Facing My Fear of Heights – Indoors

It felt like this:


But in reality it was this:

mission-cliffs-climbing wall crop

A  much milder wall with colored plastic rocks that looked like friendly Fisher Price toys. Still despite the friendly child-like colors, the Milan’s Rockspot indoor climbing gym’s wall felt more like the first image.  Indoor climbing has become a sport of increasing popularity thanks to climbing gyms, and I thought why not give it a try, maybe tone up the arms and overcome, or at least feel more comfortable with a fear of heights. Many friends have enjoyed the sport but I never really thought too much about it. I liked my feet on the ground and foot- ground relationship is one I have actively nurtured through the years, so why now should I want to through a wrench into the happy pairing of my feet and ground?

Since I  like to spend time in the mountains and now the closest ones happen to be the Italian Alps, I have found myself more on the edges of things. Having lived smack in the center of the mountains for many years ( the aptly named Summit County no less, I had somehow managed to steer clear of the edges of things, but in Italy the trails seem to favor edges, so maybe I needed to find a better way than sweaty palms and increased heart rates to deal with them.

I used to get sweaty palms driving over mountain passes, once when driving over Loveland Pass in Colorado, the center stripes on the swithcbacky, high mountain pass had just been repainted and so cones were set in place down the middle of the road to prevent smearing of the lines. These cones, while protecting Colorado Department of Transportation’s artwork, also prevented me from driving more comfortably in the middle of the road, and  I was forced to remain in my proper lane,  too close to the edge for my comfort . This cliff hugging drive caused my palms to sweat and heart to pound and I had to take deep breaths to remain calm and talk myself through this harrowing drive. It was a clear day and the road was dry but it was one of the many instances when I was acutely aware of not having enough space around me even though  I was in a car not trying to balance while walking across some narrow rocky narrow edge.

It’s not that I entirely avoided high spots, I have spent lots of time on chairlifts, but I preferred to lean back while on them, never one to adjust my ski boots unless the safety bar was firmly in place. So what exactly was I doing now with a group of people who seemed to be half my age in the arrampicata aperitivo? (rock climbing happy hour). FYI the happy hour took place after the climbing, a dangling carrot of a reward for dangling off ropes far above the gym floor. Though my friend who joined me (and was also sharing in the non ground contacting nervousness) proposed that a dose of liquid courage could have also been useful before the class.

The Italians are good at making things social and they also seem to enjoy taking classes, so it makes sense that they would combine the Milanese tradition of aperitivo (a happy hour with food and drink) with a class.

I have always been fascinated by stories of climbing and do a fair amount of hiking and other mountainy things, but hiking with an occasional rock scramble is different from using ropes and harnesses. (this is of course for climbing and not a 50 Shades of Gray reference).

The first part of the class allowed us to do some bouldering, no ropes on a relatively low wall , working our way across rather than up the lowest level of this wall, getting used to the shoes which scrunched your toes into a stronger curled position and learning about the basics of how to stand and move, trying to maintain a stable triangular position with two legs and an arm.

Leaving the ground behind

After a bit of time on the bouldering wall with cushy crash matts below it was time to leave the ground. The instructor explained the use of the harness and the safety of the the ropes, assuring us we would not fall. He, dressed in baggy jeans and a sweatshirt had to fix another rope for our grouped and gracefully sprung his way up the wall, Fred Astaire like but moving vertically with carabiners and rope. A group of kids seemed to be running up the wall, not nearly as light on their feet but still sprinting vertically to the top with no hesitation or seeming effect of gravity on the body or mind. These types of moves were not to be mine on that evening.

With ropes fixed, our group of newbies were up. My friend and belay partner took her turn and now it was mine. Feeling pretty good post bouldering, I was giving myself an internal pep talk that I could do this. No lightness or speed accompanied my first ascent. Just deliberation, telling myself to ignore the pain in my toe that the climbing shoes were pinching as my toe was an essential if minimal contact point ( recall I liked my feet to touch things) . But hey, I was moving, I was balancing. I was stretching. I was climbing. Then I looked down. The ground by now seemed quite far (though I was only slightly more than halfway up the wall) I looked for my partner, who seemed to be watching everyone but me. (no doubt they were more appealing to watch, but I did need some slack in the line as I decided it might be time to go down. Going down requires notifying your  belayer so that the tension on the rope can be released to let you descend.  However my request didn’t catch  her attention. So I called her name, and still no response. I  switched from Italian to English and called out again my desire to be closer to the floor.  All the while perched on two tiny pieces of plastic well above the ground. Eventually my partner heard the now more urgent calls of of requesting to come down and they she asked what to do , she  asked if she should let the “rope go”? My response was a quite emphatic no, as I visualized the cord rapidly snaking away and until finally sipping up through the pulley that was my backup should the arms and legs give out.  Telling her to find the instructor to guide her and me to the ground resolved the issue and I started to move down. Still, I was no Cirque du Soleil performer and clunkily bounced off the wall until touch down.

We worked out the distraction issues and tried again. This time on a different route. I figured I should make it up a bit higher this time . Most of my fellow newbies were reaching the top of the wall but I felt quite studly at  3/4  point when I made the mistake again of looking down.  Going up was not a breeze but it was not too difficult either, physically. The hardest part was being up high. There is a reward in looking down , in seeing how far I came, but the reward for me was short lived, as once I looked  to see my progress my  lofty ambition was replaced with affection for the ground.  The return to earth was  slightly less clunky but elegance seems to be a long way off.

Come for the drinks, stay for the climb

The instructor was patient and encouraging and the group friendly, We now had reached the aperitivo portion of the evening and enjoyed a well deserved beer and surprisingly tasty food.(Yes, I know, Italy has good food, so not sure why I was surprised, I guess just not expecting nice prosciutto at a gym.) My friend made a comment which stuck with me “there was no chance to think of anything else” It was true. For me and for many others ( though I suspect more so for those who are not friends with height) it was an activity that immediately and completely was all absorbing. Thinking about where to put arms and legs and how to move. I think there is something to do with a looming  fear is a big aid in helping you to remain in the the moment. In the end it was quite a rewarding experience and I have signed up for more, hoping that I will be able to look down without wanting to come down.

Image credits:



Mission Cliffs

Noun Project- Jeremie Sommet



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