Overcoming fear and expectation through trad climbing

As a committed boulderer who is terrified of heights, Catie swore she'd never trad climb. And yet, one day she found herself crying in the rain on Jacob's Ladder.
July 31, 2023

Back when I was a bouldering gumby I was free. Progress came quickly, I felt sheer delight no matter what I climbed, and I was blissfully unburdened by politics, judgement, or expectation. I could surrender to knowing nothing. Easily impressed, I  sat in awe, slack jawed as I watched a boulder bro climb a 6B+ slab.

Sometimes I miss those days, particularly as I sit below a project indulging in some mental self-flagellation.  But as I found last year it’s never too late to rediscover the gumby spirit. I may have more bouldering experience under my belt but when it comes to trad climbing, I am an absolute noob – maybe even less than a noob.

So, when my partner asked me to go trad climbing on Table Mountain for the first time, like any gumby I was immediately terrified, anxious, clueless, excited and over-confident in equal measure;  a conflict of emotions. After some serious convincing, I agreed.

There was a reason I had picked bouldering as my discipline of choice. I’ve always feared heights. Even standing on the top floor of a tall building gives me sweaty palms and tingly feet. But in the interest of new experiences and overcoming my fears I was keen to give this a try.

It was a cold morning, and despite South Africa being in the throes of a pandemic there was a large queue at the cable car station. We waited our turn and raised our eyebrows as we watched a woman swan through the barrier with a 40-degree fever. Hopefully I wouldn’t leave my first trad climbing adventure with a broken spirit and COVID.

Pulling my mask up to my eyelashes, the cable car rose, and the mountain loomed before me. Enormous clouds engulfed the cliffs and obscured my view of Cape Town below. I knew then I was in for a soggy introduction.

We made it to the viewing deck and hopped over the low wall. I was told it was an easy scramble to the abseil bolts, and in theory it was – if you weren’t suffering from a bad case of jelly legs. I was already feeling the exposure, scared of venturing to the edge of the drop. In anticipation of it only getting scarier, my eyes welled up. I felt out of my depth and suddenly like I didn’t want to be there at all.

I have always been an easy crier. My partner knows this well. He looked up as tears rolled down my cheeks and he smiled. “Come on Catie, there’s no turning back. You can do this.” Even through his encouraging words I could tell he was unsettled that I was cracking this early in the day.

The abseil point was a relatively small platform with a 70-metre sheer drop. I couldn’t bring myself to look over the edge and, in my mind, I imagined an endless abyss that might suck me all the way down to Camps Bay if I got too close. I wasn’t joking about being afraid of heights.

In a bid to calm my nerves we nibbled rice cakes and cheese, chatting about what to expect. My partner was in charge, and I merely had to follow, embrace the freedom of the gumby spirit and surrender to learning (and being a little clueless). As somebody who likes to be in charge this was no simple exercise. I had to trust my partner to keep me safe and take the proverbial leap. Some crying whilst doing the leaping was not out of the question though.

I felt light rain spitting on my face as I edged my way towards the bolts. It was getting colder. My partner laughed a little watching me as he shouted, “rope below” and threw the half ropes over the edge.  I couldn’t understand how he was so comfortable standing on the precipice untethered. I hoped one day I might feel this relaxed. “It’s just about exposure,” he said jovially. “Like anything, the more you do it the more comfortable you’ll get.” Though, as I stood there paralysed with nerves I think we both had doubts he was right.

We set up my ATC and prusik to rappel. I shakily stepped backwards and gulped as I got my first glimpse of the ground below. I felt hopelessly in conflict with my self-preservation instinct. But with one last “I can’t do this!” I fought back tears and took the plunge.

To my surprise, once I got into a rhythm, sliding the prusik smoothly down the rope, I felt myself relax a little. I paused and took a moment to look around me. As if the elements were rewarding my efforts the clouds parted enough to see the bustling city and beaches below. Tendrils of light mist swirled around the cliffs, reminiscent of Jurassic Park I thought. It was wondrous.

I padded down the wall, sliding further down the ropes. Suddenly, without warning my feet were kicking in open air. I was in a large overhang. In the absence of a comforting wall beneath my shoes, the exposure felt all too present again. The mountain was an imposing giant and I, just a small spider descending on a strand of web.

Finally, I lowered myself into the warm embrace of a rather spiky bush. Sweet, sweet earth.
Climbing was next and after a successful rappel I was feeling more confident. We had picked Jacob’s Ladder, an “easy” mega- classic which I was told boasted unbeatable exposure. This was meant to be a thing.

My partner climbed the first pitch and I followed. It was an easy introduction, more scrambling than climbing. I flowed enjoyably through large jugs, getting to grips with removing gear. Though as I coaxed small nuts and cams out of their cracks my lizard brain was having a hard time believing this was more than decorative safety. Would these puny little nuts really hold a fall?

