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IN SEARCH OF COMFORT ZONES - Climbing lessons from seizures, social anxiety and underprivileged children

This article is written by an Urban Uprising volunteer.

It is hard to understate how much has been written about the life lessons imparted by the fear and hardship experienced in the mountains. Climbing and mountaineering can teach patience, resilience, risk management and many other skills essential to manage challenges from everyday life.

This utilitarian view of climbing is quite in contrast with that of the early pioneers of the sport. Royal Robbins, one of the first to master the craft of Yosemite big wall climbing, famously said that ‘the beautiful thing of climbing is that you cannot justify it’. Whilst my adventures in the mountains have undoubtedly had a positive impact on how I deal with the hiccups of everyday life, there used to be a part of me that attempted to live up to Robbins’ idealistic take on climbing. I strove to keep a sharp boundary between the person I am in the mountains and the one I am at home or in the workplace, for I feared that by allowing these two aspects of my life to interact, the trivialities of the modern world would tarnish the beauty of climbing for its own sake. While conducting my life in this ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ style, little did I realise that it was not the climber in me influencing the person I was in my everyday life. In fact, the reverse was actually taking place: a relapse of my mild seizure disorder led me to question where my comfort zone stood and when to leave it. The daily introspections that ensued would quietly influence my thought process when making crucial decisions in the mountains.

When I landed my first job fresh out of graduate school, I naively imagined constructing a comfort zone around my work routine and using the weekends to venture out into the mountains. I was far too childish to predict that my struggles as a neurodivergent individual combined with stresses from micromanagement at work would cause a resurfacing of my mild seizure disorder. I used to experience seizures only when overwhelmed by physical stimuli or intense stress, so my first seizure in 7 years was a clear sign that what I thought of as my comfort zone was not a safe space anymore. This may sound like an oxymoron, but perhaps feeling safe and actually being safe are not the same thing. The act of smoking, for example, does not feel dangerous at the moment, even if it becomes a habit.

Loch Coruisk, Isle of Skye © Lindsay Marris

Unsurprisingly, I resigned from my job as soon as it felt right to do so. It’s hard to say if the climber in me played a role in this radical choice, but the impact of this life change on my approach to climbing was instantly noticeable. The reminder that comfort zones may feel safe even if they are not echoed in my helmet on a hot summer’s day on the Coruisk slabs on the Isle of Skye. Dave, Lindsay, Wendell and I decided to enjoy one of the few dry days on Skye to head to a remote corner of the island. Whilst trying a route called Swamp Donkey, we probably went off route and found ourselves on a sea of gabbro with near to no protection. We only realised we were lost by the time we got to the third pitch and with half the route to go, the technical difficulties and the consequences of a potential fall did not match the suggested grade. Unfortunately for me, I was still on lead, and high above my last gear placement. I headed for a strip of basalt cutting across the gabbro slab, hoping that the cracks in it would take a small cam, but they were flaky and loose. Though I managed to find a jug to rest and shake out my calves just over the basalt strip, the slab was too featureless to be downclimbed safely. I didn’t want to leave the jug as it felt safe, and I knew that wherever I’d go, I would expose myself to an ever bigger fall. But realising that I couldn’t hang on indefinitely, a flashback from my workplace reminded me that the jug, my then comfort zone, wasn’t going to be safe forever. About 15m to my left, there were a few large blocks which might have been a place for an acceptable belay, so I made the decision to head in that direction. ‘OK Wendell, really watch me here!’ I yelled, though I knew that after a few steps from the jug, there was enough slack in the rope for me to hit the belay ledge had I taken a fall. Trying not to remind myself of the poor phone signal in Coruisk, I kept humming Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ to make sure I’d keep breathing. After placing a pathetic microcam with one lobe not in contact with the rock, I finally reached the blocks to find good jugs and gear placements. ‘Safe Wendell!’ I cried in relief, as I relaxed into my harness in my new comfort zone. We would eventually bail from the route and the anxieties of that morning became the subject of a good laugh that evening. Being a fan of Robbie Phillips and his bold first ascents in the outer Hebrides, I wondered if the thrill we had just experienced by going off route, could somewhat be likened to that felt by a first ascensionist, miles away from the comforts of home. It’s fairer to admit, though, that there were more parallels with my experience in my former workplace: everything started with the realisation that my comfort zone was not safe.

