The first time I visited Sand Rock, I sat at the base of a climb called Misty (5.10b/c), staring up the vertical sun-baked face. Misty was considered the best sport climb at the crag, and it looked both exhilarating and terrifying. The first bolt was high off the ground. The climb then proceeded through thin, tricky, balancey moves, and a freestanding boulder stood precariously close to the fall zone. Above the crux the wall leaned back just enough to make resting elusive; if a climber didn’t complete the route quickly enough, his arms would pump out and he would fall from exhaustion. I knew that I wanted to climb this route someday, and wondered when I might be good enough.
In the ensuing months, my climbing improved dramatically. I developed better strength, endurance, and technique. I was probably ready to try Misty, but fear held me back.
One day my partner and I finally tried. My partner led the route successfully, then asked me if I wanted to lead or top-rope. I hesitated. I knew I was capable of trying the route on lead, but leading a new route is terrifying. Each time you climb above a bolt, you venture into the unknown. You don’t know where good holds might lie, where you can find rests, and where you will exhaust yourself and fall. Because you are on lead—climbing above the rope’s last point of connection to the rock—almost every fall is significant. Every single move could mean a scary plunge into the void. Such falls are usually safe, but millions of years of evolution have conditioned the brain to believe otherwise.
I chickened out that day; instead of leading I opted to top-rope, which limited my falls to mere inches. I rationalized my decision every way possible. I was still developing my abilities as a leader; I liked taking slow, incremental steps; I could learn the moves on top-rope, then try leading the route once I found my confidence.
Top-roping Misty was a hollow victory; I knew I had missed an opportunity to grow. When I saw my fears reflected in that soaring rock wall, I declined a confrontation.
A principle for life
One of the things I love about rock climbing is that it forces you to confront fear every time you climb. This visceral confrontation with our innermost fears—and our triumph over them—is perhaps the very essence of the sport, which gives climbing its Zen-like quality. Sir Edmund Hillary famously said, “It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
This makes climbing an extraordinary training ground for life.
Climbing has sensitized me to the sheer number of moments in my life when I face a choice: do I back away from fear, or do I lean into it? Those choices don’t typically have the life-or-death quality that climbing does, but the accumulation of these small decisions can shape a life.
Beginning this blog entailed a significant battle with fear. I worried about merely being another noise in a noisy world. I worried about saying the wrong thing and triggering a backlash. I worried about oversharing. When I face such encounters with fear, it is so easy to catastrophize expected outcomes.
Eventually, I leaned into that fear long enough to publish my first piece. Needless to say, none of my worst-case outcomes materialized. Instead, friends and colleagues enthusiastically welcomed my writing. I received kind notes and emails. Friends urged me to keep at it. Once I broke the ice and leaned into that particular fear, the Unknown’s tyrannical power was broken; posting new articles became much easier.
My biggest fear this year was publishing my new book Eating Glass: The Inner Journey Through Failure and Renewal (forthcoming). I worried it wasn’t good enough. It was too vulnerable. It would ruin my reputation and my life. My loud inner critic screamed one message over and over: “Shut the f*** up!!!”
Yet I knew that publishing this book was the necessary next step in my life. This was my Misty, the frightening wall I needed to climb. In a poem about getting unstuck in life, David Whyte writes:
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
Like most occasions when we lean into fear, the rewards have been immeasurable. The support from friends and family has been incredible. I have had rich conversations with some early readers who saw their own experiences reflected in the book. Fully owning my story has helped me realize how much I was hiding, and how much that fear was holding me back. Now that I have committed to the book, I feel an exhilarating sense of acceleration into a future filled with possibilities.
A life at the edge
This commitment to frontier exploration is now a core value for me. Although I never live this out perfectly, I try to spend as much time as possible at my personal edge. Any time I feel that first prickle of fear, I recognize that an opportunity stands before me to learn and grow.
That is how each individual life progresses. Each time we take a tentative step into the unknown, we chip away at the frozen boundary of our potential. Our world enlarges. We discover new, previously undiscovered capacities within ourselves. Life at the edge has a kind of ratchet effect; once you take a step beyond the safe and familiar, you never truly go back. Each new experience becomes a part of your story, equipping you for every future exploration and confrontation.
Leaning into fear can take many forms. It might mean accepting a promotion you feel unqualified for, or agreeing to lead a project that eclipses anything you have previously tried. It might mean initiating a hard or uncomfortable conversation, or reading a book espousing a perspective you find threatening. It might mean seeking out and spending time with a community different from your own. No matter the outcome of these courageous acts, you always gain useful knowledge about yourself and the world.
Yesterday, it was time to finally confront my fear of Misty.
I felt nervous and sick the evening before. I watched every video of Misty that I could find on YouTube, studying the moves. I tossed and turned in bed, in a nightmarish delirium, thinking I was on the route. I spent my three-hour drive to the crag contemplating my fears.
My partner and I warmed up on several easier routes, which was necessary but also an evasion. As the hours wore by and the sun marched across the sky, I knew I was stalling. It would have been so easy to justify a day “getting back into leading” on these easier routes, but I had made a commitment to myself.
We finally hiked out to Misty. We tied in, checked each other over, and stick-clipped the first bolt to prevent a ground fall. I gazed up the sheer face. It was now or never.
I started up. Once I passed the first bolt, I was in the fearful unknown, above my rope, one misstep away from a frightening fall between the wall and a giant boulder. My breathing grew harsh and ragged as I leaned out into space, hanging tenuously on a bad sidepull as I transferred my weight to the opposite toe. The slightest imbalance would send me peeling off the rock. I made the move, clipped, and continued on.
Misty was an exhausting struggle after that. I was already worn out from the morning’s climbing, and despite the presence of many good holds, Misty put me through the wringer. I needed to rest frequently by hanging on my rope. I struggled through a second, higher crux, trying again and again, my finger endurance diminishing with each subsequent attempt. The hard move was five feet diagonally above the last bolt, so every missed attempt sent me on a swinging ride. The harsh sun glared down. I poured sweat. I had never exerted myself so hard on a climb before.
Eventually, I clipped the anchors. It was not an elegant or beautiful performance, but I did it. I leaned into the fear, achieved my hardest lead to date, and pushed my frontier just a little further. Sometime soon I will return to climb it perfectly, without rests or falls.
New fears await me, as they always do, but that one will never trouble me again.
The header image is not me, but a still from the best video of Misty I’ve found—shot with a drone. Kudos to the climber for a smooth, graceful performance.