Introducing The First Diaries, a weekly column in which one Coloradan documents her misadventures, trials, and triumphs in the outdoors as she tries a new activity or adventure each week. With humor, practical advice, and some serious real talk, our goal is to make the outdoor space a little less intimidating and a little more fun for all of us.

I have this complex: I am not afraid of anything new until I am in the midst of it. So, putting my harness on, two feet in the dirt while being taught how to tie my safety knot, I was cool as a cucumber. I was laughing, I was ready to go, I was excited. It was my first time (besides a few little childhood excursions) top-roping outdoors.

Top-roping is the typical type of climbing you most likely picture when someone climbs outdoors. Secured in a harness, you scurry up a rock wall with a belayer beneath you. The belayer, on the ground, is hooked into the other end of the long rope you are attached to, on the other side of the pulley at the top of your climbing route. If you slip, they’re your lifeline. They provide leverage and steady the rope just where it is, so you can’t fall.

I dipped my hands in my chalk bag and studied to rock above me, contemplating my plan of attack. I started up. My focus was unsparingly on my next move, sorting out the puzzle of foot and hand holds I needed to do one thing: climb higher.

I took a breather part way up—I’d come to a ledge perfect for standing and wanted to re-chalk my clammy hands—and though I wasn’t all that high, it was high enough. In this pause, I finally had a moment to realize: falling from here would really, really suck. My breath was quickening, my heart seizing and choking the air from my lungs. Now, on the rock wall, the fear of top-roping was finally getting its moment.

That primal part of me that cares, exclusively, about being in the most safe scenario possible was winning me over.

“Uh-oh, guys!” I called, trying to laugh at my fear. “I don’t think I like climbing!”

My friend laughed.

“You’re fine!” She called. “I totally understand, but you’re ok!”

She suggested I lean back from the wall, so I could feel the harness holding me up. In a way, this teaches that primal part of your body that it’s safe. Your nervous system can relax into the ropes holding you up, and you make peace with the possibility of your hands or feet slipping  while attempting a reach you might not successfully make.

“Keep going!” she called.

I reminded myself, constantly, that falling would be ok. I recalled the feeling of harness tight around my hips and legs. And before I knew it, I was tapping the pulley at the top of the route.

Turns out, after all, I really like climbing.

So here’s my advice to you, to anyone looking to top-rope for the first time (and if you’ve been following this column, none of this will be a surprise):

  1. Choose friends who support you, who laugh with you, who believe in you more than you believe in yourself, and who make you feel safe and encouraged. This is the single most important thing you can do in any outdoor adventure.
  2. Accept your fear and do what you need to work with it. You’re not lesser for feeling scared; it’s natural and it’s okay. Fear is your body asking for your attention, for your promise to keep it safe. There’s a rational balance to be found between bravery and fear, between recklessness and being petrified. For me, that reprieve of sitting back into my harness was the perfect route to finding that balance.

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