Reader, if you knew beforehand that I, like (I believe) so many others, suffer from a fear of heights, you would wonder why I chose to get addicted to wall-climbing. Well, for the record, one doesn't choose one's addiction. One can choose to stop being addicted, but one definitely doesn't choose to get addicted in the first place. Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoy climbing is the same as that for my love for martial arts - it is as much an art as it is a sport - and there are no balls and no running involved. I can't do any sports with balls and I can't run. Actually, I do not expect that to make sense to anyone.
So, I have always had a fear of heights - for as far back as I can remember. Ever since I was a little girl, if ever I was in a high place and chanced to look down, my head would swirl, my legs turn wobbly and my heart race. The time I had to get across the canopy walkway at FRIM, I held tightly to the ropes on both sides, held my breath, and staggered all the way. The times my bestfriend and I took the cable car - once at Genting, and once to Sentosa Island in Singapore - we held tightly on to each other and closed our eyes. When I was in college, I once was reckless enough to try to conquer this fear by sitting on the balcony wall of my third-floor apartment, legs hanging down on the outside. What a stupid and futile idea it turned out. It was great for storm-watching, though, for while focusing on bolts of lighting in all their brilliance and magnificence in the darkened sky, I'd not be looking down, or remembering how high I was from the ground. However, even if I wasn't stopped by a grumpy, scolding security guard after several "attempts", I doubt it'd have helped me overcome my phobia.
I started off at the relatively-low bouldering walls - perhaps just about three times my height. Even that I always kept as close to the thickly-padded ground as I could, traversing the walls from end-to-end most of the time. When I have to climb upwards, either for attempting a route or attempting to get numb to the height, I make it a point not to look down. Once I'd reach the topmost rock, usually at the completion of a route, my hands would be trembling - I know not from exertion or nervousness. From there, I'd always try to climb down a little before letting go. It's been now several months of climbing and falling off, and I still feel no more immune to the height as when I first started. Perhaps I am better, perhaps I am not as scared, perhaps... but I do not feel it.
Such then, was I really ready to attempt to climb top-rope? The walls were high and very intimidating. But, if I do not try without being sure that I was ready, how would I ever know if I was ready? Would I then, ever be ready? After all, I'd be safely strapped in a harness, tied securely to a rope, and held on to by a trustworthy belayer, so why not? I was confident I could do it if I could do it without looking down.
I do not quite remember my first top-rope climb. A friendly and generous fellow climber offered to belay us, and we climbed without following a specific route. The second time we did, we had the Expert of the expert climbers belaying and guiding us. We managed a 5c route, followed by a 6a. I didn't know how I managed - for it was impossible not to look downwards at all. We'd have to be looking at where we're stepping, in the least. I guess hanging on to the holds, figuring how to get to the next one, actually getting to it, fighting the fatigue and striving to complete the route did occupy the mind enough to take if off its fear. If that wasn't enough, the sense of achievement at having completed a route was undoubtedly intoxicating.
Perhaps it didn't feel right accepting charity belaying all the time, perhaps a climber isn't quite complete without having learned all the different aspects of climbing... and so he persuaded the Expert, ever generous with his knowledge and ever willing to impart it, to teach us the proper techniques of belaying. So there we were that day, knocking ourselves out at the top-roping walls. I climbed four routes that day - more than I'd ever done previously.
I finally realized that my issue with heights isn't really a deterrent to my scaling up a wall. Each time, it was when I've reached the top that I was suddenly seized by panic, knowing I would then be lowered down. It was the going down sensation that I find very scary. I'd cling on so tightly to the rope that if it could complain, it certainly would. I'd steal downward glances and get more anxious each time, for the ground always seemed still so far away. Yes, the descent always felt like it would go on forever. I can't be sure now, but I think I might even have had held my breath all the way down.
After several climbing and belaying exercises, we did our final route for that day. It was one of the two on the speed-climbing wall which was 20 or 25 meters high - I can't recall exactly.
Mr Expert, our coach for the day, said he would be the belayer for both of us, for a reason he would only tell after we'd climbed. Right, that was a situation where it wasn't wise to go with "ladies first" so I let him take the first turn. The route was "easy" in that there was only one along the trail, so the mind didn't need to constantly figure out the next hold. It was at the same time challenging for the holds were spaced quite apart, and it was a very long climb to the top. He managed it elegantly, in his great form and endurance, without stopping to rest or falling off. Once the route was completed, Mr Expert revealed what he wanted us to experience - he released the rope such that he was lowered at an alarming speed. Yes, our macho fellow climber, Mr Guitarist Extraordinaire, was so taken by surprised that an unintended squeal escaped his lips. We needed to experience, and possibly get used to, the "feeling of falling", Mr Expert Coach said.
Then, it was my turn. Going up wasn't too hard, considering the holds were rather big. For me and my extreme lack of height, though, some parts were really quite a stretch, and by the time I was two-thirds up the wall, my arms were so ready to give out. However, with support and lots of encouragement from Mr Expert Coach, I made it to the top. The moment I got both hands to the final hold, I panicked with tenfold intensity at the prospect of having to experience the "fall-like" going down. I actually turned my face downwards, called and begged him not to lower me at high-speed. I was so paralysed with fear of the impending descent I froze in my harness. I was still hanging onto the rock with both my hands, as if I was hanging on for dear life.
I knew I had to let go - well, apart from hearing voices from below telling me to let go - I knew I had to let go or I'll be stuck there. So I let go, and grabbed the rope. Then, I started falling. I knew I wasn't really falling, but it was the closest thing, and it was endless! I was aware I had curled my body and closed my eyes, and was squealing all the way down. One part of me, perhaps the little part still sane and sensible, was aware that someone was laughing, and quite loudly too. By the time I reached the floor, I was so shaken I couldn't stand. I crumbled down in a heap. The sane, sensible part then registered laughing, cheering and applause. I appreciate the encouragement from the regulars, but at the time, was totally unable to react to it. In fact, I was too incoherent to even speak when I was spoken to - for a while. And I was trembling such that I couldn't undo the figure-of-8 knot that kept the rope fastened to my harness.
Now, thinking back - it was all pretty awesome, really! I wish I hadn't embarrassed myself being that scared, but it was a truly eye-opening experience, to say the least. I can't tell if I would become less scared with more training, but there is always hope!