My uncertainty became apparent as I parked off at the first hanging stance. The anchor consisted of three “bomber” pieces, my partner explained. Intellectually I knew they would hold but I still found myself squeezing the life out of two jugs. Only when I had to belay did I reluctantly pry my fingers off their safety holds and force myself to trust the gear. I took a deep breath and sat back in my harness - an exercise in letting go. We were still hanging there, nothing had moved, no one had died. This was encouraging.

Next up was a traverse out to the right and then a stretch of dainty climbing upwards on crimps and a smattering of jugs. Relaxing into the stance I began to belay my partner along the traverse. Though as he began to climb further up into the mist and away from me, I began to feel increasingly alone and nervous.

The weather had quickly turned. The rain had started again and I began to shiver. Suddenly the rope tugged – my partner needed slack, but I was unable to give him any. Somehow the carefully flaked ropes had become twisted into a bird’s nest. As I tried to untangle the knot, I only seemed to make things worse. Holding onto two crimps he shouted down to me again “slack!!” The wind had picked up and I feared my voice was lost as I yelled back. “Slack!” I heard again from above, this time with more urgency. It was like untangling Christmas lights with a time limit.

I felt panicked but I forced myself to pause for a second. I had to focus. I thought I had two options. I could drop the rope to help untangle it, though I risked it catching on a tree or rock on the pitch below. Or I could continue to try to make sense of the mess at my feet. I went for the quicker option and dropped the rope.
Just then I was able to eke out enough slack for him to climb onto a small ledge. Both of us relieved, he built an impromptu anchor whilst I hoisted the ropes back up.

It was my turn next. I felt my partner pull the rope up, preparing for me to follow, but over the wind I struggled to hear if I was on belay. I waited, uncertain. Finally, I heard a distant “Wait!” and then a few moments later “on belay!”
I gingerly cleaned the stance hoping I’d heard him right. I was freezing, the rock was slippery, and I felt hopelessly incompetent.

The sooner I started climbing the sooner I would kick into a focused state and drown out my discomfort – I hoped. I began to traverse, moving apprehensively along the damp holds. My feet shuffled along a rail, just below them a chasm. We were now in dense cloud, and I could see nothing but an endless grey below me.
For a moment I thought the climbing might have been enjoyable if everything wasn’t so wet and the wind wasn’t blowing me sideways. I focused on my hands moving from hold to hold. I felt so determined that I think I had forgotten to breathe.

Finally, as I pulled over the small ledge to greet my partner all my bravery seemed to crumble, and I let out a sob. “Why did you bring me here today?” I demanded. “This is just awful!” Somehow, he was still smiling - rain or shine he loved the adventure and despite it going completely sideways (in my perspective) he was able to embrace the chaos. I leaned against the wall, and he held my hand. “Often the epics with the most suffering make for the best stories, Catie,” he told me. As I shivered fearfully on the ledge, I hoped this was what people described as type two fun.

He snapped a couple of selfies, to this day some of his favourite photos. I have red eyes and a tear rolling down my cheek as he beams next to me.

Thankfully it was a short climb to the top from the ledge. Jacob’s Ladder is usually two pitches, but our unforeseen pit-stop had broken up the journey. More comfortable belaying while sitting down, my partner set off and I fed out slack dreaming of climbing into a hot bath.

After an altercation with a stuck cam, I pulled over the lip after him and scrambled away from the edge. I felt broken. My eyes were red, my lips blue and my spirits tested beyond anything I had anticipated that day.

As I looked miserably at my partner, he handed me a seashell in a bid to lift my spirits. “Isn’t it amazing that you can still find these all the way up here?” he asked. I took the shell and cried. I think this time with relief.

I almost didn’t write this story because I felt far too embarrassed at the number of times I cried on a simple trad mission. A day out that  might have been a non-event to many climbers.

It’s hard to entirely dismiss ego in climbing and to confront how useless I felt when placed in conditions that scared me. I’m also quite certain I’m not the first person to feel that way.

I started this article by declaring I was free when I was a gumby. I didn’t care about grades or feel embarrassed by failure. But being a beginner again was harder than I thought. I felt paralysed by uncertainty and at the mercy of someone else’s experience.

But as time passed I began to feel immense satisfaction. I hadn’t climbed the hardest route or topped the gnarliest boulder. The grade truly didn’t matter this time. I had climbed a traditional route in the rain and cold despite being terrified. Though I had wept my way through it I had inched one step closer to overcoming a great fear.

Despite my better judgement I returned to Table Mountain on a warm, still day six months later.  Just as my partner had predicted, nothing is ever as hard the second time. The power of the familiar is an incredible thing and simply knowing what to expect can change everything. With the sun warming my face, I leaned back to rappel and thought this is kind of wonderful.

As I looked miserably at my partner, he handed me a seashell in a bid to lift my spirits. “Isn’t it amazing that you can still find these all the way up here?” he asked. I took the shell and cried.