These two rock climbers take risks that would paralyze you with fright. How?

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April 19 2010 7:15 AM

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These two rock climbers take risks that would paralyze you with fright. How?

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John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Time and space bend in the presence of Eli Simon and Pete Fasoldt. Around them, a distance of 15 feet can feel like a quarter mile. A minute can feel like an hour, and an hour like a minute.

Eli and Pete are highly trained rock-climbing guides and extraordinary climbers. The physical danger of climbing disorients and shocks those of us who lack their skill to evaluate danger. Their clients, like my wife and me, stare up at a stretch of angry granite and suddenly aren't sure it's going to be such a fun thing to go climbing. Eli and Pete, on the other hand, are totally at ease. They work the ropes, knots, and climbing equipment precisely and with complete command. They are in their late 20s, but their clients regularly assume they are 40. It's more drastic than that: It would be more accurate to say that, around them, their adult clients become like children.

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 "Because the perceived risk is so great," says Pete, "clients do whatever we tell them. If they're at the edge of a cliff they're like, 'I'm going to do what that dude holding the rope is going to tell me to do.' "

Even their most enthusiastic customers are on edge when they walk into Pete and Eli's Atlantic Climbing School in Bar Harbor, Maine, which is why they have made ACS look like one of those tidy home offices in the Restoration Hardware catalog. Long wooden church pews line walls decorated with carefully aligned climbing photos. (There's Pete looking like an action hero. Eli slept up there? These guys must know what they're doing.) Shoes, helmets, and harnesses are all tucked into custom-made cubicles. The offices are designed to comfort nervous clients who hope the guides will be just as obsessive and compulsive about their safety.

Still, it takes more than a tidy desk to beat back the fear of falling. I've climbed with Eli three times. On my second outing in Camden, Maine, I belayed him, standing at the foot of the cliff, holding the rope tied to his harness. As he ascended, he demonstrated the exact series of foot moves that would get my wife and me past one tricky area. At another spot, he showed us where we'd have to make a lunge to grab the only good hold.

He moved quickly. On his harness hung several aluminum camming devices that chimed against one another. He was 30 feet up (it felt like 60), high enough that my neck hurt from craning. Once he found a good crack, he would take a cam and wedge it into the rock. The rope would pass through a carabineer attached to the stem of the cam and catch him if he fell. I traced the rope from his harness to my hand. It was in a "gentle smile," as he'd instructed—he had enough slack to move up freely but not so much that if he fell, I couldn't quickly pull the rope tight to catch him.

But he hadn't put the cam in yet. That meant if he fell, the rope I was holding would be as useful as a trombone. There was nothing to stop him from plunging straight down into the rocks at the base of the cliff. My hands started to get sweaty. He knew what he was doing, right? I asked my wife quietly (I didn't want him to hear and think I was not, you know, sturdy). I was about to say something to him when, at what must have been 50 feet (it felt like 80), he put in the first cam. I exhaled. I felt like I'd reached the top.

My turn. Eli would hold the rope for me. "I've got you 100 percent," he yelled down. There was absolutely no chance I could fall. In fact, since he was at the top of the climb, he could haul me up the wall with no effort from me if he wanted to. Intellectually, I knew I was safe. But what I felt was another matter.

I was graceless. My hands were already dotted with little semicolons of blood from grinding my way through other routes earlier that day. I'd climbed much harder routes indoors, but the experience of a safety-manic climbing gym with a soft floor is vastly different from that of a real granite cliff.

Indoors, there's nothing like a layback maneuver, in which you walk your hands up the crack, inching your feet along with you. On a real rock face, you have to lean back so far it feels like you'd perform a half gainer (back flip and all) if your hands slipped.

When I didn't know where to put my hand or foot next, I would feel what climbers call "The Grip" coming on—a mixture of fear and frustration. My muscles would tense and my peripheral vision would turn off. Part of this was terror. Part was irritation that I couldn't solve the math problem the wall was giving me. The solution was there; I just wasn't finding it.

For me, climbing this rock was all-consuming, mentally and physically, and I was perfectly safe. Eli, climbing without equipment, didn't get gripped 50 feet up the rock face because for him, climbing the route he'd been on countless times since he was a teenager, wasn't much harder than mounting a kitchen ladder. He wasn't oblivious to the risk. He just counted it differently than I did.

My sense of his danger was also affected by my own perspective. Fear of falling is part of our DNA. Pediatricians test babies to see if they're healthy by examining their Moro reflex-- the inbuilt fear of falling. They lay a baby down on her back and then let her fall a little. If she throws her arms up and back like a conductor starting a symphony then her brain is functioning.

On the cliff, I felt fear even though I knew there was a complex system protecting me. The rope I was using was a double rope built to withstand the weight of a school bus. I understood and had tested the physics behind how the cams worked to keep me held to the rock. The anchor holding Eli and me at the top of the climb was redundant, made of several cams (in case one broke) placed in different cracks (in case one crumbled) and tied with multiple slings and ropes. Even if a deranged killer wanted to dismantle the cams and ropes it would take several minutes of chopping. And there weren't any serial killers around (I'd checked the papers). Still, I was gripped.

The explanation for my exaggerated sense of fear was first articulated almost 350 years ago. In 1662 Antoine Arnauld and his fellow French monks wrote in La logique, ou l'art de penser (Logic, or the Art of Thinking) that "fear from harm ought to be proportional not merely to the gravity of the harm, but also the probability of the event." With rock climbing, as with plane crashes and getting struck by lightning, the probability of the event may be low but the sense of gravity (and gravity) is high, making them feel like big risks.

In my brain, two forces were battling for control, my fear and my intellectual mastery of that fear. My fear of falling (aided by a fear of failure) was putting the central nucleus of my amygdala to work. Almond-size areas responsible for processing memory and emotional reactions, they send out urgent bulletins, triggering hormones including cortisol, which causes the sweating and tensing of muscles. Because my body knew this was no time to grab a meal, it shut down my digestive system, making my mouth dry.

Working on the opposite side was my prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain you appeal to during a horror film when you murmur, "It's only a movie." It responds a little more slowly than the amygdala. That's why you always feel behind in talking yourself out of a panic.

Putting my prefrontal cortex to work, I remembered how strong the ropes were, I might even have flashed those pictures from the office to remind myself I was climbing with an expert. I knew that if I took a deep breath and relaxed, I'd be OK because it had worked for me on previous climbs. And indeed, it worked again. My muscles unlocked, my vision expanded and I was able to find that flake of rock where I could put my toe. I even enjoyed myself. And yes, I made it to the top.

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To say that Eli and Pete don't feel at risk guiding me on an 80-foot cliff is not to say they don't feel risk at all. It's more that they test and expand their tolerance for physical risk every day. They have increased their mastery of risk by pushing it, over and over, until risks that once seemed daunting to them now seem like nothing.

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