Running it out on the Coruisk Slabs © Lindsay Marris

What is a comfort zone then, and why do we leave it, only to return? Before I attempt an answer, I should leave a disclaimer that I am not a medical professional nor a climbing coach. However, my idea of a comfort zone is not that dissimilar from the pedagogical model of comfort-stretch-panic zones sometimes used by Hazel Findlay and other climbing coaches.

I like to imagine ‘comfort’ as a muscle contracting at a certain frequency and a ‘comfort zone’ as a situation in which this muscle contracts at a ‘resting frequency’. Ultimately, this metaphor is not far from reality, for a typical sign of stress is an increased heart rate compared with the normal resting rate. In fact, a comfort zone can be expanded by training the comfort muscle to work at incrementally higher frequencies. Venturing too far out of the comfort zone and working at too high frequencies can cause injury to the muscle thus shrinking the comfort zone.

Gaining confidence with falling is a good example to make this metaphor concrete to a climbing audience. To gain trust in the rope, a beginner climber is usually told to take a ‘top rope fall’, below the last clipped quickdraw. Confidence is then increased by taking incrementally larger falls; this slowly expands the comfort zone where the climber does not experience excessive negative emotions during the fall. If the climber goes straight from a top rope fall to a 20m one the likes of Dave MacLeod’s on Rhapsody, then they’re likely to never climb again, as their comfort muscle has experienced a trauma which then shrinks the comfort zone, even if no physical injury was involved.

Making friends at the climbing gym © Sean Stinton

Whilst fear of falling is very common amongst climbers of all levels, social fears within the climbing community are often overlooked. The fear of underperforming, of being judged by others at the crag, of not having an athlete’s body or being rejected when asking someone to partner up are all genuine fears that can affect one’s performance and enjoyment of the sport. Having always been a very socially anxious person, my comfort muscle has required plenty of training for the social aspects of climbing. When I first joined my university mountaineering club, going to their indoor wall socials was just too overwhelming, especially as a newbie to plastic holds and flamboyant competition style moves. But heading to the climbing gym at quieter times and slowly going back to the club socials was a wise strategy to gain confidence not only with indoor bouldering, but also with climbing in front of others. A big surprise was to realise that many beginners felt comfortable with the club, and only the excessive ‘mind reading’ triggered by social anxiety made me wrongly believe that others were rejecting me for not climbing at their standard. Nevertheless, I am still convinced that my strategy of ‘incremental social exposure’ was the right one to avoid traumatising the social aspect of my comfort muscle. I am also grateful that, from my experience, climbing communities are generally quite welcoming. But telling a socially anxious person that their fears are unfounded will only discourage them even further; it would reinforce the idea that there’s something intrinsically wrong with them. Short of counselling, exposure therapy for strengthening the comfort muscle is the only path I can think of to become comfortable with social fears.

Fallout Corner in the Northern Cairngorms - a perfect route to start a new climbing partnership with Dave © Alistair MacLennan

Expanding the social aspect of my comfort zone has given me the chance to forge amazing climbing partnerships. The different dynamics within each partnership contributed to the variety of adventures I have enjoyed and endured. Still, winding down in the company of me, myself and I is necessary for my comfort muscle to recover on the social side. Whilst it is not always possible to find the ideal comfort zone to recover, getting creative to construct one is part of the challenge! I once hid in the drying room with a copy of National Geographic when the hostel I was staying at was particularly crowded. Nestled amongst steaming boots and dripping GoreTex still felt adventurous, but the socially anxious reader will almost certainly relate when I say that it did feel like physiotherapy for my comfort muscle.

