Rock climbing, by nature, is a physically demanding sport, requiring of its participants at least some degree of athletic ability even for the easiest of routes. This much is obvious even to the layman who seldom ventures into the mountains and has never tied the knot and given the sport a try. What is less obvious at a glance, however, is the mental challenge that naturally plagues climbers as they pit not only their muscles, but often their very lives against some of the greatest obstacles Mother Nature can place in their path.
The mental game of climbing has just as innumerable facets and intricacies as the physical side of things. Stressors the mind faces during any climb can range from gauging weather conditions and their possible affect on safety, to overcoming trivial distractions like insects buzzing the ears, or sweat dripping into the eyes, and of course to the obvious surmounting of the impassible obstacle of fear. The effects of such mental pressures and the methods used to overcome them vary greatly from person to person as well, but perhaps the single factor that contributes most to providing calm in periods of great mental trial is plain and simple experience.
Experience will give a climber the confidence to step boldly into the unknown, seemingly unafraid in the face of danger. It will take a leader far above their last protection without shaking, or bring a stranded party to earth safely and easily despite having dropped the entire rack. The effect can seem amazing to the aforementioned layman, who sees in these intrepid mountaineers apparently the complete absence of fear itself.
Climbers have all heard it questioned a thousand times: "But aren't you afraid?" and the answer is often not as simple as a yes or no. For the majority of the perilous adventures we put ourselves through our experience calms our nerves completely, even on climbs which push us to the limits, giving our fear a tiny overlooked position in the dim recesses of our mind. At other times, however, the answer to this question screams itself from every fiber of our being, dripping from our faces in streams of sweat and echoing from canyon walls in vocal frustration as we find ourselves face to face with the reality of stark, certain terror.
Of course the sensation of fear is not always a bad thing either. Sometimes it is the spice that adds flavor to a route that would otherwise be fairly simple and straightforward. The 5.7 final pitch of the Pioneer Route on the Monkey Face in Smith Rock is bolted liberally and pocketed with massive jugs that form a practical ladder to the top, but the gripping exposure of the overhung face cannot be pushed from the forefront of the mind, and leaves a fondness in the memories of many climbers, making the route a classic to the area that sees more and more ascents each year. Snake Dike, the first route climbed to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite, offers pitch after pitch of very plain 5.4 climbing, and yet has seen ascents by nearly every climber frequenting the Valley perhaps due partially to the excitement of the more than one hundred foot runouts on some pitches.
It is with this flavor of excitement that I look back on climbing Mars Attacks, a four-pitch 5.8 in a canyon just outside Sedona, Arizona. A two-month road trip had brought Kelsey Gray, my wife Tracy, and myself south from Alaska and eventually found us winding our way down a rough dirt road through a forested desert in our small Kia Sportage, leaning out the windows and scouring the cliffs for features comparable to those pictured in the topo we had printed off the internet. At length we stopped at a dry creek bed which resembled descriptions of the trail to the base of the route, and we shouldered our gear and followed it up a beautiful secluded canyon framed by the bright red sandstone so plentiful in Arizona. Leaving the main trail at an undefined point, we bushwhacked our way up the steep slope at the edge of the canyon and eventually found ourselves facing the route we had come to climb.
Kelsey opted to lead the first pitch and set out up an unremarkable low-angle slab, with Tracy and I following behind after the belay was established above. One move presented a slight difficulty, and we guessed that the shallow divot that was the foothold at that point may have been worn shallower by passage of climbers over time. The second pitch, rated a simple 5.8, now loomed before us, and I tied in for my lead.
Now in all modesty at this point in my life I had been climbing for twelve years and had seen ascents go down in four countries and at least sixteen states, but the first move on this pitch let me know that I was in for a challenge. From the belay, the pitch traverses horizontally a band of quartzite embedded in the sandstone, offering face holds and features atypical to the surrounding rock. To start it off, I leaned out across a small gap and established a foothold on this band of smooth white crystal, and as I did so I got a look straight down at the suddenly overhanging wall below me and a slope dropping sharply away to the forested valley at the cliff's base. The exposure hit me like a hammer, tensing my mind and muscles alike, and I chuckled my nervousness back to my partners at the belay.
