My husband and I moved to Chattanooga this summer, which I have since learned is a mecca for rock climbers. Apparently people move here specifically for the climbing because the outdoors culture is awesome.
When we settled into our new home across the bridge, we decided to try out the super cool looking indoor climbing gym in downtown Chatty just for fun. My first time at the indoor gym my husband hooked me up to the auto-belay and told me to start climbing. I got maybe 6 feet up before my forearms seized and I told him I wanted to come down. He said “Let go,” and I told him he was insane. I started having a panic attack similar to Scottie in Vertigo and blubbered to my husband, tears and all, that I couldn’t let go. I just couldn’t trust the auto-belay to actually catch me when I fell.
My panic shouldn’t have been a huge surprise. I have often attempted to complete acts of height-defiance with the best of intentions. When we were canyoning in Italy I attempted to do as I was told and jump off a cliff into the thrashing water below. I truly convinced myself in my mind that I would jump, but my body was like heck naw and gave me leg lock.
Seven months ago my boss at the time told me I’d be taking pictures on the edge of a 27 story building looking down while people rappelled off for charity. I think I froze with a panicked look on my face when he told me because he immediately realized he might have asked too much of me. I think my fear surprised him, because one week earlier he and I were chilling in Colombia on a missions trip with a python and anaconda wrapped around our necks and eating cow tongues like it was nothing. I still took the pictures while leaning over a 27 story building for 8 hours because I’ll pretty much do anything to get an awesome shot, but I did not participate in the rappelling due to fear. Because that makes sense.
So back to my panic attack at the gym, now that I’ve given you some backstory. My husband just stood there, looking mildly embarrassed, and urged me to let go. I climbed down a foot or two before I was certain that I would not break too many bones if I fell to the ground and whispered multiple prayers. The auto-belay caught me and lowered me, flailing, to the ground — where I promptly fell on my butt. I was shaking for a good 15 minutes after that and was convinced I would never go back on a wall. But part of me believed if I could complete one wall my first time, it might not be a lost cause.
I told my husband that he started me off too ambitiously, that I needed to try a wall meant for kiddos or something. This confused him greatly, as he believed he already started me off on the most basic of walls. We went to the sic looking Kids’ Zone section of the gym. There were lots of tiny tots running around, almost all of whom are under a third of my total body weight. They got to climb fun looking walls that looked doable for a couch-potato noob like me. I wanted to try a wall but didn’t want to fall and crush a toddler, so I found a wall that no one was around.
The wall was shaped like a giraffe and it looked fun and cute. I knew if I could conquer this giraffe I’d be okay. My heart beat faster than my cardio workouts, and panic rose with every step I took higher on that giraffe’s endless neck. I knew I would be able to get over my fear if I could just complete this one wall. I finally made it to the top. I screamed jubilantly for my husband to notice my victory, like a kid screaming for his mom’s attention. Then I realized just how high up I was and that I’d have to let go to get down and I promptly let a choice curse word escape my lips. Yeah. In the Kids’ Zone.
But man, I conquered that giraffe. I was on top of the world, and I knew that it would all be okay. I could maybe come back here again some day. Y’know, in a long long time.
It was only a week before I went back again, and then I was hooked.
I did not expect to make climbing my choice sport what with my mild fear of heights and basically zero muscle mass. But what can I say? Climbing fills me with enjoyment and satisfaction. Physical activity in general has not filled me with excitement in many years, so I am eager to take advantage of these new fuzzy feeling. Really the only downside are the shoes, which make me feel like I am taking Pointe ballet while simultaneously living in China during the Song dynasty.
Don’t worry, I have no delusions of grandeur. I have no intention at this time of climbing outdoors, as I believe it will take me roughly 1-2 years of solid practice to even make a worthy attempt on the more difficult indoor walls, which — as I read from the mouths of numerous real rock climbers — are not the same thing as climbing outdoors. I will say that the climbers I have met in Chatt so far are super encouraging, kind, and chill, and excited to see a noob like me grow to love a sport they’re passionate about.
I’m overjoyed to enter 2016 with a fitness regime and goal that excites me. Climbing has been the best combination of puzzle, workout, masochism, and self-challenge. Also, I’ll be honest — it’s a little badass.
[…] the one thing that is going to get you excited about coming back to the gym and getting in shape. Rock climbing became my surprising “gateway drug” into the […]
I’m so glad I found your blog, I’ve just been on a climbing taster session. It was all good while we did some traversing and single rope climbing, holding the rope taut for each other with the instructor taking over to belay us back down. Then when we’d each climbed a few walls and I was really starting to love it we moved round to the auto-belay devices. We were meant to climb 6ft up and then let go of the wall – I just couldn’t do it, the thought of testing it just sent me into a panic attack. I was with strangers, and the fact that i’d gone into full blown panic wasn’t completely obvious (I was in tears later, but sort of stricken and still half holding it together at that point). So people were trying to reassure me, thinking I was still rational, when what I really needed was time out to get my head straight. Anyway, I tried to let go but ended up just grabbing hold of the wall again and climbing back down. Tried it a couple more times, but still in a really bad state, and just couldn’t bring myself to let go and trust the machine.
I did think maybe if I’d tried the auto-belay first I’d have been used to it going straight into lowering you rather than hanging for a bit. Not sure though.
Anyway, I’m really glad you’ve shared your experience, it definitely helps to hear you had a similar reaction to trusting a machine. Thank you so much for sharing!
Hey Fran, absolutely! You are not crazy for experiencing this. I’ve spoken with a few other people who have had similar reactions to their first time on a wall. It’s awesome that you are trying new things, and I would totally encourage you to go back and try again. Start with baby steps — climb up 3 feet and learn to let go. Or even better, you and a friend can learn to belay and you can top rope climb with each other. This sounds like what you experienced earlier in your day with your instructor. When your friend belays you, you are always protected by your friend and harness and you can just be suspended safely in the air without falling right away. It makes learning to climb those harder walls a little easier, as you can trust yourself to make harder (scarier!) moves without knowing you’ll plunge to the ground on an auto-belay. But no matter what, just be proud that you’re trying new things, and don’t let your initial reaction of fear keep you from trying again.
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