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Climbing + Fear: A Love Story

When I first started climbing as a ten-year-old, and I was terrified. I remember the feeling of the air beneath my feet, the dizzying exposure and unfamiliar "dropping" sensation I had in my stomach when I reached a certain height. Fear!

I felt ashamed for feeling this way. I was always the tough kid growing up — the kid who wanted to be like the boys (as if boys never got scared) and who beat herself up for being afraid. When I first started climbing, fear was something I needed to push aside and ignore to succeed, or so I thought.

Fast forward 24 years to where I find myself today, and my fear is often still there, front and center when I am trying to climb. Yet, I've accomplished things that many people would consider death-defying and terror-inducing. I've climbed El Capitan - a 3,200ft granite monolith - in just over 21 hours, a feat that requires immense physical skill and endurance but also extreme focus and mind control. I will admit there were times I'd notice that paralyzing sense of fear starting to creep in along the route. But now, I have methods I've used to work with my fear, use it, and be less afraid of it. In essence, I learned to be less afraid of being afraid.

I speak a lot about fear to try and help others recognize and understand their own fears. I believe that fear is an essential, productive, and - let's be honest - an unavoidable part of life, whether you dangle off cliff faces for a living or not. Being afraid is a poignant and powerful part of being a human being. It reminds us that we are alive and helps us know when to back off or push forward. Understanding our fears can be a key to unlocking many of life's coolest experiences. 

Here's a list of tactics I've used to help me understand and work with my fear over the years: 

1) Don't Feel Ashamed

Fear is normal, rational, and reasonable - you are NOT alone. Everyone feels afraid, and no one else's fear is better or more acceptable than another's. We experience fear because we are living, breathing human beings. 

Feeling ashamed of your fears is the most counterproductive process to engage in because we instantly spiral into self-doubts like "I am not good enough" or "I can't do this." Instead, I like to let my fear "wash over me" — I feel into it and acknowledge it. Sometimes, all it takes is to let my fear have space to exist before I can move on with whatever it is I am doing once it's had its time. 


2) Ask Questions

Why am I afraid? Am I in danger? I often ask myself these questions while I'm climbing and feel a sense of fear creeping in. Contrary to what many might think, climbing is a very safe sport for the most part. We use equipment that has been tested extensively. So, my fear usually stems from exposure, like how someone might feel looking out of an airplane window when they have a fear of heights. We all know it's safe, and very unlikely something bad will happen. But humans aren't meant to exist high off the ground, so some of us feel fear when we do.

When I practice this process of asking myself what I am afraid of and if my life is truly in danger, most of the time, the answer "no." But this process helps me calm that "fight for flight" response and allows me to think more clearly. 


3) Practice!

Yep. Practice being scared. Get uncomfortable. The trick with this one is not to overdo it and traumatize yourself but slowly nudge the line of discomfort. Gradually, that line gets smaller and smaller —progress!

For example, you wouldn't volunteer to speak at a college graduation if you are terrified of public speaking. Instead, you might take some classes or practice in front of a close group of friends or family. Some may even start in front of a mirror until their discomfort becomes more comfortable. 

These tactics are not linear and are ever evolving. I'm 24 years into a sport that has become my career, and I still fall apart some days. Honestly, though, that's why I do it. The process of taking on big challenges, pushing past perceived limits, and encountering struggle and failure are not things to shy away from. They are to be embraced and used to help us reach our full potential and be better humans for ourselves and those around us. 

So, get out there and get uncomfortable!

About the Author

Emily Harrington (@emilyaharrington) is one of the most successful and versatile professional climbers in the world. She's a five-time US National Champion, has completed numerous first female ascents of 5.14 routes, summited Mt Everest, and made a complete ski descent of Cho Oyu - the world's 6th tallest peak. This past November, Harrington became the first woman to free climb 'Golden Gate' on El Capitan in under 24 hours, making her the fourth woman in history to free climb El Capitan in a day. 

Emily currently resides in Tahoe City, California, where she spends her time training, climbing, and skiing with her partner Adrian Ballinger and their dog, Cat.

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