On Fear, Panic, and the Failure of Not Even Trying


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Social climber
Mill Valley, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Jul 10, 2014 - 01:57pm PT
I humped a fully laden pig up to the nice, flat bivy spot where the scrambly hike turns to ledge traverse to the start of the West Face route. Leaning Tower. I had always been really intimidated by Leaning Tower. Sentinel as well but that's a different story. I was here to climb the WFLT and as I waited for my partner to finish his hike, inhaling my still warm Taquerias El Agave burrito and chugging beer and Gatorade, I was super stoked. I was hot, I was tired, but I was super stoked to get on the route that had long given me the willies, the next morning.

Rewind a couple of weeks. My new partner and I had done the South Face of the Column. Having never climbed together, we figured doing something we had both been on before made sense. I hadn't aid climbed in a while and he was fairly new. We were slow, got caught behind a log jam of parties that backed up when a very friendly but inexperienced team spent 6 hours on the Kor Roof pitch and we ended up bailing at the top of 8 the next day so I could take my youngest kid to the fair as promised the next day. It was a good couple of days with a nice wind event and some decent heat ratcheting up the scary and discomfort factors just enough to make things memorable. As we hiked the final stretch of bike path back to the truck, we mulled plans for our next mission.

Climbing is scary. I accept that and typically deal with it by convincing myself that my rational thoughts are right and my irrational wrong. Simple formula but not foolproof. The psychological tug of war. It's a big part of why I enjoy the sport.

A couple of years ago, I sat at the top of the first pitch of Zodiac in November, staring at the impending winter storm approaching and refused to go any higher. My fear later rationalized when the storm did in fact hit hard. Yes, we may have been fine in the protected environs of the overhanging wall cocooned in our storm sealed ledge with plenty of food and water but somewhere along the line, I convinced myself that wasn't the way to get up the big stone for the first time. Fear, panic, a try, and for all intents and purposes, an acceptable bail in my book.

Back to WFLT. Back to my thread title. Back to the shame.

I mention this tidbit only because he admitted to it later but when my partner got to the bivy spot, he seemed rattled. Actually, he seemed more nervous on the drive from the Bay than I had seen him before. We turned in, determined to get an early start and began the ritual more akin to mating with ants than actual sleep. With a fitful night behind us, we were up with the sun and ready to go in short order. My partner woke up stoked, I came to feeling like I hadn't slept.

Apologies for the preceding set up fluff but here is the meat and potatoes of my thread and the reason I felt compelled to share this experience in hopes of finding a golden nugget of ST exorcism. It all went downhill from here. Figuratively AND literally.

We repacked the bag and headed up and out the traverse. Nice fixed lines were in place but the previous nights 2 beer scramble past the second tree I had done with just my headlamp to accompany me left me unprepared for what I was faced with in the daylight. Fear crept in. Truth be known, it had crept in during my ant dance of a fitful sleep and was now past the creep stage and onto more of a surge. My legs got heavier with every step, and suddenly, the urge to retreat was enveloping me like wet cement. Right before the first real step across past the tree, I took the pig off and sat for a few minutes under the guise to both myself and my partner that I just needed a little rest and wanted to unpack a bit so we could shuttle the last section. I sat some more as my partner (name absent to protect the innocent) kept things rolling and began to shuttle.

Completely unwound, I texted my wife who, as the mother of one of my three children and my most ardent supporter, would be the pragmatist. She would tell me it was ok to come down, ok to bail on a partner who had, like me taken time off work, invested in gear, etc, she would validate my fears and let me come down.

"Baby, you can do it. Get on the wall. It's totally safe, you'll be stoked once you get going. Don't quit!" I stared at the little screen, mouth agape as the words screamed at me louder than anything I had ever heard before. She was SUPPOSED to tell me to come home, not to go further into the depths of panic I was experiencing. I paused, I pondered, I pee'd. And then I went to the dead tree and checked out the start up close and the reality began to hit me. I wasn't getting on the route. I was a quitter. Thousands had done this route. Harding walked this same stone in hard boots with ropes many of us would only use to tie a mattress to the roof of a car and yet, me, the cubicle puke with the latest, greatest gear, who knew it was safe, and had spent hours studying the topo to prepare for an EPIC 2 days of dumbed down vertical adventure could not even clip the first bolt of the ladder to the sky. In fact, I couldn't move. I was frozen in panic borne both of the route, and how to tell my partner that my up button was broken.

More than anything in climbing, I have been blessed with great partners. Partners who I enjoy being with, climbing with, sharing stories with, and going to the mat for so it was with an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach and my head pounding that I confessed. We talked, we welcomed another party to the wall, we hung out for a bit but in the end, we lowered the bags off and hiked down. Worst. Feeling. Ever. But at the same time, the ultimate relief.

