How I Conquered My Fear of Heights and Climbed a Mountain

March 9, 2014

“I’m not afraid of heights!” I cried as I cowered at the foot of the elevator, “I’m just afraid of falling.” 

My high school friends, lacking my intense concern for mortality, pressed their bodies against the glass wall-come-window of the famous Bonaventure Hotel elevator. The downtown Los Angeles skyline grew smaller and smaller below us. A simple glance at the receding skyline made me dizzy. “LA is so tiny!” one squealed as we continued to fly up, up, up in the sky. I worried we would never stop. I worried we would plunge to our deaths. When the elevator stopped and let us off at the roof bar, thirty-five stories up, I collapsed onto the ground with a sigh of relief. I was safe.
“What a wuss,” one of my closest friends said, ruffling my hair teasingly while I worked to gather my breath. This must have been what an asthma attack felt like. “Lady, for all your bravado, you’re all bark and no bite.”

I closed my eyes as the elevators plunged down to earth, unable to face my friends, or myself. I was a coward. How was everyone else okay with that view when it made me positively nauseous?

Ten years later, Boyfriend asked me if I’d like to go rock climbing with him and one of his climbing buddies. Boyfriend had a great deal of experience rock climbing, and had taught many novice climbers. He even owned a pair of those fancy rock-climbing shoes that feel more like padded socks in my size! Excited at trying something new with someone I loved, I immediately said yes.

2012 was far from a happy year. I experienced a lot of personal upsets that left me with an entirely new perspective on life. 2013 came with a new job, new apartment, and new friends that inspired me to be healthier: not just nutritionally, but physically and mentally, as well. And part of being a healthier individual meant embracing the adventures in life. Not long ago I had been open for any adventures, large or small. It was time to reawaken that part of myself. And that meant not letting old fears get in the way of new escapades.

Sure, I was certain I would make a fool of myself in front of Boyfriend and Friend as I tripped over various rocks or fell from a mountaintop. I was far from graceful: I lack proper balance, making me a terrible – albeit hilarious—dancer. But I knew Boyfriend would be supportive. And I wanted to give rock climbing a try. After all—not only would it be a bonding experience, but it’d be great exercise.

If there’s a Hell, mine consists of a gym. They’re usually dirty (at least the ones I can afford on my pay-grade), humid, and loud. Plus, they’re boring. Running nonstop on a treadmill or ellipticalling for an hour is fine enough if you have something to entertain yourself with—but reading a book or watching television while running or ellipticalling is not always easy. (Let’s be honest, doing anything other than listening to music when running is impossible.) If I have a choice, I’d rather be outside, in the fresh air, enjoying activities that are both invigorating and, well, free. Rock climbing sounded perfect. Plus, there’d be less creepy dudes staring at my ass or asking for my number or “how often I worked out” when I visited the water fountain.

Plus, I’d have Boyfriend with me. And I could say I climbed a mountain!

That is, if I could conquer my fear of heights. Or should I say—fear of falling?

The night before, I called my best friend and told him I’d be rock climbing in the morning. “You, rock climbing?” he asked, unsuccessfully trying to keep the dubiousness out of his voice. I hung up. I didn’t need him to vocalize the doubts already flitting around my head like gnats around a light bulb. I was nervous enough.

Boyfriend, Friend, and I set out early that Saturday morning for Texas Canyon, located 30 minutes outside Los Angeles. I was still groggy and would have slept on the ride, but I was far too anxious. As I listened to them recount tails of their previous sport climbs, my nerves grew. What was I getting myself into?

Friend turned around and gave me a reassuring smile. “You’ll be great!” he exclaimed before offering me some almonds. Boyfriend agreed and squeezed my hand. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” he told me, “But I think you’ll really enjoy at least giving it a try.”

I watched as Boyfriend put on his harness (so very many tools and accessories are needed for a successful climb), and prepared to lead the route we chose. I was terrified as I watched him free climb until he reached the first bolt where he clipped his caribiner. He quickly scaled the rest of the route, set an anchor, and was lowered back to the ground, cleaning the now superfluous quickdraws. (And you think the GRE is bad… that’s nothing compared to the vocabulary involved in climbing.) Friend completed his attempt at the now top-roped climb as Boyfriend belayed, and then it was my turn.

The harness was bulkier than I expected. But I loved the shoes. They were so small and dainty! And I could balance on the tiniest of ledges using just my big toe when wearing them! I felt like Spiderman. Boyfriend reassuringly rubbed my shoulders; then, after demonstrating how I was securely connected to Friend – my belay partner–and thus could not fall to my death without first being caught– he began to coach me through my beginning steps.

Now, I’ve always loved logic puzzles. And rock climbing, I quickly realized, was simply one big active logic puzzle. If I stepped there or went that way, where would I step next? Was there a rock protrusion I could grab on to? It helped that I was of a smaller stature, so I could practically push myself up against the rock and still manage to heave my body around.
I quickly climbed the first ten or so feet I said I’d “try.” “Don’t get your hopes up,” I had joked minutes before as I set off. But I had gone that far and felt pretty good, I might as well keep going.

Emily rock climbI’d never meditated before. But I think what I experienced, as I focused on the now and what was immediately in front of me, was a little bit like meditating. My brain was free of all thoughts other than where I would step next. I was no longer afraid, or concerned I was looking like an idiot. I was just climbing.

I had never felt so powerful.
Before I knew it, I had reached the top of the climb. That was the first time I looked down. Boyfriend and Friend were so tiny, but I could still see the shock – and glee—that had overcome their faces.
“Holy crap!” I shouted down. “I’m so high up!”
“Enjoy the view!” Boyfriend called up. “You’re amazing!”

And you know what? At that moment I felt amazing.
I certainly didn’t climb thirty-five stories, and the elevator at the Bonaventure still terrifies me. But I successfully attempted something new while bonding with loved ones and getting exercise. I can’t wait to go rock climbing again. But until that day, I’m happy in the knowledge that not only can I surprise others, I can still surprise myself.


Also by Emily: Silver Lining in the Brace Position

For My Mother, Who Runs

Photo: Emily Ansara Baines

Emily Ansara Baines is the author of The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook and The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook. Her short stories have appeared in Narrative and she currently writes a weekly column for ReadItForward. Emily dreams that one day vegan restaurant Cafe Gratitude will name a dish after her: "I Am Giggly." Her favorite word is murmur. Visit Emily on Instagram @LiteraryQueen.


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