The look of fear: A young climber falls (safely) off the top of Privilege du Serpent (13a) at Céuse, France.
The look of fear: A young climber falls (safely) off the top of Privilege du Serpent (13a) at Céuse, France.

My doctor’s brow furrowed and she stopped talking mid-sentence.

“I think it’s just a cyst,” she said as she took my hand and pressed my fingertips to the lump on my breast. It felt like a single edamame bean. I flushed with panic.

“I don’t think you should worry,” my doctor said. “But you have to get it checked out.”

Despite promising her I wouldn’t worry, I felt the fear, which was familiar — not from fretting over the possibility of the big C, but from another C, climbing, of all places.

Climbing has been attuning my brain to fear.

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Jenn Fields blogs about Boulder’s great outdoors at

The more I climb, the more I recognize it. Sometimes it sneaks in under the edges, creeps up and lingers. Sometimes it takes over in a wholesale assault.

The fear usually just has to do with possibility of bodily harm, not certain death. In fact, this trip to my doctor was on the heels of an afternoon spent in the emergency room at Boulder Community Hospital — a reminder that some of those fears are valid.

My friend took a fall. She was about 10 feet above a ledge when she peeled off, so the rope didn’t catch her. She swore and landed with a thud and a crack in rubble and shrubs. I flushed with panic, on her behalf.

In the ER, X-rays confirmed that she didn’t break anything — just the skin on her elbow, where she had a nasty puncture wound that had funneled big plops of blood onto my rope.

She was OK, but my flush of panic didn’t completely fade until much later, at home that night as I loaded my rope into the washing machine and exhaled fully for the first time that day.

Out of mind

The next time I climbed, I pushed the little accident out of my mind. As I waited for my mammogram appointment, I did the same thing with the little lump.

The weekend after the accident and after the discovery of the lump, I was stuck on a climb on Black Widow Slab, in Boulder Canyon, afraid to move up because I feared the fall. After some back and forth bumbling, I wrestled with the fear and decided to try a committing move that involved putting my foot near my head.

I tried to let go of the fear, to exhale it. But I couldn’t blow it out. So when I inevitably fell (putting your foot by your ear usually isn’t a good plan), it all came out in a bloody-murder scream.

Any nearby climbers surely thought I’d fallen to my death, not eight feet down the rock.

I have a lot of tricks for dealing with the fear while climbing, but I can’t always push it out of my mind entirely. That’s one reason it feels familiar — the undercurrent.

The same’s true of fears about a little lump that shouldn’t be there. The night before my mammogram, I once again couldn’t exhale the fear. Rather than a scream, though, the fear came out in tears.

The fear that rushes in while climbing is something I take on by choice, to learn something about myself. But the things in life that are far scarier than climbing are not taken on by choice, and that kind of fear isn’t easily let go of with a scream or a few tears.

Fading panic

The woman who did my mammogram was incredibly kind. So was the ultrasound tech. But the undercurrent pinned me down until the radiologist dismissed me with, “I don’t see anything to worry about. I’ll see you when you’re 40.”


But like the accident, my flush of panic didn’t completely fade until later — the next morning, as I pulled that once-bloodied rope out of my pile of gear and set it by the door for after-work cragging, where I’ll thankfully face the kind of fear I’m lucky enough to choose.

Jenn Fields’ Field Notes column runs every Monday in the Colorado Daily.