Reaching new heights

November 26, 2017

One year ago I made a decision to do something about my lifelong fear of heights. Until recently it wasn’t something that I felt restricted me, it was more of an inconvenience. I could barely stand on a chair without holding on to something; I’d never been up in our attic; I have waited alone while my family have explored towers or treetop climbing on holiday; I’ve had panic attacks looking at pictures of people standing (or running) in exposed places.

My decision to address it was provoked by my increasing passion for running in the mountains. When I got the opportunity to go on a running and climbing trip to Chamonix in September 17 it seemed like an opportune time to do something about it. So I set myself the goal of going on the trip to Chamonix and participating in the climbing activities without letting my anxiety get out of control.

I suspect that for many, this doesn’t seem like a very ambitious goal – particularly in comparison to some of the other things I’ve done. For me though, it seemed like my most extreme sporting challenge yet. Exploring your physical boundaries is one thing, mental and emotional boundaries something else completely. The fear and anxiety (and their associated physical symptoms) are real and terrible, even if they are not logical. Even the anticipation of the anxiety provoked anxiety.

I needed help, and asked Christian Madsen – Fullperformance, who is a psychologist, runner and coach. Together we made a plan which included gradual exposure to heights on the one hand, and working on my general anxiety on the other. To be honest, I‘ve never thought of myself as an anxious person, so this part was like opening Pandora’s box. I was confronted with a rather weird range of phobias, some of which I realised had quite an impact on my daily life.

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Succesful ascent of a Church Tower with Christian

Over the next months I tackled a range of progressively challenging activities involving heights. These included exploring our attic, climbing a church tower, and jumping from a 5 meter diving platform. Sometimes it went better than expected and sometimes it felt like a total disaster – particularly the 5 meter dive was a truly horrible experience! Christian was on the side-lines throughout, helping me to work through my experiences. Despite setbacks my progress was steady and in June Christian and I went tree-top climbing and, while it would be an exaggeration to say I was relaxed, I did have control of my fear and had moments where I even thought it was fun. For the first time, I believed that my Chamonix goal was realistic.

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19029673_10155429438369111_2368078095426999725_nThe next challenge was a “Try Climbing” event at Blocs & Walls (a local climbing gym) along with the group I was going to Chamonix with. To be honest this provoked a bit of a relapse and, on my first attempt, panic set in as soon as I got about a meter of the ground. However, thanks to the enormous patience of the instructor, Thomas, by the end of the session I made it about 2/3 of the way up the climbing wall without a complete meltdown. In many ways a success, but nonetheless it felt like failure as all the others in the group made it to the top.

But every cloud has a silver lining! If I had made it to the top that day, I would have been pretty satisfied that my preparation for Chamonix was complete.  What did happen was that my frustration made me arrange a series of personal training sessions with Thomas. From the start, we agreed that our goal was on height exposure and not on climbing per se.  Thomas was remarkably good at judging how far he could push me, while giving me the space to say no without it feeling like defeat, just a stage in the process.

The result was astounding. After the first couple of sessions, I was quite happily climbing to the top of the wall and felt quite comfortable hanging up there chatting to Thomas below. But the biggest surprise of all was that I totally loved it!

I was so hooked that I continued to train with Thomas, though by now the focus had adjusted from height exposure to climbing. In the middle of August I went on a trip to Kullen in Sweden with the Chamonix group to try outdoor rock climbing. I had been concerned that this would provoke a relapse, but it didn’t. On the contrary I loved it too.

 

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Via Ferrata

From that point on I was really excited about the trip to Chamonix. Yet, as we stood getting roped up for the Via Ferrata de Passy on our first day there, I could feel the familiar anxiety about whether I would panic: there was a palpable tension in the group as a whole which didn’t help. So as we stepped out onto the small metal rungs hammered into the sheer cliff face, I was fully focused on clicking my carabiners in and out and resisted the temptation to look around on look down. Gradually though, I relaxed, found my flow and was quite happy to admire the view and chat with the others. When we finally clambered back up on to flat ground I was completely high and totally impressed with myself!

 

The following day we did a traverse of the Aiguilles Crochues. Again I could feel the anticipatory anxiety as we got going, but it quickly disappeared as we got into the swing of the climbing. And it was amazing! The climbing wasn’t difficult, but there were breath-taking exposure and amazing views throughout. I really couldn’t believe it. 10 months before I had set myself the goal of being able to keep my anxiety under control. But there was no anxiety to control, only exhilaration!IMG_0439

A couple of months on and I’m still totally hooked on climbing. I’ve joined the climbing gym and go regularly. I really hadn’t seen that coming a year ago!  If you’d asked me before I would have said it wasn’t worth the (significant) effort of addressing your anxieties or phobias unless they affect everyday life or stop you doing something you really want to do. Now I’m not so sure. I’d never, in my wildest dreams, imagined that I would love climbing. All these years, I’ve kept that door closed by not addressing my anxiety.

It hasn’t been an easy process though. I couldn’t have done it without the help I got from Christian Madsen and Thomas Gregers Bindselv from Blocs and Walls.  When facing your fears, you feel small, exposed and vulnerable. Both Christian and Thomas created a bond of respect and trust which allowed me to step outside my comfort zone, to be open about my feelings, and to reflect on them with their support, so that I could continually push my boundaries.

This time last year I was sitting here at my desk looking at pictures advertising the trip to Chamonix and I was dizzy, hyperventilating and sweating. I am so happy that I took those two first steps – sending a message to say I would go, and then asking for help. Today I’m sitting here looking at the pictures of me in the mountains and I feel really, really proud.

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