Dancing with Fear

First order of business, if you haven't read what Shelly and Jeff have been writing about... FIX THAT!

Read Don't Touch My Jet and My UnInvisable Friend before you do anything else!

Ok, now back to me. 

Dancing with fear...and pain and rock climbing and mountain biking. A metaphor too far.

Maybe fear is a bit like pain. A warning system, pain tells us when things are not right, when we are hurt or sick.

It turns out I’m going to talk about fear by talking about pain.
Sorry... here’s a video of a cute cat to help you cope:

Athletes learn to manage pain, and differentiate between good pain and bad pain. The pain that means you’re working hard and the pain that means you’re hurting yourself.
When I was racing mountain bikes and cyclocross the general rule I came up with was:

  1. Good pain is dull and in your muscles and lungs.
  2. Bad pain is sharp and in your joints.

I needed to learn to understand and manage the warning system so that I could train and improve. Lets face it, getting fit hurts, but it’s good pain. The good pain is also telling you how far you are going into your reserves of effort, energy and suffering. For me when I start to taste metal I’m getting to my limit but I can keep going for a bit. But when my teeth start to feel like they are going to fall out I need to take my foot off the gas. It turns out that training and peak performance in endurance sport is a dance with evolutionary systems of safeguards to keep us from running ourselves to death as we chased antelope across the desert. It’s a constant and complex set of steps, pain, rest recovery, too much? too hard? too long? bad? good? listen to the warning system but always looking for ways to push the boundaries of the possible. A dance of pushing against pain, then retreating to recover and returning while your physiology is still compensating and your boundaries are just a little bit farther out, while all the time being vigilant and attentive to the possibility of injury and over training.

There are many conditions where the warning system is just on all the time. This is a brutally oversimplified definition of chronic pain. The system that is supposed to tell you that something is breaking your arm is on all the time. That’s not very helpful. In fact, when I got hit by a car a few years ago my level of pain was important to the EMTs and Doctors initially while they were trying to determine the extent of my injuries, then it wasn’t useful anymore so they helped me turn it off with some pain killers.

In my recovery from the accident pain management was important, and my pain was minor compared to what others with more dire situations than mine experience. The pain I felt was an important tracker of progress as I did Physical Therapy, but it was also important that I not let the pain restrict my range of motion and posture so it was important to manage the pain so that I could stay active and return to training.

Fear is similar. It’s a warning system that we need to manage and when it’s over active it can severely limit us.

Since the car accident I’ve found that rock climbing is fantastic exercise for strengthening my compromised back (it turns out that going through a windshield with your butt, while better than using your face, is hard on the back... yeah - if you had plans, cancel them!). In climbing you dance with pain, but not the same way you do in bike racing. Climbing shouldn’t hurt too much, and the pain should never be unexpected. A pop, a twinge, and you yell “take” your belayer pulls the rope tight and you swing back weightless in your harness as she pilots you safely to the ground to climb another day.

The dance in climbing is with this other warning system, fear.


And I think this dance with fear is also the operative struggle in life. I’ll stick with what I know - climbing, and then extrapolate to what I’m trying to understand - life.


Something I have to explain often is that climbers don’t take many risks. When I leave the ground I’m protected by redundant sets of systems that keep me from hitting the ground. In fact, people are sometimes surprised to learn how often, and how safely, climbers fall. These falls are scary but if you want to get better at climbing, and climb more interesting and challenging routes you’ve got to learn to trust the systems of ropes and anchors. 


At the same time, you need a healthy respect for what you’re doing. I always say that a climber who isn’t scared of heights is a dangerous one. You see the key to safe climbing is checking the safety systems instinctively. A little fear keeps you sharp. Too much fear can paralyze you. 


You need to be aware of what will happen when you fall at all times, but you need to be able to control you’re imaginations of disaster, and weigh the possibilities and eventualities. Just when you get to the hardest part of the route and your’e about to make the move where you think you might fall you need to be able to quiet your mind and free your body to m



Fear of falling is healthy. In fact, because falling is catastrophically unhealthy we develop systems of protection that we set up and double check before we climb so that when fear attacks our ability to move upward we can quiet our minds and move. We dance with fear. 


Like pain, when fear becomes over active it inhibits us. Both of these systems are tools - they should be helping and not hurting. We need to make sure we don’t hit our thumbs. 