So that leaves me here. Sitting here at my desk, cleansing my soul, pouring it out to our little public secret insiders club in hopes that a) talking about it will let me understand it better and b) someone may shed some light. Climbing is a very personal pursuit. I'm not sure why I love it but the idea of that being the end is crushing to me. Since getting (it's been about 3 weeks), my feelings have run in every direction from sell everything and go ride your bike to go solo the prow so you can make sure your head is in the right place before you drag another human being into the abyss with you. Frankly, I don't want to stop. I am a rational thinker and thrive on stretching my comfort zone. I've done the physical and technical work that should allow me to realize my climbing goals. I'm also stubborn enough to want to figure out a way to make it work. I may be soft but I'm a lousy quitter.

I can't say coming down was the wrong choice because at that moment, there wasn't one. The drive home that afternoon was long and quiet. I didn't regret bailing but I did regret not trying because in my book, the only true failure comes from not even making an attempt.


Social climber
Mill Valley, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Jul 10, 2014 - 02:50pm PT
Unfortunately, that pretty much sums it up, Locker

Big Wall climber
Terrapin Station
Jul 10, 2014 - 03:02pm PT
Dunno, I've never been a wimp.....


Dude, almost everyone here with a scrap of honesty in their soul will admit to a similar experience. Most of us have been able to choke it down, and a couple pitches up discovered that our fears were mostly unfounded.

My apprenticeship was so complete that I was absolutely ready for bigger walls, even the bigger psychological step. Not only did I do tons of free climbs of different lengths, but I also did smaller aid climbs in Oregon 2,3,4,5 pitches before I even cast off on Washington Column in the 70's. Then I did a number of Grade V's before I cast off on the Captain. To me that was the way it was done, and the way to feel solid when the time came.
Don't mean to cast stones your way, but has your apprenticeship been complete enough? Some guys need more than others, while some can jump in more directly with both feet.

Sport climber
Jul 10, 2014 - 03:02pm PT

Brave story. I've heard something similar from a couple of climbers before. One of them suddenly "froze" during a climb, was not able to move up and had to be helped down. Losing control not knowing why, is not a feeling that is easy to handle as a climber.

Trad climber
Fresno CA
Jul 10, 2014 - 03:05pm PT
My legs got heavier with every step, and suddenly, the urge to retreat was enveloping me like wet cement.

I like to think I can "yellow point" any climb, so those words resonate with me. I'll admit that I almost always have the hardest time getting up my first lead. Once I do that, it's straightforward. That said, I know too many stories of climbers (Jim Baldwin comes to mind) who got the chop going up when their gut told them otherwise.

I rather suspect the WFLT will still be there when you're ready to try again.


Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Jul 10, 2014 - 04:03pm PT
Wow....that's one of the most honest things i have read here...anywhere. If you're able to so honestly portray the events and put them out there on a public forum I think that you can overcome the feelings that caused you to turn around.
You were right to make the decision to go down....you were right NOT to have even tried. You sound very rational to me and your decision to tell your partner that you could not go on was not reached without a lot of soul searching. Don't punish yourself but resolve, since you clearly love climbing, to get back in the saddle.
Some ideas:
Do some nice, moderate multi pitch routes in beautiful settings with favorite partners.
Take a break from doing climbs that are on your cutting edge either physically or psychologically.
We all love the movement of rock climbing along with the beautiful places it takes us and the partnerships that develop but we also have a natural tendency to UP the ante and do harder and more committing climbs....take a break from that and do excursions in the "lark" category.
Freshness, both physical and psychological will return.

I climb a lot and i tend to push myself. A few weeks ago I was in a bit of a nadir and even found myself saying...."no, don't pull the rope, I'll clean it" on sport climbs.
I just returned from a two week trip that included some moderate climbing at the COR and hiking on the Olympic Penninsula. Today I went to the Pool Wall in Ouray and felt completely refreshed.

Somewhere out there
Jul 10, 2014 - 04:10pm PT
Sounds like you need to learn to how to put it in a box to deal with a little better.

From what I read I conclude that you didn't really want to do the climb... you never wanted to start this climb... My evidence is the story of the OP.

If your focus is true and you really do want to make the attempt and climb anything... I feel you just will. A period of time will pass from here and you will not remember this failure with the same significance as a sting from a mosquito.
Flip Flop

Trad climber
Truckee, CA
Jul 10, 2014 - 04:16pm PT
A virtual kick-in-the-sack to you. Have you considered Spin classes or TaeBo you poser?What's the matter, pulling v2++ at the gym not working out? Easiest wall in the universe. Ain't no participation medals in climbing. Were you raised with sisters?
( just in case a little degradation helps light your fuse.)

Maybe you're afraid that the victory sex will lead to more babies. Sensitive Marin Hot Tubbers! Sheesh! Wouldn't you be happier flying the "Mission Accomplished" and swinging your dong?

Trad climber
Twain Harte, California
Jul 10, 2014 - 04:41pm PT
Great post.

