“Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.”

Jim Morrison


Being as I’m lacking freedom to go anywhere interesting due to the pandemic I thought I’d write the story of how I learnt to climb to deal with what was but is no longer a really extreme fear of heights. When I was much younger it was so bad I couldn’t even go on cliff tops or into tall buildings without basically having vertigo and a huge panic attack. That’s how bad it was, it faded a bit as I got older but it was still a really excessive fear of heights / falling. As you can imagine is not a useful affliction to have as a keen mountaineer. But anyway maybe this will help aspiring climbers /mountaineers, or at least help those with anxiety / who want to face their fears. Or just give a load of people a decent laugh because I spend most of this story freaking out holding onto climbing walls and rocky ledges like a terrified cat.

Of course, a fear of falling is totally rational, and it’s one of those deep seated fears that the vast majority of us all have because it’s there to keep us alive. Admittedly I have met and know a few people that seem to have an almost abnormal lack of this fear, to name but one would be my friend Luke who is essentially a spider in a mans body.

The First Time

I remember the first time I even tried climbing was years ago with some, Rachel and Stacey who were friends from college. I think the only reason why I even decided to try it was because I’d had a beer just beforehand, which gave me more courage than I actually had at the time. And At this point I haven’t even been on a bouldering wall before which is where we start, and even though it’s only about six metres high and I think my grip is improved amazingly by the fact i’m terrified of falling off the thing. Luckily they have crash mats under them and after a few falls I start to learn it’s not as scary as it seems. Just as I’m getting used to this, next up is actually going onto the proper climbing wall.

Rachel has me on belay,(in short for the non climbers this involves a friction device the rope is passed through which allows your ‘belayer’ to catch you when you fall, and let you down slowly off a climb safely) and I do pretty well until they tell me how you actually come down off a climbing wall. For those who have never climbed, basically you put your feet on the wall and lean backwards then walk down slowly as your belayer slowly lets you down. Simple sounding but if this is the first time you have done this, it feels oh so wrong! Especially the part where I look down over my shoulder to see them below me, but as told I take a deep breath and put my feet flat on the wall and stretch my legs out. Every part of me is telling me that this is not normal and I shouldn’t be doing this but just as i think that Rachel tells me she is going to start letting the rope through slowly and to just walk down the wall. At this point when I’m back on the floor. I’m pretty proud I tried it at least that is until I realise this is the wall they train the small children on! , I feel good I tried it but I’m not feeling this is for me. At least that’s what I thought at the time.

Deal With The Fear

Fast forward to a few years later and I’ve met my Luke who used to teach climbing. And after a bit of time training with him and his mate Phil eventually I end up on the highest wall in the climbing centre. I’m about half way up this big wall when the thing starts slowly sloping backward and not only am I totally wetting myself, and to add to the fun my hands are sweating so badly from nerves that the longer I slow down on a hold because I’m fully freaking out, the more I slowly slip off it! Even though I KNOW that Luke will catch me if I fall, the subconscious part of my brain is playing a little video to me of me just free falling to the rubber matting below and becoming a human jellyfish. I’m not actually that far past the leaning out bit and even though I REALLY want to give up and I try to give up, Luke says he won’t let me down until I reach the top, so I push on with my heart literally in my mouth.

