The first time Tom belayed me, I cried.
We were in Potrero Chico, and I was attempting a 5.11d arête that several of our students had raved about earlier in the day.
My second day roping up with The Climbing Academy had gotten off to a chossy start. I’d volunteered to set up a top-rope for an injured student, then followed the wrong bolt line. Soon, what had begun as a 5.10 warmup became a scarily runout 5.12 off-width.
I was by no stretch of the imagination a 5.12 off-width climber. Attempting a desperate double gaston and an optimistic high foot smear, far above and left of my last bolt, I felt limestone crumble beneath my fingers.
I took a deep breath and accepted gravity’s call. I plummeted 30 feet, catching a cactus on the way down. Fifteen-year-old Emma gave me a stellar catch, and I tried to shake off the adrenaline. I laughed and photographed my cactus wound, trying not to think about the last few minutes.
During our time in Bishop, I had pep talked myself repeatedly, mentally preparing to rope up for the remainder of spring. In Ecuador, I had become confident leading at my onsight level, but I was not yet a self-identified sport climber. I hated getting pumped, feeling afraid, and falling.
Still, I hadn’t had a sharp-end freakout in a while. I wasn’t excited to sport climb, but I thought I was past the terror. I was determined to be a role model worth respecting, and that meant staying calm as I confronted gravity.
But now, climbing this arête at dusk, I was shaken. Tom and I had stayed behind as our comrades left the crag, thinking we would each get in a quick final pitch before dinner. But as I started up the climb, a foothold crumbled beneath my shoe. Then a handhold broke and sent me flying again. Our coworkers and students gone, I finally gave into my tears.
I barely knew Tom then; our paths hadn’t crossed much at the boulders in Bishop, and he was quiet in staff meetings. He turned out to be an awesome coach with infinite patience, letting me hang as much as I needed but insisting that I continue.
“It’s important for you to go to the top,” Tom said. I eventually did, and I knew I had won a teensy battle. Still, I mentally erased the route from my tick list, and we headed back to camp in the dark.
I wish I could say that was my final freakout in Hidalgo, but it wasn’t. During each morning approach, I felt sick to my stomach. I didn’t trust Potrero’s fragile limestone, and I dreaded feeling fear. My head game was the worst it had been in a while.
I worked with the school’s less experienced climbers, so I didn’t have to climb above my onsight grade very often. Still, we seemed to find ourselves on ever less trafficked and chossier pitches.
When I finally attempted to project, I took a scary fall on an awesome route due to poor choices rooted in fear. In retrospect, this was not my finest moment, and I’d like to give Emma another shout-out for being an incredible belayer even when her climber is being a total head case.
I sent the route on top-rope immediately thereafter, but rather than being psyched about my first 5.12, I felt immensely frustrated at my own mind. I wanted to climb as calmly as my coworkers. I wanted to fall as easily as my students. How did they do it?
In El Salto, I finally began to understand. I had two more mini-freakouts in the Tecalote cave, and at this point my students were probably used to witnessing my terror. I came down from one route close to tears at my inability to “just go for it” on lead.
I turned to my 16-year-old Georgia sistren, Liv and Riley. They tried hard naturally and fell so casually. It was clear that for them, climbing was about much more than simply not falling.
I asked the girls how they stayed so calm. They both shrugged. “I don’t really think about it,” Liv supposed. Riley agreed — falling was just part of climbing, and they’d been doing both for years.
My students had no grand strategy for overcoming fear; they simply weren’t afraid. The more I climbed with them, the better I understood how much of a non-issue falling was to them. This mindset gradually wore off on me. By the time we ended the semester at Mount Charleston in Nevada, I was finally trying hard and whipping with confidence.
Today, I know that falling is no big deal. It’s just a thing that happens — a lot! I now love projecting routes even more than boulders. If I’m not falling, I’m not trying hard enough. My stomach no longer drops as I get farther from the rock, and driving to the crag is no longer a nauseating experience. When I stand before my project, I shake with excitement instead of fear.
When I was learning to climb in Alabama and Tennessee, my earliest coping mechanisms kept the panic just barely at bay. In Ecuador, I suppressed my terror for fear of fulfilling stereotypes or losing hard-won partners. I almost laugh thinking back to how mentally torturous sport climbing once felt. How did I ever stick to it?
I thought the key to bravery lay in breathing exercises and mental acrobatics. I thought If I read enough books, tried enough mantras, and talked about my feelings with enough people, I would eventually develop an internal fortitude.
But I always had that fortitude. It took a hell of a lot more strength for Scaredy Cat Sarah Anne to rope up with a knot in her stomach than it takes Sport Climber Sarah Anne to whip on a slab. Bravery isn’t fearlessness; fearlessness can be foolish.
Bravery is doing the things that frighten you.
I cringe at the memory of some meltdowns. I regret how I’ve handled my fear in the past. It’s embarrassing to cry on lead, but it’s even worse to hold others responsible for my emotions. I’ve lashed out at belayers and gotten cranky with friends, simply because I was disappointed in myself.
At TCA, I worried that I wasn’t a good enough role model because I wasn’t a confident sport climber. Still, I was authentic in my struggle and found strength in community. I’m grateful for what my students taught me, and I know I set a good example by doing the things that most frightened me.
I’m still not brave every day. Sometimes an anime hero scream escapes my mouth during a particularly reachy clip, and I’m not ashamed to stick clip through the crux during a first go. My first day roping up after bouldering season was nerve-wracking, and transitioning from roofs to slab can be heady.
Still, I know what I’m doing. I check my gear daily, I trust my belayer, and I know that I am safe. I love to try hard on challenging projects, and falling is a huge part of that process. On the rock, as in life, I concentrate on what I can control. And when I have to move through fear, the send is that much more satisfying.