Seventy feet up an overhanging arête known as Paradise Lost, deep in the hollows of Kentucky’s steamy Red River Gorge, I hang from shallow horizontal striations streaking the Corbin sandstone like lines of Morse code. I resist the waves of fatigue slowly overtaking me and look up to the crux above, from which I have fallen so many times already. Then I look down.
I’ve skipped a bolt, and between my shoes my last point of protection feels frightfully far away. The rope bellies out from the wall between each quickdraw. As I follow its line down, it appears to grow thinner, more string than cord. At ground level, my belayer’s little face turns up to greet me.
My adrenal gland does its thing, mainlining fight-or-flight stimulant into my system. My heartbeat accelerates, breathing goes shallow, sweat beads on forehead, hands start to quiver.
Nothing about my circumstances has changed except my awareness of those circumstances. The real risk of my situation is small, but I find it almost impossible to climb with a clear mind. My vision funnels in, and around me the possibilities disappear into a haze. In the words of Samuel Butler, “Fear is static that prevents me from hearing myself.”
How do you climb when a big fall looms beneath you? Do you tighten your grip? Hold your breath? Lock your muscles as if bracing for impact? It’s only natural.
What you’re afraid of in such situations — what we’re all afraid of, by design — is death and injury. Deep down, we’re programmed to respond this way to threats, real or perceived. This response is probably very effective in some circumstances — if you’re being chased by a predator, say — but it’s not very useful in climbing or in many of the scenarios we encounter in modern life. And while fear can inform our decision-making process in important ways, the survival instinct unbridled can lead us to make poor decisions.
Instead of pushing on, trying to climb as calmly and confidently as possible to the next bolt and accepting that I might have to fall, I attempt to down-climb through a difficult sequence. As I reach back, quaking, for a lower hold, I hook the rope behind my calf just as my I lose my grip.
“Falling! Shit!” I bark as I slip into space. The rope zings across the back of my knee, whipping me upside down and leaving a weeping burn. But the fall is clean, and I quickly right myself before my belayer lowers me back to Earth.
A few weeks later, I come across a Zen story, one of the Buddha’s parables:
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
Of course, the Zen story is just a vision of life painted in exaggerated colors. Aren’t we all suspended by a metaphorical vine, with no control over when the mice will chew it through? How do we appreciate the smell of fresh spring flowers with a stressful presentation looming on the horizon? How do we enjoy a meal with family, knowing that at some point there will be no more family, no more us?
One answer is that we try to put any undesirable thoughts out of our heads, ignore or otherwise wish them away. But I think we can only ignore things for so long, and so I can only see one reasonable response to our very natural fear of what lies ahead: to commit to the task at hand with all our hearts. To do our best to climb on with clear eyes, resolve, and with joy, despite the promise of a fall gathering in the space below.