Kristen Byrne shares her struggle with anxiety over climbing in this essay, published as part of The Dyrt Magazine Issue 01: Women in the Outdoors.
Whenever I prep for a climbing trip, it’s typically the same. I pack as much climbing gear as possible into this giant crate, throw it in my Honda Element, and the rest goes in my bag. Simultaneously, I pack a lot of anxiety, too.
I wasn’t always a “climber,” and to be completely honest, some days I still don’t consider myself one. But I do climb—mostly inside with the occasional outdoor trip jammed into my summer. I’ve climbed at local crags in Montana, sat in the eye of the Cyclops in Joshua Tree National Park, and chased the winter sun to keep my fingers from going numb at Smith Rock State Park, only to get my ass utterly humbled by steep rock faces. I’m pretty sure I’ve cried at every one of these places. So why climb at all?
Climbing as an Escape
I liked the idea of climbing while I lived in New York City. I was working 60-plus hours a week producing for network news and desperately seeking an escape. Though I’m afraid of heights, I had always been intrigued by climbing—I wanted to connect with nature and tap into my physical ability. However, I ultimately didn’t make time for it.
The first time I touched rock with the intention to climb it was in Montana. Once I realized I didn’t want to be the person that worked their life away in lieu of exploration, I left New York and swapped it for Bozeman: population 45,000; about 0.5% of New York. Upon arrival, I signed up for a rock climbing class and bought my first pair of climbing shoes.
I climbed a lot—four or more days a week. When I wasn’t at work, I was climbing, hiking, or running to stay in shape for climbing. It was incredibly hard in the beginning, but I started to feel strong when I sent my first 5.10A. Then I climbed my first 5.11A clean, and I felt unstoppable. Any stressor could be dealt with between me and the wall.
Fear of Falling
I pushed myself to make the natural climbing progression to leading, and all of a sudden the thought of falling paralyzed me. In one session, climbing went from a release, to something that felt completely impossible and binding. I dreaded climbing indoors, and outdoor climbing would result in a freeze, just holding the same position until my fingers couldn’t latch onto the rock anymore.
Then I would cry. I would cry out of embarrassment. I would cry because my belayer was a better climber than I was. I would cry because I was scared of falling. I would cry because I was frustrated, and I didn’t feel like I had a right to be. Sometimes these episodes would turn into panic attacks, leading to further defeat and shame. This activity that used to help me feel strong began to leach my energy until I was entirely deflated.
Conquering the Mental
It doesn’t make sense. Climbing is supposed to be fun. It’s a hobby. In no way is climbing representative of my worth as a person. But I have a tendency to turn it into a monster. And, yes, that’s present tense, because those feelings—the fear, frustration, and shame—have not gone away. They’re present, and I’m still learning how to accept them. Some days are good, and I get really excited about a climb that I sent, and other days are bad, resulting in a long car ride home full of mounting self-doubt and defeat.
I’m still trying to figure out my timing when it comes to the climbs that I choose. When is the right time to push through my fear, and when is it time to call it and come back tomorrow? I don’t know the answer yet, but I think I’m getting closer.
Despite my fear of falling, I still go, because deep down, I really do love climbing. I am beyond fortunate to have climbing friends, and my partner, who all highlight my strength when I feel weak, and celebrate it with me when I feel strong. Every single session I choose to face these fears that momentarily prevent me from flying, because I truly believe I can conquer them. I wouldn’t keep pulling on rock or plastic if I didn’t.
Now if you’ll excuse me, today is a whipper day.
We’re celebrating women all month at The Dyrt, with stories from and about women who are overcoming obstacles, facing doubts, accomplishing goals, and loving the outdoors. Share your story with #StillSheGoes on social media!