Overcoming Fear

On our third day in the Canadian Rockies I backed off of the second pitch of Whiteman Falls. Whiteman was undoubtedly the hardest pure ice line I’d ever attempted to climb, but the truth of the matter is that I retreated not because the climbing was hard, but because I was scared.

Even from the base, Whiteman Falls is an intimidating line: a cone of crazy aerated bobbles of ice the consistency of styrofoam (if you’re lucky) leads the way up to a cave on the left below a crazy mushroom that looks like one of the monsters from Calvin’s Imagination as he daydreams of being Spaceman Spiff. From there, an often hollow tube of a pillar leads to further overhangs that guard the exit.

image

Approaching Whiteman Falls

Al quickly dispatched the first pitch, and I was up. Despite the intimidation I felt below, I was feeling good, but that would quickly change. The “easy” ice heading up from the belay station of course was harder than it looked from below. The good ice leading up to the pillar was actually glazed over ice bobbles that took shitty screws. My first two screws were not confidence inspiring at best, and awful at worst. Just past the second, moving right from the cave toward the base of the pillar, the bulge with my tools in it gave out a funky cracking sound. Moving further, I finally got a good screw, but I was done. I didn’t really know it yet, but I was done. I was in over my head.

From the third screw, I moved up to the pillar itself and managed to find what was, at best, another marginal screw. Digging at the base of the pillar with my tool, I managed to scrape out a good screw placement and clip in direct – 2 decent screws out of the first 5… not good enough for me. Looking up, it doesn’t seem like things are going to improve. The pillar is hollow, the outer layer a lattice of tinsel for the next 30 feet or so. To the right, things don’t look much better.

Al leads pitch one of Whitman Falls.

Al leads pitch one of Whitman Falls.

On this day, fear wins. I know I can climb the ice above, but I don’t know if I can protect it. Fear is clouding my vision. I know the climb has been getting done (later a guy we ran into who had been there the day before called it “a gift”), but I can’t figure out how to make it reasonable. Maybe people are just bolder than I am. Maybe they’re more creative and thoughtful in how they protect the climb. Maybe I just haven’t paid my dues.

*****

The long hike out from Whiteman Falls offers a good opportunity for reflection – headphones in, I trod forward, largely oblivious to the amazing scenery that surrounds me, completely engrossed in the machinations of my mind. I’m breaking down the climb, from how I approached it, to the line I picked, how I protected it, to how I bailed from it. From this hour or so of reflection, I come to the conclusion that I need to become mentally tougher.

I need to approach climbs thinking “how can I climb this?” rather than “can I climb this?”. I need to push myself more by spending more time leading things that maybe aren’t straight-forward. I need to lead hard pitches and then turn around at the belay and repeat that process again and again. My mindset can’t be “that looks hard”, but instead needs to be “I can do that”, even when I’ve just pushed myself on the pitch before. If I want to tackle something like Whiteman Falls, I’m going to have to push myself not when I’m at its base, but every other day.

*****

Now cognizant of what I need to do if my abilities are going to match my ambition, I found myself confronting fear yet again two days later on the Weeping Wall. In the middle of the second pitch, fear once again threatens to overwhelm me.

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The Weeping Wall – 600 feet of steep ice leads to the ledge with trees on it. If you’re a true hardman, another 600 feet of even steeper ice waits above.

Just like on Whiteman Falls, I have no one to blame for the setting other than myself: Al and Pat seemed set on a line on the left side, but I was insistent that the steeper right side offered a better line (even if only for my ego). Just like on Whiteman Falls, the steep ice is a lattice of delicate blobs, hooks, and other features that make the moves technical and anything but straight-forward. Unlike Whiteman Falls, clearing off the outer layer yields solid ice and good screws. I move up confidently and consistently. I have to work for solid placements of my tools, but they’re there.

All too often, the transition from calm and confident to terrified is brutal and abrupt. There is no warning, and in an instant everything has changed. What looked doable now looks impossible: sticks that were bomber seem tenuous, features that were solid seem delicate, and ice that was forgiving now stares back at you with contempt, ready to spit you off onto the screw well below your feet.

*****

I feel like I’m running it out a bit, but with a full 70 meter pitch, I can’t afford to really sew it up. I’m making a rising right-hand traverse towards a steep corner, working my way through some extremely featured ice. Even if I wanted to sew it up with gear, I’m not sure I could – there’s only so many places where I can find good screw placements. Fortunately, all of the screws are good.

My left tool is placed and I swing with my right. Instead of the reassuring thwock! of a tool driving into solid ice, I hear a sickening crack! and feel the outer layer of ice containing my left tool shift significantly. “Oh Fuck!” My right tool has dislodged the chunk of ice I swung into – the chunk of ice with my other tool in it. This is similar to what happened to me on the Poko Waterfall a month before, only the ice isn’t just cracked, it’s actually dislodged.

Somehow I am able to move my right tool back down into its previous pick hole, move down a step, and free my left tool without the layer of ice crashing crashing down and potentially sending me for a ride. Without my left tool in it, the small coffee table-sized chunk somehow stays on the wall, though I’m not really sure what’s holding it there. In reality it’s probably just sitting on the features immediately below it. I give it a whack with my tool, yell “ICE!!!!!”, and it goes hurtling down the cliff.

Looking back down at the belay, it’s clear that Al and Pat don’t realize how close I came to whipping. I don’t know how it is that my tools didn’t just rip off the ice when it separated. I have a screw maybe five feet below me, and the ice is steep enough that the fall wouldn’t have been huge, but I’m glad it didn’t happen.

*****

Looking back at my last screw, and then up at the line of ice above, my first thought is “can I bail from here?”. Once again fear is the only thing I feel. It isn’t fun anymore. But I’m still feeling like I need to redeem myself for Whiteman Falls. I take a solid 5 minutes without moving and force myself to think. I force myself to look ahead at the ice and really read it. I force myself to figure out where I can get rests, where I can place screws, and what it will take to keep moving upwards.

What’s the point of moments of self-realization if you’re not going to act upon them? I continue up.

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