Monday, March 19, 2012

Overcoming a Fear of Heights

Climber (and good friend) being lowered at Great Falls, VA

The boy, already scared of heights, was even more scared of being lowered. He didn’t let on how terrified of being lowered until he was already at the top of the 30 foot top-rope climb. Lowering proved to be too daunting so my guiding partner, Jason Montecalvo, assured him everything was going to be alright and ran to the top so the boy could be anchored in and safely walk down.  Jason made the safest choice for everyone involved.

The boy decided he was done climbing for the day and sulked in the shadows of a nearby tree, hiding his anger at himself from the sun.  But, he couldn’t hide it from me.

I sat down on the low lying tree branch with him while we watched the other kids climb. At first, we did not talk. The silence faltered as we began to talk of things of utmost importance: of leaves falling to the ground, of lizards losing their tail in order to save themselves from being eaten, of candy wrappers struggling to stay in the lunchbox exposed to the afternoon breeze, of him being angry with himself and his form of releasing that anger by hitting his (helmeted) head with his hands, and of the spider webs on the nearby rocks.

Why was he angry? Because he perceived himself as a failure. I knew he wasn’t. He didn’t know that. But, I wanted him to know what I knew.

So we brainstormed together ways to overcome his terror. I too, am scared sometimes. Even “rockstar” climbers have hidden tales of exposure on the high cliffs. I uprooted my most embarrassing moments out of the shadows for him to see.  He didn’t like some of our initial ideas so we kept brainstorming until we found a solution that satisfied us both.

He would climb five to eight feet. I would counter-ascend climb to him. He would clip his harness to mine using my P.A.S (Personal Anchor System, aka, a sling or cordellette girth hitched to my harness). I wanted him to physically do the clip-in so he become involved and empowered in the process. Of course, I would check the clip-in for safety. We would then tandem-lower together, with him in front, feeling the rock with his feet and following the guidance of my coaching as we walked backwards towards the ground.   

That would be enough to satisfy me, knowing that he tried.

But it wasn’t enough for him. As soon as we both reached the ground, excitement quivered in his voice as he declare he can lower from that same point (eight feet up) all by himself.  And he did!

Again. And again. And again. Each time, he would go just a few inches higher. We were there for a while. Time didn’t mean anything to me anymore. After finally adding a full two feet to his climbing height, he asked “Do you think I should go higher?”

Sweat ran down my back as the sun wearily beat upon my belay stance.

“Yes! You should!”

I warned him that beyond 10 feet I would have difficulty hearing him, pointing to my pink hearing aids. How can we resolve this?  I already had solutions in mind, but I wanted him to be in control of his thoughts and decisions, thus further empowering him on the climb.

“No problem! We’ll use this hand sign when I want you to “take” [Take up slack]. And we’ll use this hand sign when I’m ready to be lowered!!”.

Once again, he climbed the familiar crack, reaching for familiar hand-holds. Soon, he was on unfamiliar rock. Hesitation wavered throughout his body. Inch by inch, he crawled up the rock face. My eyes were peeled for his hand signs, not daring to miss a sign and shake his confidence in any possible way. Soon his hands told me to “take” and “lower”, which I started to do. “ST-O-O-O-P!” I looked up to see him climbing higher!

And higher! And higher!! He reached the top!

His hands once again told me when he was ready to be lowered. With full confidence, he braced his body into a proper lowering position and without any hesitation, descended to the ground.  I burst with pride for him and exclaimed, “That was awesome!!!”

His response? “Yeah... the hardest part about this whole thing is that now I have to go home and take a bath!!”

Sorry kiddo… Life is tough. :-)

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