Walking into Coire an-t-Sneachda to chase the first freeze 

Knowing when to return to one’s comfort zone and how to improvise a makeshift one (the likes of a damp and smelly drying room) can be a life saving skill in the mountains. An early season winter epic in the Cairngorms will haunt me for the rest of my days as a lesson about makeshift comfort zones. Excited to scratch the first rime of the season, Charles and I headed into Coire an-t-Sneachda in the Northern Cairngorms on a breezy mid December morning, aiming to start the season by climbing Fingers Ridge. True to my reputation, I went off route yet again. By the time we got to the top of the second pitch, I felt way out of my comfort zone: some runout sections were stomach turning, and most gear placements were marginal at best. The sun was setting at an alarming rate, and the visibility was poor, so quick decisions needed to be made. ‘I think there is one, possibly two pitches to the top.’ I told Charles, trying to stay hopeful. ‘If it gets any worse, I think I’m going to bail into the gully to our left.’ Only as I started climbing the next pitch, I realised how tired my mental armour was. The moves towards the gully were at least as tenuous, and knowing that the gear holding together Charles’ belay was anything but ideal did not help with morale. I was further out of my comfort zone than I could afford, and I was not sure how much harder I would have to push to lead the next pitch. I slowly down climbed to Charles’ belay and after a brief chat we decided to bail and return to the comfort of his van. There was no way I would have abseiled off that belay, but I remembered that there was a decent thread between two boulders in a narrow niche not too far below. As we struggled into the niche and placed the sling, Charles and I carefully made a plan. I recalled that the belay on the first pitch was a nice ledge with a block we could easily place a sling around and abseil off it. Though the ledge might have been a bit problematic to find on abseil, it would have been wide enough for us to sit and wait for the next morning and hopefully get help from other climbers or mountain rescue, in case the ropes were impossible to retrieve. What followed was my most nervous abseil to date, wondering if the thread would have popped while shining my headlamp in all directions in search of the ledge. Fortunately, the tracks in the snow left by our crampons were still visible and after a heroic swing I triumphantly stood on the ledge - our makeshift comfort zone, potentially for the night if it came to that. With the strength left in our arms, we managed to free the rope and breathed a sigh of relief when we began the final and more reassuring abseil. We knew we were not safe yet, as all the drifting snow was forming avalanche terrain on the approach to the ridge, so we quickly packed our ropes, took a bearing and headed towards Charles’ van. As we slowly came out of the cloud, a serpentine of mountain hare footprints in the snow crossed our path: the best happy omen to end an epic. A few days later I was bouldering indoors with Neil, a friend and guidebook writer. As I recounted our epic, he hinted that we were probably climbing Fingers Ridge Direct - a significantly bolder and more technical route. If only you’d known, whispered my fickle friend called hindsight.

Mountain hare tracks to end an epic outing in the Cairngorms 

Hindsight is indeed a fickle friend. One moment he congratulates you for some bold choice, the next he makes you regret it. As I am writing these lines, still looking for stable employment, hindsight is reminding me of how long it has been since resigning from my previous job and how many makeshift comfort zones I have been hopping between in the meantime. Perhaps I could have kept my job and looked for a different makeshift comfort zone. Or perhaps I could have endured my then unsafe yet stable comfort zone a bit longer and something might have changed for the better. I hardly believe that my next employment will really provide me with a safe, stable comfort zone for my comfort muscle to finally rest, but this is no reason to despair.

During my time away from work I had the chance to volunteer with Urban Uprising, a charity aiming to improve the quality of life of young people from underprivileged backgrounds using the mental, physical and social benefits of rock climbing. The pure and unbiased views of children often provide me with answers when I struggle to find the right questions to ask, and the ones I volunteered with proved to be no exception. The first lesson they taught me was that Royal Robbins’ romantic view of climbing as ‘unjustifiable’ is a far cry from the truth. Some of the children came from broken homes or had severe disabilities; others have just arrived from war torn Ukraine. The indoor climbing walls provided some of them with a shelter to feel like children again. I believe that to these young people climbing did matter, perhaps because it might have been the only thing they had to be themselves, whether or not they actually enjoyed the activity. For those who did enjoy it, I wondered what comfort zone they returned to after their climbing sessions to allow their comfort muscles to rest. My relatively privileged childhood meant that my views on what a comfort zone should look like were rather narrow. If these kids from rough neighbourhoods or broken families could find some comfort somewhere then maybe the second lesson they imparted to me is that every comfort zone is a makeshift one and will not last forever. We can only hope that when we leave one for good, our comfort muscle is fit enough to carry us to the next place to call ‘comfort zone’.

The joys of sharing climbing with those who need it the most © Urban Uprising

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