It is a trait of mine that I laugh when I am faced with such adverse circumstances. It's not a normal laugh, but a rather strange sounding chuckle that to those who know me tells a story more of "Oh man we're in for it" than "Ha ha this is funny." It is a chuckle that has marked some of my fondest memories in life though, which may emphasize somewhat my natural tendency toward adventure.
As I leaned across that gap, with air opening beneath my feet and only tiny finger- and toe-holds keeping me attached to the rock, I felt the fear well up inside. It pushed against my mind, telling me to go back, that this route was too scary, too hard, too unsafe. It gripped my muscles, starting tremors shaking in my legs and arms as I clung to my precarious position over empty space. It challenged my being in entirety, attacking both mentally and physically as an intense obstacle that could not be pushed aside or overlooked, and could only be met head-on. I chuckled some more as I willed my tense muscles to relax and tentatively tiptoed around a corner of the face, searching for footholds by pointing my eyes downwards straight into the very emptiness which inspired this terror. Every move reminded me of my position, and though I have climbed higher routes and faced exposure indefinitely more massive, something about staring straight into the openness below me as I climbed multiplied its intensity a hundred-fold.
The climbing itself was simple however, and just as a chili lover can't find a spice too hot for enjoyment, my mind fed on the intensity of my own fear, sending my excitement level soaring as move after delicate move flowed past. At one point a large bulge jutted from the rock at chest level, forcing my center of gravity away from the wall and marking the crux of this pitch at its rating of 5.8, but a few deep breaths and some steady searching uncovered the key hold high and to my right, and a moment later I was past and working some deliciously tricky moves just before the anchor. I dropped lower to the bottom of the quartzite where holds disappeared as the rock went steeply overhung and toed a narrow outcropping far out to my right, then moved my body sideways in a tensely curled position until balance was attained again over my new foothold. A few more simple movements put the traverse behind me, and I shouted for joy as I clipped the anchor and rigged a belay. What a pitch!
Kelsey and Tracy followed behind me exhibiting their own reactions to the intimidation of the climbing. Kelsey wore a tense unsmiling expression and questioned me on solutions to various moves he came across, and Tracy reached the belay with tears streaking her cheeks, pushed to the limit by the extremes of the exposure. Even with the technical difficulty well within all of our limits, each of us had found a challenge that raised the bar on this climb considerably, requiring more of us than the route's rating and description had given us reason to expect. We recovered ourselves at the belay, drinking some water as we eyed the climbing above us now with some slight trepidation.
As it turned out, our worry was unfounded and the whole rest of the route was an entirely thrilling experience in a variety of different ways. Pitch three was a beautiful zig-zagging crack which offered us everything from fingerlocks to offwidth, and the fourth pitch presented another classic slab challenge with delicate moves on holds either tiny or nonexistent. The rappel descended two full ropelengths of featureless slab with an incredible view of the surrounding scenery, and we coiled our ropes at the base thoroughly overjoyed at the unexpected treasure this route had become for us. On our walk back to the car we talked over the highlights of the climb with a sort of awe, each of us affected in a positive way by having climbed it to the top. Our ascent of Mars Attacks will definitely remain forever a highlight in the many memories of our lives.
So when faced with the question, "Aren't you afraid?" I find it a difficult one to answer briefly. Fear is one mental challenge that presents itself to the mind of a climber, yes, but with a mental game so intricate and effects so widely varying in individuals, the concept of fear while climbing cannot be simply explained with a "yes" or "no," and the ultimate effects of fear on a climber cannot even be wholly perceived of as negative. Short mumbled replies often suffice to satisfy the curiosity of eager lookers-on, but if one wants to truly understand the answer in all of its intricacies, there really is only one proper way to go about asking the question:
You'll have to go see for yourself.