Helicopters, heights and conquering fears

There are few things in life that I’m scared of, in a phobia sort of way. I understand you can’t “sort of” have a phobia but you get the drift.


I don’t like slug type things, but I’ll squish them if needed. I’m not a fan of ladders but that’s more related to a quite real fear of heights.


That and publicly making an idiot of myself are about it.  Weird, because much of my business is generated by speaking on stage.

Facing fears

A while back I managed to conquer a specific area of both fears. One relates to making an idiot of myself in public and that’s Karaoke. I was in an environment where although I knew I did have a choice, I also felt I didn’t have a choice but to perform. (You know the one.) So I performed.


No, there’s no video and yes, I did enjoy it.


The other area is that of climbing. More accurately, indoor wall climbing. I hate it. I tried it once before.  I ended up gripping the wall, about six feet off the ground and the person with me had to “rescue” me.


What’s strange is this.  As a child, I was the one who would climb the trees to attach the rope swings (yes, I had a proper childhood). Or climb over the chain-link fence to break into the Tennis Club (I wanted to play). I’ve even been known to climb up a drainpipe or two to see a girl on an illicit tryst (Don’t ask – well, you can but I won’t answer).


I don’t know what changed.  I do know heights have bothered me for as far back as I can remember – aside from the above.


Maybe, I fell out of a tree, got my shorts stuck at the top of the fence or the drainpipe unattached itself from the wall.


Maybe, I became more aware of my mortality and got nervous.


Who knows?


What I do know is: there are things I’d like to do that I’ve not been able to because of this fear. Zip wires with Josie for example. Walking across the glass floor of London Bridge. Or getting in a helicopter – and that’s another recent conquest as Kay and I flew over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter last year! That was a big thing for me but the thought of the experience I’d miss out on overrode the fear. (It was scary and exhilarating in equal measures – and I would do it again in a heartbeat!)


When not in a helicopter, I do like flying though – again, don’t ask.

Easy….maybe not!

On this particular weekend I got an opportunity to go climbing. I thought long and hard about it and decided that at some point I needed to face this fear again. And I decided that this day would be the day it would happen.


I went with a group of fellow entrepreneurs, many of whom I’ve known for some time and all whom, I trust.


One of our group, Keith, is a very qualified and experienced climbing instructor. He was able to take the group as a “visiting instructor”, keeping us all together.


As we were put into our harnesses Keith began his briefing.  I could feel the sweat start to build, my throat dried out and I began to imagine how a cornered rabbit might feel.


We went up in groups of three, two belaying or holding the rope and one climbing. The two belaying are there to stop the climber from falling and it’s done through a simple pulley system.


I started to sidle towards the back of the group, not wanting to be first.


Before I felt ready, (not that I’d ever feel ready) it was my turn.


I clipped into my harness and walked to the wall. The guys with me knew I was nervous (okay, scared) but encouraged me as I started to take a few moves up the “rock face”.


At first, it was fine.


I placed a foot, found a handhold, and stepped up, and again, and again.


“Wow, I’ve cracked this,” I thought.

Hitting the wall…

Suddenly, I froze. I can’t explain why or what the trigger was, but I just stopped. I could feel my heart racing and once again, I found myself hanging about ten feet off the ground.  In a harness, eyes squeezed shut, beginning to panic.


My legs felt stuck and my hands were gripping so hard, my forearms were beginning to cramp.


All I could hear was the blood rushing through my head and sounds of encouragement coming from the ground below me.


I managed to look around and then down at my team below. All I could think about was getting down.


“I’ve had enough,” I said. “I’ve tried, and I need to come down”.


Through the cacophony of noise, one voice filtered up to me.


“Ash, let go. I’ve got you”.


“Let go?” I thought. “Are you nuts?” Even if I could unpick my fingers, there’s no way I’m letting go.


That voice continues to talk to me, calm, measured and confident.


“Trust me, let go, I’ve got you. Put your feet on the wall and lean back.”

I let go. And I didn’t fall.


I’m hanging by my harness, feet planted on the wall, arms aching.


“Ash, relax a moment and look at the wall. Look how well you did.”


I looked at the wall.


“I want you to place one foot on that blue foothold and straighten your leg.”


I assume this will make it easier for me to get down, so I do what Keith says.

One step at a time

“Now take one more step up.”


Despite myself, I take another, then another. Keith’s voice the only thing I hear.


I realise that I can do this and start to be a little more aggressive.


You know what I mean, when you decide to do something, when sheer bloody-mindedness kicks in – to the exclusion of everything else.




I climb and suddenly I realise, I’m at the top of the wall.


I feel a bit numb but exhilarated as well.


Coming down the wall was simple. Now I had trust, it was a matter of leaning back and walking down towards the floor.

Planning means progress

So, look, here’s the thing.

There are many lessons I learned on my way up the wall. Lessons around trust. Confidence in others and myself. And decision making. The lesson I want to share is about planning.


On the ground, after I’d calmed down, Keith took me aside.


“Look at the wall” he said. “The better climbers will study the wall and work out a route to the top. They plan it, working out the best hand and footholds before they climb.”


I realised that part of the reason I got stuck was that I couldn’t see my way up the wall. The path to the top. Any path.


I didn’t know what direction to take so without options I regressed into primal instinct and froze.


Looking back, it had nothing to do with the height. I was so close to the wall I couldn’t see how high I was.

When Keith encouraged me to lean back, I could see where I was and how far I had come; and follow a path.

Getting things in perspective

I got perspective.


It was this perspective that enabled me to pick my way up the wall. I became so focused on where I was going, the next step, that I forgot about how high I was or that I was nervous.


Before my next climb, I studied the wall and went up easily. I got stuck a couple of times but only because I lost where I was on the path. I didn’t freeze though because I knew there was one. I just needed to lean back, get perspective and find the next step.


I started to enjoy it, later taking on a rock face with an overhang.


But I didn’t defeat it. What stopped me?


It wasn’t fear, but lack of technique – and that I can learn.


What got me as far as I did? Some planning and getting perspective when I was stuck.


Oh, and the reassuring, calm tones of one Keith Crockford.


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