04/19/2012 02:26 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2012

Sweet Fear of Climbing: When Risk Teaches About Life and Love

I went rock climbing in Yosemite last weekend. It was my first time climbing in the outdoors in over a decade, first time ever at Yosemite. (This is when I confess that the only thing hardcore about my climbing is my hardcore love of the outdoors.) Holy delicious fantastic weekend.
I was first introduced to rock climbing while a freshman at Prescott College. My friends were doing it, seemed simple enough. The only problem was once on the rope I discovered that I was absolutely terrified of heights. And rappelling back to earth was even worse: It was a nightmare filled with fantasies of falling, rope entanglement, bones breaking, and decapitation.

I wish I could tell you that at age 20 I was driven to conquer my fear, but the truth is, I was just stubborn. I didn't like the idea that there was this thing out there that my friends enjoyed that drove me to tears. So I did what students at my college could do: I changed my major and enrolled in the wilderness leadership course, the Alpine mountaineering course, and the mountain search and rescue course. And in the process, I learned that I had a severe case of what the outdoor/adventure/experiential education lexicon calls "perceived fear," where I couldn't separate the potential of risk from real risk. Eventually, I was able to measure my fear of risk against the real risk, and begin to experience climbing as enjoyable. (And quite frankly, falling many times and not hurting or killing myself did miracles for building confidence.)

My friend Gemma taught me how to bring the metaphor of climbing into my life. We were taking a class called Group Process for Wilderness Leaders. I had a huge crush on one of our classmates. And you guessed it, I couldn't look at him without blushing, let alone ask him out. Since we traded leading weekend expeditions, Gemma told me if I didn't ask him out before her weekend, she was going to make me do their activity (a free rappel off the bridge) the hard way. I didn't ask him out, and sure enough. I rappelled the hard way. As me and my fear were roped off on the edge of a bridge I hemmed and hawed and shed a few tears. And eventually, I just couldn't take it anymore. The fear that is, preventing me from doing what it is I really wanted to do (get off the freaking bridge and be done with the activity). So I did it: I leaned back into the open air and rappelled down with nothing to cling to or push off of, just me, the rope, my fear... and some trust found along the way. By the end of the rappel I was filled with so much confidence that I asked the guy out that night.

The pivotal realization that I could translate what I experienced outside via physical activities into influencing the rest of my life would aid me through many life transitions where I felt stuck or unclear. I learned that when I felt stuck, the quickest way to break through to the other side was if I was could identify a fear (any fear, really), and then meet it. Eventually I learned to appreciate the fear that shows up at the beginning of new projects and initiatives as a good sign -- it's that knowing that you are about to expand outside of what is known and safe and familiar into a new world of understanding and experience. And once again, the metaphors of climbing stand strong because it is the experience of being willing to risk enough to fall (safely, with a good anchor in place, and trusted belay partner) that you can fall, gather yourself, and get back on the rock and try a different way.

All of this to say, when I went out last weekend it had been 10 years or so since I had been climbing outside. I was amazed to realize how much had stayed with me, and how much I missed it. Two and a half pitches up, I could turn around, take in the views, enjoy the raven who flew by with material for his nest, look down, and still be in pure bliss. I had fun when I met that moment -- you know the one -- where you really don't see how you're going to make the move... and I was able to watch my brain decide: Am I going to freak myself out and tell myself I can't do it and flail? Or am I going to tell myself I can do it, and find my way out of the problem? I was reminded that sometimes, when the answers aren't there, all you have do is be willing to take a step, any step... and that simple act can that lead to the biggest breakthroughs.

For more by Leah Lamb, click here.

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