke, in that case, more or less, shit happens and be more careful. I have dealt with more fear than I ever imagined, and the hardest lesson I’ve learned is self-acceptance. Some days will be hard, some days leading is impossible and cleaning the route on toprope takes breathing exercises. Some days, I will lead in the mountains and enjoy it and be proud as I belay up my partner. I’ve come to accept that climbing for me will involve fear, for most likely all of my climbing life, and learning to accept has allowed me to also enjoy it again. For a time, it was more or less a constant battle within myself of why I wasn’t willing to lead more routes, to lead routes that were obviously well within my ability. Now, its just how it is. I look for climbing partners that safe, accepting, and also climb for the joy, not for the grade. Having a belayer I really trust below me has a direct effect on how much I hang on the bolts and push myself.

  3. Vlad says:

    It’s so reassuring to learn of someone who did it all the way through ! I broke my heel bone and vertebrae when bouldering outside in May this year so I can sort of see what you have must went through. Initially, after the operation, my morale was pretty high and as I really wanted to climb again and did not accept it would not be possible, but then as the weeks crawled, I was increasingly afraid that I will not be even able to walk properly, not mentioning climbing. Luckily, change of the context with good timing (went to warm sea in sunny Greece combined with first steps without crutches) made me to become optimistic again. After the return from vacation I started exercising again, trying to rebuild my strength. I found yoga, stretching and my physioterapist recommended some good exercises for core/abs without putting any pressure on the back. It still hurts when I walk but riding tens of kilometers on my bike is pure joy. When I went climbing for the first time after the injury, the fear was overwhelming but not as much as you describe (maybe the sense for self preservation of men is lower then of women). I feared I will fall down and hurt the leg some more because the leg cannot take the load. It’s always good to ask yourself what is the fear exactly about and if it has any ground. Luckily, the leg, albeit swollen, did pretty good which prompted more optimism, especially when it was possible to fit the leg into climbing shoe again (yay!). I will now take it slowly and will very gradually increase the load as this seems to be the only approach how to make the brain relearn what to feel during climbing (well, I was afraid during climbing before, just did not realize it so intensely). Climbing for fun rather than for grade is definitely my goal now.
    I wonder if you can share (maybe in another article) some concrete/practical pieces of advice in terms of recovery/healing.

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