Over the years we have helped hundreds of people, (maybe more), to face and to overcome their fear of heights. Every now and then someone has asked me if I have ever had a fear of heights myself. In case you didn’t know, the answer is yes. Fortunately for me though, time spent with Brian on our Fear of Heights courses means that these days my head is better equipped to focus on my climbing rather than on falling. But, I still need to invest time in myself, and to continue to push myself with more challenges.
What’s good for the goose …
Unless you continue the journey there’s every chance you’ll end up at square one. And, that advice equally applies to me.
This past week, I have spent a week, mountaineering in Scotland. I’m a member of the Austrian Alpine Club, and an opportunity arose to join a heavily subsidised winter mountaineering course.
I’m a summer mountain leader well used to summer conditions and not used to operating on snow and ice. In the past, my mates and I have pottered around on some easy grade winter-climbs, but we have never really pushed ourselves. I saw this five-day course as my opportunity to do just that. I wanted to be able to climb harder routes, routes that would be more exposed, more of a head-game and all round more of a challenge.
Five days in Scotland
We arrived in Glen Coe and we were immediately asked to write down a synopsis of our previous experience. Now was not the time to be shy! If I wanted to climb harder routes I needed to be sure not to sell myself short. In turn I was teamed up with Mal, Dai and Chris: all experienced rock climbers, leading at about the same level as myself with some winter climbs under their belts too.
With an expectation of knowing that we knew what we were about, we were simply told to be ready to go the next day for 0815. We were told that it would be a mountaineering day, not a climbing day, so just the one axe would be required.
Well, there’s the first head game to be played. One axe means we’d be on ground that wouldn’t be too technical or too demanding. But it also means that we’d all be short of the security that comes from having a second axe to hand. It’s a bit like being told we’d be doing some really easy rock climbs – just bring the one arm. It also assumes that we’re the sort of experienced people that won’t be worried about having just one axe. The head is a funny thing and it likes to play its games!
Our last day and the wind speeds were gusting at plus 60 mph over the mountain tops. I was intrigued what Stu would pull out of the bag. We would happily have accepted an easy skills day at the local quarry and that would have been an easy option for Stu. But he had other ideas … He’d found a a grade 2 gully that would be shielded from the wind and that also allowed for escape along a “shelf” that meant we wouldn’t have to top out in what would have been suicidal conditions.
We made our way up towards the west face of Aonach Dub. The grade II gully that Mal and I were to lead could be reached via a potentially tricky scramble, or by a grade IV ice climb up 60 meters of a frozen waterfall. The decision was unanimous – we’d take the ice-climb any day!
Once again we tied into the ropes. With a decision to go light Stu had packed a 60m rope and a shorter (maybe 30m) rope. Stu would lead the route, build a belay and then Mal would second, with me following up at the back. This meant that before Mal would have got to the safety of the stance where Stu would be tied in, I would have to start climbing.
This isn’t ideal. I knew that if I took a fall, that Mal would be taken with me. The system would catch us: we’d be safe all right, but as I say, it’s not ideal. It was additional pressure on me not to fall off and slightly unnerving.
Ice climbing is new to me. It’s a funny sensation. You gently swing your pick into the ice and using your senses you try to gauge if it will hold your weight when you go to pull up on it. Sometimes your axe goes through the ice and bounces off rock lying beneath the surface. Sometimes the ice just shatters. Sometimes you swing the pick into the ice and you see fault lines emanate from the point of contact, water bleeds into the cavity below, yet still this may be a hold that works. And sometimes you just swing the pick into the ice, you hit a sweet spot and you know instantly it’s going to hold.
Even though I describe all this to you now, this is still new territory for me, and so my amygdala, that ‘acorn’ at the back of my head was vying for the space to be in charge. I managed to keep it at bay and to think about how I would move into balance. It was a funny sensation, scary but really good. Good since I was acquiring new skills and growing in confidence all of the time.
Following our ascent of the Screen we swiftly set up for leading the grade II gully ahead. Malcolm was first off while I hung back on belay relishing the warm blood now surging back into my gloved fingers. Warmth was a fleeting moment however, as Mal fought his way up the gully through spindrifts of snow and ice-patches: the biting cold soon made its presence known to me once more.
Our ascent of this gully was easy for us but gave Stu an opportunity to watch how we placed gear and built our belays. As I rounded the top flank of this route and tied into a final thread-belay I could see our escape route off to the left. Tenuously, you could call it a shelf. As far as I could see this snow covered ground sloped steeply off down into the ravines and gullies below. One slip could have severe consequences.
With Mal safely beside me, Stu tied into the system and headed off on a precarious traverse to find the next anchor. The rope ran out and moments later Stu was tugging us on the rope. Mal and I untied from our anchor and then together we daggered on all fours (like scuttling crabs) our way across the slope.
For the past two or three hours now snow had been falling. The tracks of the previous climbers had been totally obscured and while Stu said nothing I figured that maybe the risk from avalanche might have increased from moderate to considerable during this time. Every now and then the high gusting winds whipped around the buttress of rocks abutting our left-hand side and reminded us that we were high up and and in a potentially precarious situation.
I knew exactly how Stu our guide would be feeling. He’d be weighing up the changing situation, watching to see how we, his clients were coping, anticipating what might happen, solving problems before they arose, continually and dynamically risk-assessing. He’d be earning his money right now – that was for sure.
We must have repeated this sketchy routine three more times before Stu told us to untie. From here we would dagger our way down. No more traversing – just the ritual of kick, kick, stab, stab, kick, kick, stab, stab, down down down. Eventually I could see the angle of the ground becoming more shallow. Stu had turned about and was descending facing outwards, albeit zig-zagging down.
I followed suit and considered how much my confidence had grown exponentially during the course of these five days. I chuckled a little bit. It was just like when my clients meet me on the Saturday afternoon on the heights courses, not yet sure of what they are capable of, only to see a complete transformation 24 hours later.
Of course Stu got us down safely. Ours was the last car in the car park but we’d escaped without needing head torches. It had been an ace day and a great experience for me to reflect on how we can all be affected when out of our normal comfort zone.
And that’s just it isn’t it. When we’re adjusting to a new activity we’re not going to feel comfortable and maybe a bit of fear is a good thing to have: it keeps us alive. It doesn’t have to control us though.
With practise and continual exposure to new challenges, and with experience, we learn to adapt our emotional responses to these stimuli and the more we do so the more we are capable of operating positively in these arenas. Personally I can’t wait to get out and to put my new found skills and confidence into action. Roll on the next deep freeze!
And never, let anticipation ruin your day!