Brutal honesty.

I don't have any suggestions though - fear is a part of the game that makes it worth playing, and one we all deal with differently.

Trad climber
Nothing creative to say
Jul 10, 2014 - 05:08pm PT
The visceral urge to go down is natural.

When you're ready you will tell yourself the following, and it will ring so totally true:

The only way down is UP.


Somewhere out there
Jul 10, 2014 - 07:30pm PT
Been thinking on this post for the day...

From a guy named Bukowski...

Hope it helps with the indecision...

Q- Ball

Mountain climber
where the wind always blows
Jul 10, 2014 - 09:37pm PT
I lost my climbing nerve from 2002-2006. I lost some good friends and had some close calls in that time.

I have turned around on numerous climbs, others I fought my unknown fear.

My occupation today has me in what I believe is equally dangerous stuff (zero visibility freshwater/big river scuba)

What I have seen in the mountains keeps me confident and competent in the river.

Just don't kink my air hose, I get testy after that!


Trad climber
Western America
Jul 10, 2014 - 10:16pm PT
I 'knew' I was destined to be a climber
from all the falling dreams I had as a kid.
Being that scared seemed cool.


Trad climber
Millbrae, CA
Jul 10, 2014 - 11:07pm PT
I appreciate your post because of the generosity of your honesty.

We have probably all experienced fear and panic in the course of our climbing lives. Well except maybe Werner.

What I challenge is the whole concept of naming what happened as "failure". Motivation, psyche and will can change with the wind. You lived to climb another day. Climbing is just a form of play. You'll be in the mood to play another time.

El Presidio San Augustin del Tucson
Jul 10, 2014 - 11:12pm PT
Phyl, yes.

I have absolutely no problem bailing, or expressing it to my partner.
Climbing's supposed to be fun. Being scared can be fun, but when it's not, stop, bail.
And actually, it could be some gut feeling, an intuition, a sixth sense at work.

Nice share, thanks.

Jul 11, 2014 - 06:02am PT

Love Donini's words of wisdom. I think we all have our moments. Like to see Hudon weigh in. One of his (very accomplished) partner's recently said something like this: "You know how the pull of the ground is always with you on a wall, pulling you back? With Hud around the pull comes from the top!" (paraphrasing, but it carries the soul of the comment)

Trad climber
Santa Cruz, California
Jul 11, 2014 - 06:37am PT
The hardest climb I never did was the North Face of Quarter Dome.

Eaten alive by killer skeeters, mossy deathslabs, where the hell is the route? That sucking noise is us. Sweating rivers on an east coast like humidity day. Tuck tail and head home. Never go back. End of story.

Dingus Milktoast

Gym climber
Maestro, Ecosystem Ministry, Fatcrackistan
Jul 11, 2014 - 06:49am PT
The worst feeling in the world only deepens over time. First is pusses, then it oozes, finally it scabs and keloids over, creating a permanent lump under the flesh of your courage.

The 'instant relief' of giving up fades in like 10-minutes.

Get your ass back up on that wall. Nothing so sweet as the curing SEND.

Climber - heal thyself.

Travis Haussener

Trad climber
Salt Lake City
Jul 11, 2014 - 07:17am PT
Awesome post, way to be honest, I think in every climbing, skiing, and running guide I've ever read there's always a small piece that says "if your gut says no then don't do it...it will be there another day." You made the right choice.

I once hiked up to Lone Peak here in the Wasatch (6 miles, 5000 vert) to do some silly 3 pitch route. Got so scared, I didn't care that I wasted all that time/energy lugging up gear, and turned right around. To this day I haven't been back there to climb.

Social climber
Mill Valley, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Jul 11, 2014 - 07:58am PT
Ahhh.....some great replies here.

I've lived long enough to realize the only way out of the hole is to be honest with myself. Either I'll figure it out or find some closure but there's no way I can lay in bed at night without trying to figure it out. Besides, this is only the interwebz....few here know me in real life anyway! After lurking in my own thread for a bit and reading the replies, some with more amusement than others, I really think my questions are more about how the switch just flips, and how others have dealt with it when it does.

Survival, the apprenticeship question is interesting. I really thought I had put my time in but in hindsight wasn't prepared for the commitment WFLT demanded. I wasn't really worried about climbing part. There's an isolation that comes with wall climbing and it may be the most discomforting aspect for me. Jingy's comment that I didn't want to climb it in the first place may have been spot on. I liked the idea of doing it, just not the reality. Bukowski's words really resonated.

As far as failure goes though, let me clarify. I don't think bailing is failing. I think not trying was where I drew the line and what bummed me out more than actually walking away.

The beauty of climbing comes from both the simplicity and complexity that it simultaneously presents. Sure, man up or the easiest way down are the easy answers but if that was all there was to it, it wouldn't be meaningful to us.
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