It feels like it’s been half an hour but it’s probably been two minutes when, finally with shaking hands (and arms) not just from fear but from having super crap technique, holding on like a monkey having a seizure, that I reach the top bolt and feel a momentary sensation of relief. I can go back down now! So feeling prematurely elated (read that again sickos)I call down to Luke ‘Mate I did it!!’ at this moment I’m so proud though still actually fully terrified. I’m just staring that the top bolt right now thinking this tiny things one of the only things between me and a Warner Brothers cartoon kind of death. I take a deep breath and remind myself this things sturdy as hell and then shout down to Luke who must be getting bored right now “Right, I’m ready mate, bring me down!” I wait for him to confirm and when he does It’s feet on the wall leaning out into oblivion. After a moment he starts letting the rope out slowly and I slowly and and with much relief and buzzing with adrenaline. In fact I feel great because, at the moment this the a big achievement for me, and I begin to walk down the wall, well at least for about ten steps. And that’s because just as I think about how great I feel, Luke stops lowering me down the wall, and for obvious reason I look back to check everything’s ok. Maybe he’s got his hand pinched in the belly device, or maybe something y end isn’t right. So as much as I hate doing it it quickly look over my shoulder and down to Luke. At this point Luke shouts up “Ok, Mark now I want you to take your hands OFF the rope (damn I felt so much safer holding it) and dangle them at your sides, we need to get you used of this!” And of course he’s right because flooding myself with fear will help me deal with it, but right now I just want to have feet on rubber floor that’s covered with chalk and bits of climbers hands. It’s also a bit of a surprise to me because I thought I’d be nursing a cup of tea in the climbing centre by now with dusty, chalky, shaking hands. I reply “Right, ok I’ll do it but can you let me down then?” and, hanging into thin, chalky air I let my hands down, the rope sways slightly which to me in my head feels way worse than it is and this feels even less right now. “Phew I did it” I say to myself, “Ok up there mate?” Luke calls up to me, clearly thankful he’s not being dripped on by me metaphorically peeing my keks. And I think I’m in the clear now but just at the moment I feel safe he shouts up: ” Now clap your hands behind you!” at this moment in time I think I’d rather lick a angle grinder if it means I can escape but, I call down “I hate you Luke!!”, and below I hear him do his Londoner chuckle. And then he shout’s up to me” I promise I’ll let you down after this Mark!” Understandably at this point I just don’t believe him, but regardless I think to myself ‘why not?’ and off I go clapping my hands behind me like a demented monkey, raining down a cloud of white dust even Scarface would be proud of. This done he finally pays the rope out and lets me down and I finally put feet to floor. After pulling the harness out of where it seems to be permanently embedded in my groin area, I stumble over to Luke and grab him in a man hug. I’m glad he’s made me face up to the fear of heights and he didn’t drop me, so right now I’m buzzing that I’m alive right now. It’s easy to write about this like I was up there for days, but in reality I was up there about ten minutes. It just felt like forever. That wall to this day still makes me nervous when I’m out of practice but I’m way more numb to the fear now.

Sport Climbing

After a few months of getting used to climbing, climbing with the guys I work with at Cotswolds (at the time) I’ve moved onto harder walls and I’m a lot more confident, in fact by this point I love going down the climbing centre.And after a few sessions with Luke and his friends Phil and Nick they invite me to day out sports climbing, and I agree as I feel like it’s the next step in dealing with the fear. So far I think I’ve done pretty well getting used to climbing, though at this point I have no idea that I suffer with anxiety and I just think that I’m a total wuss. The guys are suggesting we go to Wales, specifically Trevor quarry in Llangollen, which is a place I’ll later visit many times, doing totally different things. Up until this point I’ve never climbed outside before so they spend time showing me the basics of lead climbing. So far all I’ve been doing is what’s known as ‘top roping’ where the rope is already set at the top of the climb. Lead involves taking the rope with you, the climber as you climb and placing clips (called quickdraws) into bolts that are already set into in the rock (or wall indoors). You you climb and you set a clip you pull the rope up behind you and then you have to clip the rope through. Sounds pretty simple huh? Well it is unless you are struggling to hold on while you clip as unlike top roping if you fall you’ll fall past your last clip before the belayer can catch you. Which is a bit scary if you put a clip a few metres down, but sometimes it’s further than that! What’s more you have to put the rope through the clip in the correct way. More than once I ‘back clip’ which is essentially that you having the rope threaded through the carabiner, but towards the wall or rock face when it should be passed through away from the rock. Why is this bad? Well most quick draws are what they call ‘open gate’ so they have a one way gate that stops the rope coming out of the carabiner, but when you back clip the top of the rope is able to pull down and through the carabiner and open this gate, which at best could end up with a longer fall but at worse, serious injury or death. Anyway, knowing this but being nervous I still do this a number of times and after being relieved to have clipped in, having the guys (and even the climbing centre instructors walking past) shouting up ‘Careful, you’ve back clipped! Clip again!’ so with hands kicking out waterfall levels of sweat, more than once I reclip. And as scary as this may now sound to all that haven’t climbed before or don’t like heights, it could be worse as trad (traditional) climbers have the additional fun of having to set their gear in place and having the extra excitement of getting to think about if they made a good placement (no easy pre set bolts) before then clipping through a quickdraw. Anyway somehow I manage to do this a few times and apart from back clipping a stupid amount of times, despite the fear of falling being almost back to it’s original level.

