One day this summer I took my kids out climbing. Thanks to some friends with keen (obsessive) eyes for rock, I was alerted to some boulders on a strange little greenway installed next to some office parking lots. The boulders range in size from a foot up to around 10 feet. They are limestone, cut from an old abandoned quarry right over the hill from the greenway. The shapes of the boulders are highly varied, from rounded domes to dinosaur head with teeth. This variety and visual interest make for perfect climbing with young kids.
My daughter, 3, climbed all over the little ones, and so did my son, 7. He’s been scared of heights since he climbed too high in the climbing gym when he was 3. But he was feeling successful and ventured to try one of the taller boulders, maybe around 6 feet. It is low angle and easy, but at the top it suddenly drops off because the other side overhangs a bit. As expected , he got scared. I talked him through, encouraging him. He got to the top and sat, nervous. “I know you’re scared, but what are you doing right now?” “Sitting,” he replied. “So you’re…” he cut me off and said, “safe.” I helped him down and asked him how he felt. “My fear of heights is four feet less!” he exclaimed. (My daughter, who is fearless, climbed the same boulder with no issue).
We walked to another taller boulder that looks like a horse, -ish, from a particular angle. This one is 9 feet and overhangs slightly. It has good handholds, but requires some reaching. The lower part of the boulder goes out of sight as you reach over the top.
My son tried, got scared, and came down. Not being able to see his feet bothered him. “But were you secure where you were?” “Yes,” he said, and tried again. This time he pulled through. “How did that feel?” I asked. “I feel POWERFUL!” he yelled. “Like I could pick up that huge boulder and throw it!”
I was proud of him and for him. And of myself. I felt like I had said the right things to get him to be able to deal with the fear. And through his learning experience, I remembered why I ever got excited about rock climbing in the first place, and why I still love it today.
I’ve been in situations where falling would have been catastrophic. One instance was on La Esfinge in Peru, miles out and 600 or so feet up. I was in a difficult spot and started getting scared because the fall would have been really far and over a dangerous runout. There would have been a lot of bouncing off rock. My leg was starting to shake. “Can’t fall now,” I told myself. So I calmed my mind and finished the pitch. But for me it started much the same way it did for my son this summer. Little boulders, slightly taller than me. I was a scared kid. Scared of everything. Pinocchio, for example. Ghosts. Social situations. Climbing was the forum for the first conscious attempts I ever made at quieting my fear and pushing through. And the great thing about it is, even now, 31 years in, I still get that powerful feeling when I quiet my fear and get to the top.
I wonder what it will take for my daughter to get scared…