The best thing I learned from climbing

Climbers feel fear but cannot act on it. Practicing forced restraint widens the gap between stimulus and response. What was a tunnel becomes a decision tree.

“If I fall here,” I thought. “I could die.”

I was way above my last piece of gear on a delicate mixed pitch. The climbing was tenuous. Hard, black limestone was splattered with thin patches of ice.

As I climbed higher, I could taste bile. I could climb up, but not down. I had to finish the pitch and find a belay. By the time I did, the pitch had stretched to 70m. Three gear placements would have held a fall.

More than once, my fear threatened to take over. I wanted out of that situation right @#$%ing now. Like a rat in a maze, my mind started scratching for an exit. But there was only one way out. Up.

I couldn’t escape, so I had to soak in it. And if I freaked out, I’d end up falling off, perhaps dying, definitely breaking bones.

So I pushed the fear away. I made it step back and give me some space. I couldn’t get rid of it, and I didn’t have the luxury of indulging it. But I could make it wait while I did something constructive. I had to keep climbing and find a decent anchor.

Freaking out wasn’t gonna help.

The gap between stimulus and response

My experience is not unique.

Most alpine climbers have been in similar situations. Whether it’s from bad gear or challenging terrain, that mental struggle happens for almost all climbers at some point.

And it fosters the best life skill that climbing can offer.

Forced restraint widens the gap between a stimulus and a response. And widening the gap turns a tunnel into a decision tree.

Like a muscle, the gap starts skinny and weak. Only with stress and recovery can it increase in size. My gap is not the widest in the world, but it’s wider than it once was. I don’t do any dangerous climbing anymore, but the gap between stimulus and response has stuck with me.

If you’ve ever seen someone who pinballs through life, you’ve seen someone with a small gap. People with a narrow gap think that if you’re not overcome with emotion, then you must not have any emotion. If your heart isn’t on your sleeve, then you don’t have one. Feeling something and being ruled by it are not the same thing.

Being ruled by an emotion only means that the feeling was strong enough to bridge the gap between stimulus and response. If the gap is small, then any little old feeling will do.

Only if the gap is large do you know if an overwhelming emotion is strong.