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Becoming Brave: On Women and Fear

Kathryn Sall looks at new ways to approach fear and bravery in her climbing, and contemplates the different ways that young boys and girls are socialized with regards to these emotions.

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In October at Smith Rock, a climbing partner and I set intentions before our day started—he wanted to work on not over-gripping and I wanted to climb until I fell.  When I get to a hard part I often become so gripped that I grab a draw or weight the rope without really going for it. But I’d like to be someone who does go for it.

After our warm-up, my partner kindly hung the draws on something a bit harder and I watched through my belay specs, trying to remember his beta. He got to the top, I lowered him to the ground, and without pause he pulled the rope.

Shoot. I started climbing and feigned confidence. Fake it ‘til you make it, right? But by the fifth bolt, faking it was no longer working. What did he do here? Why is every single pocket within 10 feet covered in chalk? Do I touch them all? Still two feet below the bolt, I reached up to grab the draw. “What are you doing?!” shouted my partner from below. “Just need to figure out how to do this part,” I yelled down, frustrated that I hadn’t stuck to my goal for the day. “You can take that up.”

Later as we walked along the Crooked River, we discussed fear, specifically fear while lead climbing. We stopped to admire an elegant, still Great Blue Heron standing proudly in the water. From half a pace behind me, my climbing partner said, “If you want to be a climber that goes for it, I think you’ve got to say you’re a climber that goes for it. If you say it, you’ll make yourself do it, and eventually it will become your reality.”

I believe fully and whole-heartedly in the power of positive self-talk and manifesting the lives we want. Our thoughts create our realities, and our beliefs about what’s possible can—no, do—make the seemingly ridiculous achievable. His idea resonated with me: If I start to convince myself that I’m brave, then my climbing will start to show that.

I want to make 2018 the year of becoming brave, of being comfortable taking safe lead falls, and remaining relaxed while on the sharp end.

But something’s missing. I’m a feminist to my core and know that women are as capable, powerful and adept as men. And simultaneously women are socialized so…freaking…differently. Unlearning fear is a completely different task for me than it is for my male partners. Yes, I am just as able to unlearn behaviors and develop new patterns, but I’m starting somewhere else, and unless I acknowledge that, I’m going to be ineffective trying to move through fear gracefully.

In January I tried to take on this “go for it” persona, similar to my approach a few months earlier in Smith Rock. It felt futile. I was trad climbing on Mt. Lemmon in Tucson, Arizona with a friend. I asked to toprope our first climb of the day to see what this new-to-me climbing area felt like. He hung the rope and I happily followed. The next climb was mine. I started to move left to the 5.8, and he started to move right to the 5.10. He knew about my self-talk and try-hard goals and wasn’t about to let me slink away.

Okay, Kathryn, this is your opportunity. You can do this because you are brave and competent, I silently repeated to myself a few times.

I breathed and relaxed and tried to smile as I pulled the first roof. That’s different, I thought. Anything steep on gear usually feels terrifying or “impossible.” I have often caught myself saying, “I’m bad at roofs,” creating self-limiting power leaks before I even try. Maybe my attempts at bravery were working. I climbed another 30 feet or so before becoming totally and utterly stumped. I went up and down the same 15 feet without weighting the rope six times, terrified because I couldn’t find any protection and my last piece was a small stopper, something I am not yet experienced falling on. Climbing back to below the stopper I shouted, “Take!” This was too much. He lowered me and finished the climb.

Progress isn’t linear. I get that. Maybe tying in was my victory. Maybe climbing the first 50 feet was. But it sure didn’t feel like it.

Last week I was in Indian Creek and had a revelation. It was raining, so I went for a run and listened to podcasts. I came across an interview by Tim Ferriss’ of Caroline Paul. She is a writer who was one of the first women hired by the San Francisco Fire Department, and authored the controversial New York Times article “Why Do We Teach Girls That It’s Cute To Be Scared?”

The main idea is that women are conditioned from a very young age to be more cautious, timid and hesitant than men. Paul cites a study about how parents caution their daughters differently than their sons. Girls then risk less, don’t experience safe consequences, and the cycle continues. Girls are taught to value fear and talking about that fear openly, and aren’t taught to value bravery the same way boys do.

This blew my mind. It was like Paul was holding up a mirror to me that reflected back the past 28 years of learned behaviors. She named something that I knew intrinsically but had never stepped back enough to be able to see clearly.

Okay, cool, now I can name my starting place. I can describe why this feels challenging and how I’ve been societally conditioned. But where do I go from here? Enter micro bravery.

Paul describes micro bravery as tiny, digestible acts of bravery that take us out of our comfort zones. Practice these small acts on a regular basis and they become normal. Instances of micro bravery turn into acts of macro bravery, and then you’re brave.

Applying this to my climbing, I can look at a route in small segments, like the distance between each bolt. I sure as heck love a stick clip to keep my ankles safe, so maybe I don’t need to be brave until the second bolt. Maybe with my former mindset I would have looked up at the 70 feet of unknown climbing and felt overwhelmed, wide-eyed and frozen at that second bolt.

But can I be brave for seven feet? That feels possible. That is possible. Okay, I’ll be brave for the next seven feet and celebrate that small success. Even if I weight the rope at the third bolt, I’m learning patterns of deciding to be brave for a controlled period, and I feel successful. Over time this becomes habitual, and boom, I’m a climber who goes for it.

So maybe I can’t just tell myself I’m a brave climber and become a brave climber. But I sure as heck can practice small, deliberate acts of courage and learn to value bravery just like men do. Because you better believe I’m just as capable.

Kathryn Montana Sall is a freelance writer, artist and educator living in Lander, Wyoming. Find her at and @kathrynmontana

Also read How I went from 5.10b to My First 5.12 in Seven Months