We’ve all experienced it at some point or another. The pounding heart. The sweaty palms. That dropping feeling in the pit of our stomach. Feeling frozen.
Fear is an unpleasant emotion (at least for most of us). Within fractions of a second of perceiving danger, our bodies respond with a flight-or-fight response. In the face of an actual threat, this reaction is critical to our survival. But not all fear is rational.
Irrational fear holds us back. Instead of facing our fears and finding out what we are capable of, it is so easy to stay in the comfort zone. But that doesn't actually make us safer. Arno Ilgner explains it so well in The Rock Warriors’ Way:
“Paradoxically, taking risks actually increases our safety and comfort. Sudden danger lurks everywhere – losing our jobs, being struck by a car, contracting a mortal illness. A cowering, protective approach to life doesn’t reduce the peril. It only makes us slaves to fear and victims of constant anxiety. The safety, comfort and security we crave aren’t objective states. They are subjective feelings that come through increasing our understanding of our world and our capabilities. In short, we gain comfort and security by expanding our comfort zones, and we expand our comfort zones by venturing into the risk zone. We make ourselves uncomfortable and insecure for a short time to learn what we are capable of.”
Recently, A friend and I went to climb a long multipitch rock route called The Goat. We first started talking about climbing it last year, but never seemed to find the time to make it happen. Even this year, the trip got postponed a few times. Each time we decided to wait for another weekend I felt this tiny twinge of relief that I didn’t have to face the climb yet.
The Goat presented so many unknowns. At 19 pitches it was the longest thing that either of us had ever climbed. While the climbing difficulty was below the threshold of our ability, it was on a limestone – a type of rock that neither of us was familiar with. We knew that there would be loose rocks on the climb, and with that comes the potential for rock fall hazard. If that wasn’t enough, we knew the descent trail was best described as heinous, and the campground was first come-first served. We could drive four hours and not even have a place to sleep. Were we ready?
It was time to find out. We got as much info as we could, packed up the car, and set out on our way. Soon enough we had secured ourselves a lovely campsite right by the lake. That was such a HUGE relief! (I think that not getting a campsite was actually my biggest worry).
When the alarm went off at 4am, it was just beginning to get light out. That made getting out of the tent just a tiny bit easier. After coffee, breakfast and a bit of poking around we found the right trail and made our way to the base of the wall. Looking up it seemed so huge. Gulp.
Getting the heads up that the rock was slippery didn’t change the fact that the rock was slippery. And littered with pebbles. Honestly, what were we getting ourselves into? Two pitches in and we were looking at the sky. Those clouds seem really threatening, don’t they? The rock is already slippery. What happens if it gets wet? I’ve heard that wet limestone is called slimestone.
Time for a deep breath and a reality check. Even if it starts to rain we’re not going to be stuck on the side of the mountain: you can rappel down the route. So we take it one pitch at a time, checking in with one another at each belay. While we weren’t ever really in our comfort zone, we never found ourselves in over our head either. We were in that middle zone where growth and learning takes place.
I have another friend who uses a bull’s eye to describe the zones. In the middle we have the green zone. That’s our happy place where things feel fun and cruisy. At the outside is the red zone – that’s the terror zone. And the yellow zone in the middle is where we’re feeling uncomfortable, but still in control.
Each time we enter the yellow zone, we learn new things about ourselves and our capabilities. By spending time in the yellow zone, we grow our green zone.
On the other hand, pushing too far into the red zone can shrink our green zones.
Climbing the Goat was definitely a day spent in the yellow zone. It was uncomfortable and exhausting. And it was a fantastic experience.