Trevor Quarry. Time climb and to Bee-lay.

Finally the day comes and although the it’s pretty chilly outside the weather when we get to Trevor Quarry is amazing, not only because the suns out and the sky is a deep blue, streaked with thin clouds but because we are getting this weather in Wales. The quarry is an interesting place not just because it appears to be know but a random dudes name but the place itself is ancient. It runs just above Offas Dyke train through Llangollen and is a limestone quarry the part we are climbing on is a part of the Eglwyseg escarpment which is a striking line of rocks through the valley. Years later me and my friend Andy will run 35 miles this way training for an ultramarathon, following the general route of the Offas Dyke trail below. Grabbing all of the gear we head off toward the rocky outcrops jutting out of the quarry. Even though I feel slightly calmed by the scene in front, the beautiful scenery only emphasised by the late August sun my heart still feels like it’s in my mouth.

Not too far in the distance on a steep hill above the hills of Llangollen we can see the impressive ruins of Castel Dinas Bran, which only adds to how interesting this area is. Later, me and Andy will return to the castle and explore it. (Blog for that HERE) We soon reach the foot of the route that we are going to start on but to begin with I belay for a few of the guys, while I try and work up the confidence to scale the limestone cliff we are at the foot of. This is the furthest out of my comfort zone I will have gone at this point and I give a few routes a go without reaching further than half way.

The best thing about it being on rock is even though there are ‘set routes’ that others have set that you can find in climbing guides you can also make things up as you go along, as you are less restricted because there’s no set holds. That’s unless of course you are following a route to the letter. And that’s a relief to me as now it’s my turn to go up. I’m glad the weathers cold otherwise I’d have insanely sweaty palms at this point because my nerves feel like they aren’t far from breaking point as I start the climb. I’m going up on a top rope because I don’t think I can handle full on sport climbing just yet, I’m taking baby steps with this. Most of the climb is pretty easy but as I reach about half way up I get to a difficult bit. Theres a tiny rock outcrop which seems the obvious thing to climb up to before continuing but I can’t seem to find a handhold for the life of me. But there’s also a place in the cliffs where there’s a baby tree growing out of the rock almost like it’s trying to defy the laws of nature. The thing looks solid so in desperation I end up repurposing it as an extra hand hold, then somehow reach across to the outcrop and with my hands on top of it somehow tip toe round the bottom of it. At this point I’m getting tired because my technique sucks but I feel like I’m achieving something so I keep going. In fact my technique sucks so hard I end up pulling myself up onto the outcrop with my arms and end up flopping onto it onto my belly, like some sort of human slug, gasping for breath and doing everything in my power to not just seize up in fear like a stunned rabbit. From below I can hear the guys laughing because lets be fair it’s not often you see a grown man lying on his belly, half way up a cliff like a stranded seal! The laughter below makes me feel a bit better because despite being still terrified I can see the funny side. “It worked though didn’t it?” I shout down. So eventually I pull myself together enough to stand up on the ledge and I look down below, instantly wishing I hadn’t. Mainly because even though this isn’t the tallest climb here, because Trevor sits above the valley Llangollen is in, it really adds to the sense of height. The view is actually pretty amazing, though from this position it’s freaking me right out. After managing to pull myself together a bit I shout down to the guys below me that I’m going to carry on up. From this point the handholds are way better than before being cracked limestone, though I’m still watching my footing because in places it’s been polished smooth by other climbers. I make it up to probably within metres below the top of the cliff and suddenly the cliff slopes back a bit, which is handy but on the path i’ve taken I literally cannot see any handholds. At this point I really want to give up because I’m that freaked out I’m shaking but I know if I give up I’ll regret it, and I need to face this now. So I just go for it and to my extreme relief the my shoes grip the rock and I head on up, below I think everyone can hear me swearing at myself loudly trying to push through the fear. “You OK mate?” I hear from below “Just getting really freaked out, annoyed and swearing at myself!” I croakily shout down at the floor. Finally I make the top bolt and look at the tiny bolt that’s keeping me alive, which defiantly helps until I think of it as “the tiny bolt that keeps me alive”. And It’s time for Hannah to let me down, and when I hit the ground I’m literally pulsing with adrenaline. I can’t believe I did it! Now I do a few more goes but I think I’ve worn myself out as none will be as good as the first and to be honest, I think that’s as far as I can push myself today so I take up on the belay duties and that, is when THIS happens.

