Extreme fear

Imagine you're scaling a rock face, let's call this particular rock face El Capitan and situate it in Yosemite National Park, California. It's approximately 3,000 feet in height and it's a difficult climb, actually, it's vertical. Many climbers have succeeded in climbing El Capitan, but that doesn't mean that they don't get scared, especially when they reach the mid-point, the point of no return. There's a great deal to think about as you scale the shear granite face; will my ropes hold? Can I trust in my co-climbers? Can I trust in myself?

Now imagine that you are climbing solo and that you don't have any ropes, in fact, all you really have is a pair of climbing shoes and a small bag around your waist full of chalk, so that you can make sure that your hands stay dry as they begin to sweat. Even if you're fairly comfortable with heights, there are multiple things to be scared about here, not least of all, plummeting to your death. This might sound pretty unbelievable, but this is exactly what American free-solo climber Alex Honnold did.

Honnold is one of a small group of people who can help inform our understanding of fear and, at the same time, destroy the myths that imply that people like Honnold don't experience it. It's true that they might not experience fear in the same way as the rest of us, but that doesn't mean that they don't get scared, because fear is a natural part of being human. Indeed, during his ascent of El Capitan, Honnold became almost paralysed by fear, fear that was fuelled by self-doubt and what can only be described as an existential crisis. You can watch him in a video available on YouTube (filmed by National Geographic) as he at one point scurries onto a ledge, standing, seemingly unable to move as the cameraman asks him if he's okay. The ledge on which he is standing is known as Thank God Ledge, for obvious reasons, and provides the young climber with much needed reflection time. The problem for Honnold was that the only way was up. You can see him try to steady his nerves as he takes a breath, and continues the climb, yet his fear is palpable.

In her book Fear! Extreme athletes on how to reach your highest goals and overcome stress and self-doubt, anthropologist Roanne Van Voorst includes interviews with people just like Honnold; not just free-climbers, but also BASE jumpers and conventional climbers and mountaineers (the kind that use ropes). This includes Alain Robert, or the Spiderman, who free-climbs tall building and national monuments around the world and Dan Goodwin, whose climbs include the World Trade Center and the CN Tower in Toronto, using nothing but self-made suction cups on his hands and feet. Van Voorst is interested in how these extraordinary individuals overcome their fear and how these techniques can be applied to the more usual activities that make up the lives of people with less adventurous proclivities (Van Voorst, 2017).

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the advice that dominates isn't too dissimilar from the advice one might give anybody suffering from fear, whether it be fear of heights or fear of failing; the mechanisms involved aren't so different. Robert, therefore, points to preparation and admits that some of his most difficult climbs (such as the Montparnasse Tower in Paris) created problems because he didn't adequately prepare, while also stressing the importance of self-discipline. 'We [climbers] have learned how to stop that fear from turning into overwhelming panic' (p. 17). The advice we might give to students, therefore, is similar to that practiced by extreme athletes. The differences is that if Robert or Honnold make a mistake, the consequences are much more severe.

Preparation is not only beneficial to ultimate goal achievement; it also helps us cope better with the prospect of failing to reach that goal or of being presented with setbacks, it also draws on the techniques visited in Chapters 5 and 6, the development of adaptive habits and the skills needed to pursue our goals. Preparation also sets the scene for our first move; it makes those first tentative steps a little easier, it allows us to cope with our fear of failing.

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