Extreme Fear

Imagine you’re scaling a rock face, let’s call this particular rock face El Capitan and situate it in Yosemite National Park, California. It’s approximately 3000 feet in height and it’s a difficult climb, actually, it’s vertical. Many climbers have succeeded in climbing El Capitan, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t get scared, especially when they reach the mid-point; the point of no return. There’s a great deal to think about as you scale the sheer granite face; will my ropes hold? Can I trust my co-climbers? Can I trust myself?

Now imagine that you are climbing solo and that you don’t have any ropes, in fact, all you really have is a pair of climbing shoes and a small bag around your waist full of chalk so that you can make sure that your hands stay dry as they begin to sweat. Even if you’re fairly comfortable with heights, there are multiple things to be scared about here, not least of all, plummeting to your death. This might sound pretty unbelievable, but this is exactly what American free-solo climber Alex Hannold did.

Hannold is one of a small group of people who can help inform our understanding of fear and, at the same time, destroy the myths that imply that people like Hannold don’t experience fear. It’s true that they might not experience it the same way as the rest of us, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t get scared, because fear is a natural part of being human. Indeed, during his ascent of El Capitan, Hannold became almost paralysed by fear, fear that was fuelled by self-doubt and what can only be described as an existential crisis. You can watch him in a video available on YouTube (filmed by National Geographic) as he at one point scurries onto a ledge, standing, seemingly unable to move as the cameraman asked him if he’s okay (2:52). The ledge on which he is standing is known as Thank God Ledge, for obvious reasons, and provides the young climber with much-needed reflection time. The problem was that, for Hannold, the only way was up. You can see him try to steady his nerves as he takes a breath, and continues the climb, yet his fear is palpable.

In her book Fear! anthropologist Roanne Van Voorst includes interviews with people just like Hannold; not just free-climbers, but also BASE jumpers and conventional climbers and mountaineers (the kind that use ropes). This includes Alain Robert, or the Spiderman, who free-climbs tall building and national monuments around the world and Dan Goodman, whose climbs include the World Trade Centre and the CN Tower in Toronto, using nothing but self-made suction cups on his hands and feet. Van Voorst is interested in how these extraordinary individuals overcome their fear and how these techniques can be applied to the more usual activities that make up the lives of people with less adventurous proclivities.

Alain Robert

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the advice that dominates isn’t so dissimilar from the advice one might give anybody suffering from fear and anxiety, whether it be fear of heights or fear of failing; the mechanisms involved aren’t so different. Robert, therefore, points to preparation and admits that some of his most difficult climbs (such as the Montparnasse Tower in Paris) created problems because he didn’t adequately prepare, while also stressing the importance of self-discipline. ‘We [climbers],’ he says, ‘have learned how to stop that fear from turning into overwhelming panic.’ (P.17). The advice we might give to students, therefore, is smilier to that practised by extreme athletes. The differences are that if Robert or Hannold make a mistake, the consequences are much more severe.

While Hannold stresses the importance of intense physical training, he also cites perfecting techniques, mental rehearsal and good old practice as part of his repertoire. This seems like good advice generally; you wouldn’t climb El Capitan without first ensuring that you have honed your skills (where to place your feet, the best way to support your entire body with just four fingers or how to remain focused at the mid-way point of a two-hour climb), just as you wouldn’t sit an exam without having thought about time constraints, time management and composure (and that’s before we’ve got to the content).

Overcoming fear, therefore, is as much about ensuring that we are determined and prepared as it is about learning specific ways of becoming less fearful. Hannold describes fear as a ‘reaction to the past,’ and adds ‘Don’t let it determine your future’ (p.23). In a similar vein, veteran climber Arno Ilgner suggests that too much thinking about the future (what he calls ‘end motivation’) deflects from what is happening in the present (‘now motivation’). This view supports the notion that stress and fear is often the result of thinking about what might happen, rather than what will happen. In our anxious state, we attempt to anticipate future events, an impossible and ultimately futile task; ‘fear of failing originates from focussing our attention to far ahead, in the unknown future.’ (p.47).

We can hopefully see that fear can’t necessarily be overcome (if Hannold is still fearful of heights then we can assume it’s here to stay) but what we can do is develop strategies that help us manage it and to pass that experience to others. This is often the difference between those who bounce back from adverse experiences and those who remain paralysed by it. But fear often stops us from experiencing life more fully and the fear needn’t be associated with climbing a rock face with nothing but your own skill to save you from a potentially life-threatening fall. Fear is everywhere, from attending an interview for the job of a lifetime to visiting a new country and meeting new people. Or, indeed, sitting an exam. Despite the obvious differences, the strategies we use to cope are remarkably similar. 



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