I feel a weird scratchy tickle on my bicep and instantly wish I hadn’t glanced at it. Now it happens to be a bumble bee , a creature that I am actually a fan of. A flying ball of fur that basically defies physics and they rarely sting. And now you have read that I think you know exactly what is coming. This guys butt is proper twitching and deep down I just know he’s about to embed his arse in my arm. What I have done to my stripy black and yellow friend, I think I’ll call him Barry because he was a Welsh bee, to deserve a wrath worthy of his suicide I do not know. What I do know is that probably the worst time to ever be stung by a bumble bee has to be while you are holding the business end of a rope, with another human being attached to the other end. But long story short Phil is still alive so it’s a damn good job I’m not allergic to bee stings. With the sun beginning to set and the day slipping away even though I ache all over, I’ve finally started keeping going against the fear of heights and making it more rational. In fact it’s reset my perspective, and weeks later after when asked on a teaching course about how I’d deal with the fear of being a teacher, I just say that nothing is as scary as being that high in the air on a rope, not even kids.

Nick on the rock

After months of lockdown now I have to say I miss climbing even though it still shits me up, mainly because it gives more more of an adrenaline buzz than just pure terror. I’m pretty awful at it but it’s definitely given me more confidence, especially in the mountains. It’s also built a proper trust with the friends I climb with because our lives and safety are literally in each others hands. I’m not going to say this was the most scary experience I have had because in fact later I’ve gone on to do much more intense things like winter mountaineering, without ropes. But I just goes to show, you don’t have to let your fear control you. Am I a good climber? Still no not really but as I use it now more for mountaineering it doesn’t really matter. I don’t really care so much about grades or about projects but I do enjoy it. I’m finding myself really missing it, even having sore hands all the time, and the moment I can I’ll be back out there again. It still scares the hell out of me but now I enjoy the fear it causes, it is a nice rush of adrenaline, along with putting things nicely in perspective.

Do you climb? How did you find getting into it and any cool stories to tell? Drop them in the comments below! Thanks for reading!

My friend Rob belaying below

I hope you found my blog useful or entertaining, any donations given go towards more adventures and therefore more blogs and equipment reviews! Donation is voluntary, and you can donate as much or as little as you wish, or not at all.

Thanks for reading and your support!

I hope you found my blog useful or entertaining, any donations given go towards more adventures and therefore more blogs and equipment reviews! Donation is voluntary, and you can donate as much or as little as you wish, or not at all.

Thanks for reading and your support!

I hope you found my blog useful or entertaining, any donations given go towards more adventures and therefore more blogs and equipment reviews! Donation is voluntary, and you can donate as much or as little as you wish, or not at all.

Thanks for reading and your support!

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