Climbing the summit ridge of Aoraki Mount Cook. © Brad Jackson

Climbing: facing your fear

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Fear. It can be irrational. Paralysing. Occasionally insightful.

But, despite what people say afterwards about personal growth, to face something you fear is not a pleasant feeling at all. Speaking from multiple personal experiences, it is horribly debilitating being too scared to move.

From a young age, I discovered that I had a fear of heights. It wasn’t at the phobia level, which would have left me a gibbering mess on the ground, but I certainly experienced an urge to throw up whenever I stood too close to the edge of a long drop.

3.5 hour approach to get to this (supposed to only take 2) after getting a wee bit lost but worth every step ❣️🇳🇿❣️

A post shared by Jean Michael Auffant (@jeanmichaelauffant) on Dec 1, 2016 at 11:10am PST

Don’t ask me how I came up with the idea of taking up climbing to tackle my fear. If I had to do it again, I’m not sure I would have the courage.

The first time I tied into a climbing rope my hands shook and my heartbeat rattled like a coffee grinder in a busy café. My vision blurred enough that all I saw was the thing that I feared the most. Stepping off flat ground onto the rock face felt worse than going to the dentist.

This may not seem like a particularly attractive point to start with when trying to encourage someone to take up climbing, but I have not yet met anyone who hasn’t been scared at some stage when on the side of a cliff face or partway up a steep mountain. To acknowledge it is the first step in dealing with it.

Now, after more than 30 years of rock and mountain climbing, my fear of heights has rescinded into a healthy respect. And this is testament to the many awesome things that climbing has shown me.

The first thing that comes to mind is how outrageous a position you can climb to, the ground hundreds of metres beneath your feet, your fingers clinging to a book spine width of rock – and the feeling of being in complete control in this extreme position.

Next is the rather unique blend of physical and mental exertion that leads both to a feeling of accomplishment and a sense of calm. And, all of this achieved in some of the most breathtaking (and steep) landscapes found in New Zealand.

To be in, and on, our mountains is to experience an environment that is special and unique.

So how to begin? Well, rock climbing and mountain climbing are two quite different activities. Apart from the obvious – one is on rock, the other mountains – the skills and gear required are different. But both provide lots of opportunity to learn and improve.

With rock climbing, the best place to begin is usually a local indoor climbing wall. A few metres off the ground – in a totally safe and controlled environment – you will likely find out whether you also have a fear of heights. Soon enough, though, you will be monkeying up harder and harder climbs that, when first considered, you would have thought them well beyond your ability.

Because mountaineering has more risk involved, it requires a more measured path. Joining the local section of the New Zealand Alpine Club is a great place to start. The club runs basic snow craft and climbing courses, and you will likely meet plenty of others who, like yourself, are also starting out. The Mountain Safety Council also runs courses in dealing with snow and avalanche risks.

It is important with all climbing to learn the right way of doing things. Climbing with more experienced people and learning from them, and never progressing beyond what you understand is an important step in managing the many potential risks involved.

Eleanor Roosevelt supposedly once said to do one thing every day that scares you. I’m not sure I totally agree with that. Once a week maybe...

Climbing lets me take hold of the edge and then let it go again to come home and reflect on the experience. In time, the urge returns, until I can’t wait to do it again.

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