Last week I volunteered with First Descents at a rock climbing camp in Lake Tahoe. Standing in front of the rock on the first day, I felt my body reacting in similar ways to a big performance. It’s not often that I voluntarily put myself in a fearful situation, but I decided to go for it.
Pounding heart – check.
Clammy hands – yup.
Jittery, queasy feeling in my stomach – definitely.
Strong, slow breathing – happened automatically. Mentally I was up for the challenge, but the physical fears were real: injury, falling, face planting into the rock (only happened once!), and getting stuck. Plus, I’m not crazy about heights.
Performing music for over 30 years has taught me how to work with and through the nerves. The trick was learning how to consciously control and deepen my breathing until all the other parts fell into place. Solid breathing is also critical when playing a wind instrument, but I found this tactic served me well for each ascent, and especially for coming down which felt terrifying.
Rock taught me a lot about my fears and my problem solving abilities in a number of different ways. As a “teacher,” rock is strict, hard, and unyielding. But at the same time, the rock always offered options for unsticking myself from a particular jam. With some practice and guidance, I began to see how little tiny grooves, minuscule lumps, and cracks could all be used to get me where I needed to go.
I recall getting stuck climbing up on the second day. The physical discomfort was real with one foot wedged into a crack attached to a badly trembling leg, my body’s way of displaying resistance. I knew I had to move, but I couldn’t figure out how to untangle myself. Fortunately, a guide came over on a rope to point out some options. His suggestions sounded easy, but felt almost impossible to me at that moment.
In the end, I took a giant leap of faith that my right foot could not only balance on a scrap of rock the size of a toothpick, but also leverage that hold to propel my left foot up and out of the crack. A few minutes later I made it to the top! Problem solved.