In life and climbing we need to manage fear, let it participate in thoughtful preparation and decision making, but once the systems are in place we need to shut down 

the fear and move upward.


Last summer I spent a lot of time working on some objectives. Quitting a job, getting into  grad school and climbing a route called Black Monday located in Big Cottonwood Canyon, just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. Deciding to go to grad school and to quit a job are dances with fear. 


The route Black Monday follows a 35 degree overhang and is protected by a series of expansion bolt to which the rope can be attached with quick-draws (two carabiners and a sewn loop of webbing about a foot long - see over on the right?).


When we talk about climbs we break them into sections made up of a sequence of moves.

Black Monday starts with a few very hard moves up a bulge with less than ideal holds for feet and hands to a good hold where you can clip the rope to the first bolt and take a rest on a nearby ledge. A mistake before the first bolt won’t kill you. Your feet are only a few feet off of the ground, at worst you’d turn an ankle, but that’s a risk worth managing - especially while you’re learning and gaining strength to do the initial sequence. So we bring a pad made of layers of closed and open cell foam to soften the fall. At this point I make sure I have my harness on properly, that I have all of the quick-draws I need for the route, that the rope is tied correctly to my harness, and that my partner’s belay device is correctly attached to the rope. Then focus on the moves to the good holds and the safety of the first bolt.

Here's a photo of me belaying a good friend and using a pad early on a climb, because I like photos of climbing and so you know what I'm talking about:

On the ledge, safely clipped into bolts I catch my breath, shake the fatigue of that first powerful sequence from my arms and try to visualize the sequence of moves out the overhang. I resist the urge to quadruple check my knot... more checks is safer right? but I’ve learned to manage fear by double checking the systems on the ground and then putting them out of my mind to deal with the task at hand: moving upward. These are steps in the dance with fear, on the ground fear leads and I carefully count quick-draws, test systems, tighten harness, tie and check knots, then on the route I lead.

Quitting my job, a good... but increasingly less good one, was like this too. So was choosing grad school over the more immediate payoff of another stable job. I was afraid. So long before I quit I was creating systems, plans, connections, honing skills, preparing and double checking. I spent a long time, days, on the ledge paralyzed by fear miserably immobile. Checking in with my partners, and I had many in this endeavor. And then it was time to leave the ledge, put in the applications, take the tests, quit the job, and move upward. Mobility replaced misery and the dance resumed.

I fill my mind with visions of perfect movement these dance steps are upward with the stone. Fear has done it’s job, I’m safe, now my job is to move upward. I move off the ledge, and move fluidly from hold to hold, breathing deeply, clipping into bolts as I got, calm and focused with just enough excitement to pull hard and hold on to those last slippery holds as I pull over the over hang and onto the glorious headwall above. I clip two more bolts and then I’m at the anchors at the end of the route. I attach the rope to them and yell take. The rope goes tight and I sit back into my harness, I feel the rope stretch, the knot tighten on itself. Everything is as it should be, I’m safe and free swinging from a cliff on the side of a mountain while cars whine along the road to Brighton and Solitude Resorts to ride lifts and look at the scenery.

Me. Back on the ground after success on Black Monday - still months from getting into grad school.

Principal at tenlitre, Arthur Morris lives and climbs along the Wasatach Front with his wife, Jessica, who is his belayer in life and on the rock, and their two cats, who think that all that climbing gear was designed wholly for them to chase, swat, sniff, explore, and nap on... and some days they are right. Arthur starts his PhD program this fall at the University of Utah.




Good post Arthur. As a person who climbed once and hated every minute of it, I respect climbers and the feats, mental and otherwise, that allow them to conquer and surmount physical and internal sheer walls. I respect but will never pretend to understand (at a more than superficial level) the motivation. So be it. Climb well, climb safe, and come back, to climb again. 

shelly lee williams's picture

Excellent Telling! Arthur, I agree with Jeff. Good post. No wait...Great post! You a have brought me into a world I know nothing of -climbing- showing that even there we are not so different in this Dancing with Fear. Your brushes paint in broad powerful stroke your journey and I thank you. I look forward to your next post and the coming span of time in which you paint more story and share more of yourself through the work of an athlete, a post grad student and a beautiful Being. 

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