My feet are three metres up the ground, my body is balancing precariously above the void, my hands are gripping hard on the small handles and I am scared.
I have never feared heights before. The top of buildings and the ridges of cliffs have always provided me with an adrenaline rush as my feet would creep closer and closer to the edge, my mind daring me to take one more step. But there was no real danger as I knew I was in control and wouldn’t fall. This all changed a year ago while canyoneering in Italy with a friend. Jumping off every cliff no matter how safe I was told it was, no matter how many people went before me required a conscious kick in the back. My body would simply refuse to move. This was not a game anymore and if I jumped I would be free-falling into the air, with only water to shield me from breaking all of my bones – if I landed correctly. I was afraid to fall.
The muscles in my arms tighten in a vain attempt to lift my body up as my legs tremble and lose their steady grip on the holds.
I had thought I had left this paralysis in the valleys of Italy, but it has come back to taunt me recently. I have taken up indoor bouldering – a form of climbing that involves no ropes and walls that don’t go so high – almost a month ago and at times I am frightened by the fall once more. I can feel the strength in my body drain away from me, my limbs start to shake, my movements become erratic and I need to get down. Luckily there is always plenty of holds to grab on every descent and if all fails big mattresses cover every inch of the floor and will do a brilliant job at protecting me – I know, I have crashed hard on them once.
I look up and can see I am not far from the end. There are only three more holds and a volume to manage before I can make my hands match on the final prize.
In spite of this fear nagging me at the back of my head, I am enjoying bouldering and most of the time I am not scared – not really. I build my confidence on easy and well-trodden problems until I am ready for a challenge. I try to read the route and climb down if I am stuck for too long. The floor is a friendlier place to seek an alternative – injury safe and filled of helpful people.
I inhale deeply and grind my teeth trying to ignore the raging anxiety running amok through my body. I channel all of my energy, focus my brain on the next hold and launch myself upward.
Bouldering has been good. It provides me with a much needed release from the routine and slowness of work, reawakening my body and mind. It challenges and pushes me as few things have done recently through the thrill of heights and the mastering of my fears, the route reading and observation of other climbers, the full body work out and the gentle ache of the next day.
I grab the next hold with the tip of my fingers, steady myself and feel relieved but for an instant. My feet are still three metres up the ground, my body balancing precariously above the void, my hands gripping hard on the small handles and I am still a little scared.