We All Begin Somewhere

A Mountaineers member tells her progression from a fear of heights to a competent and popular climb leader.
Ida Kaller-Vincent Ida Kaller-Vincent
April 21, 2015
We All Begin Somewhere

It still doesn’t seem real that just three years ago, I was standing at the base of the indoor climbing wall at The Mountaineers Seattle Program Center, trembling with fear.

This wall was only a couple meters tall, but it was my very first rock climb. I had my brand spanking new mountaineering boots on, and I thought to myself there is no way I can get up there in these boots. As luck would have it, the two guys I had been paired up with (now fellow climbing buddies) were very kind and gave me the tightest of belays, in fact I think they may have hauled me up that wall. 

Next was the outdoor wall, which is much taller and more like a real rock climb. I remember making it up the top, coming over the lip, and the second I got on the ledge I anchored in with my personal anchor as if my life depended on it. That first year, during my basic alpine climbing course, my mind set was that I would get through that silly rock climbing malarkey, do my one real alpine rock climb to graduate and then never rock climb again. I was doing this course to do glacier climbs. I love steep icy snow, my crampons biting in like Styrofoam, kicking steps, ice-axe in hand. All that makes my heart sing with joy. Rock however, terrified me. 

I signed up early for my rock climb — Yellow Jacket Tower — thinking I would just quickly get it out of the way. 

Once on the summit I breathed a sigh of relief. The scary stuff was over, now it was just the fun rappel down.
I had completed my one rock climb required for graduation. I could now focus on glacier climbs, climbing mountains covered in ice and snow. But as the summer went on, I heard about some great rock climbs and was seduced by the photos from these peaks. My favorite thing about alpine climbing is the stunning scenery and the beautiful remote places it takes me. OK, I thought, maybe I will do one more rock climb. Which turned into three and then to four and all of a sudden it wasn’t all that scary anymore. I grew more confident, and by the end of summer, I had come to enjoy these alpine rock climbs. I was however, not ready to take the next step and lead on rock, this is a completely different ball game — all of a sudden, you‘re on the sharp end and a fall could have severe consequences. I agonized as my friends signed up for the intermediate climbing course, wanting to join them yet not feeling ready to lead on rock. In the end, I handed in my application, thinking I would take my time. Perhaps the first year I wouldn’t lead, I would just learn a lot. 

I was still undecided as I stood at the base of Saber at Castle Rock. I looked up on the rock and it occurred to me that I had never climbed a 5.6 outside ever before, and now I was to lead climb it. My friend who was helping out instructing and that I had been paired up with looked at me and said “Ida, I know you can do this. I have seen you climb. You are good”. OK, I thought — I can do this. I started up the wall, placing gear as I squeezed my way up the crack, clipping in to a dodgy looking old piton in lack of any other protection, I thought I can do this. just pretend you are at your rock climbing gym — you climb harder things than this there. I scanned the rock for placements and all of a sudden my surroundings faded away, I was focusing on finding a spot for my gear to make my slow ascent up the rock. I could feel my leg start to shake. Oh god not Elvis leg. Not now. But rather than panic, my mind put all its focus on placing gear, and soon enough I was at a bolt, I could anchor in and bring my follower up. The pride I felt after that first day of leading was immense. I had channeled all my fear into problem solving — a puzzle of rock now neatly in place. 

And I’ve learned to do it many times since. Last summer, I spent most of my spare days as a rope lead for basic rock climbs, or swinging leads on intermediate routes. This year I graduated the intermediate course, lead a student instructional group (SIG) and became a climb leader. With every climb, fear get’s pushed a little further away. This is not to say I am fearless in the least. I still mentally prepare before each climb, and sometimes on a hard move, every fiber in my body tightens and I can feel my leg wanting to go into Elvis mode. I just never let it.

This article originally appeared in our March/April 2014 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the article in magazine form and read more stories from our bi-monthly publication, click here.

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