Despite stories like these, panic is seldom diagnosed as the cause of catastrophe. One possibility is because it’s humiliating. It’s one thing to blame backcountry trouble on bad weather or dangerous terrain, but who wants to admit that they got so scared they lost control of their senses? Nobody. It makes you look wimpy and weak.
I was 15 when I panicked badly. I was learning how to rock climb, and my instructor, Coach Kopishka, was a god to us kids. As far as we could tell, he knew no fear. He was a black belt in karate, climbed as stealthily and calmly as a cat, and was merciless as our high school swim coach. He’d lead the team to 17 straight state championships.
We were out at Vedauwoo, a Wyoming climbing area known for hard, wide cracks in flesh-ripping granite. I had climbed just a few times before, and all on a top rope, when Coach handed me two metal hexes, chunks of aluminum used to protect a fall, and pointed to a notoriously fat crack called Upper Slot Left.
It was my first lead—a 40-foot, 5.6 off-width. More than that, it was a test and a dare and an honor, and I stepped up to it like any adolescent boy with so much to prove. I didn’t know how to place gear, so I put in both hexes early on and kept climbing until I was 10 feet from the top, where the crack narrowed. Narrow cracks require a technique known as hand-jamming, a skill I hadn’t yet acquired. Before long, I found myself slipping out of the crack. I was so far above my last piece of protection that if I fell, I would hit the slab of rock at the base of the route and be seriously injured—or possibly killed. The thought of falling set my heart pounding and my mind racing. My legs began quivering (what climbers call “sewing machine leg”). My hands started sweating, further loosening my grip on the rock. In that instant, I lost control of my mind. All I could think was: “I’m going to die!” The logical approach would have been to get a grip on my emotions and either down-climb slowly and carefully, or continue up the crack. But at 15, I didn’t have the courage or skill to get out of this fix. I was stuck, I knew it—and I panicked.
At some point Coach recognized that I was freaking out. He soloed up behind me and handed over a hex. I placed it with a trembling hand. Gathering confidence just by his presence, I climbed to the top. Then I vomited.
I didn’t fall and die, but I was profoundly embarrassed. Coach had proven his hero-god status, and I had proven my cowardice. Inside, I resolved to never panic again, no matter what.
Almost all of us have panicked at some point in our lives, whether over losing a child in the grocery store, flipping in a kayak, or getting turned around momentarily in the backcountry. We know what it feels like, but what is it?