Anxiety versus rock climbing at Mt. Cook – which will win?

Nothing tests the nerves quite like an adventure with family

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Here YA contributor Lee-Ann, a kiwi local, gives rock climbing a go next to New Zealand’s highest mountain. Did she mention she has anxiety? How do you think rock climbing at Mt. Cook went down? 

I am vertically challenged and very much enjoy having two feet firmly placed on the earth. But today, for some reason, I find myself 100m up a technical rock climbing slab with only a carabiner and some rope to keep me from plummeting to my death. Why might you ask?

I ended up in this situation because of my adrenaline-seeking brother. The things we do for family, right?

One of his mottos is “easy choices, hard life, hard choices, easy life.” Somehow, I always get caught up in his hard choices. 

“We’re here!” Evan said excitedly. “What? Where?” I replied. I thought he was joking. We had just pulled off the Mount Cook highway. Mt Sefton’s glacier Icefall region shimmers in the distance. There is nothing safe enough to climb here. I look to the left, which has captured my brother’s attention like a child to candy. He points, “there!”

“What, that?!” I reply in horror.

That 300 odd meter cliff face is our destination: Sebastopol Bluffs. Located in the Mount Cook National Park, roughly 10 minutes drive from the scenic Mount Cook village. Aoraki/Mt dominates this little village. Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak. A mecca for hikers and climbers, it’s one of the most popular tourist spots in New Zealand.

rock climbing at mt cook

Let’s climb the Sebastopol Bluffs!

My heart is pounding. Sebastopol Bluffs looks like a mountain face that is meant to be admired and photographed, not climbed. I have driven past this face on the way to Mount Cook village many times before. I had never considered it a place to go climbing. I’ve only been rock climbing myself a handful of times back in Timaru. Evan has climbed for years, but for me, it looked out of my depths.

Keep your cool. You want to do this, I thought.

Evan knows what he’s doing, and he would see if I wasn’t capable. I’m trying to avoid thinking about the cliff face of doom ahead as we make our way through the tussocks towards the base. I’ll just pretend we are going for a hike, a beautiful walk with a reward of red wine and cheese. I wish.

As we move up the scree slope to the base of the rock face, the small path ends. Is this where we are going to set up? There’s not much room. I can’t see anyone else. Have we got the right mountain? Something about being near other people is reassuring. But there’s no one. I feel like we’re the first ones at the party. I think we’ve got the wrong place. Silver bolts in the rock face are the only evidence that we are in the right place. Lucky me.

My brother throws out all of his gear and the multitude of ropes. I slip into my tight rock climbing shoes. Hoping they don’t cause me as much pain as last time when I tried to wear them, I got ready. Perhaps, if all goes bad, I’ll pretend they hurt, so we have to come back down. 

rock climbing at mt cook

Surprisingly the hard, red greywacke rock face above us looks quite easy. Aptly named ‘the red wall,’ Evan goes first.

This is a different type of rock climbing than I am used to; it’s multi-pitch climbing. The self-sufficient and adventure precipice of rock climbing. You lead climb, clipping as you go and get into a position where you can belay your partner up to you. You take everything with you and leapfrog up the face.

I hope I do this right. I get a quick introduction to the technique, and we do a safety check.

Evan asks me to spot him as he walks up the first face, he’s checking it out, looking for the holds and bolt placements. He’s getting in his groove. He looks like a stretchy ninja. I am on belay and standing at the base, planning my escape. Should I say it’s my sore feet, or should I say I’m scared? What about the typical, I’m hungry?

“Alright, come on up! Evan is now the belayer from the top, and I am the climber. Frog meet leap.

I take a deep breath; I can hardly see Evan in the distance. Fuck it, I’m going to do this, we are here now, and I would kick myself if I didn’t it least give it a go. I follow his route. The rope outlines precisely where I need to go. This is easy. It’s just like walking. I like this face. I am a bit cabbage when it comes to unclipping the carabiners that my brother has placed in the bolts, and I worry about dropping them, but I make it to the next station.

rock climbing at mt cook

Feel the fear and do it anyway

We complete the first face of the climb without too much hesitation from me. But we’ve only just begun. We do the same thing as before. This is how our 60m rope climbs a 300m wall. Evan climbs first. I’m belaying and then vice versa. I see him struggle near the top. He has to think about his positioning.

When he starts to struggle, a wave of fear floods through me.

I start climbing and am struggling to find the right grooves. This is where I need a boost of confidence. I say to myself where there’s a will there’s a way- super cliché. Somehow, there is a way, and I arrive at the spot where the rock face is protruding out. Evan calls it an overhang, I call it type-two fun.

I have to lean back and get over this section, a completely unnatural feeling. It reminds me of bungy jumping, standing at the ledge about to commit suicide. I find a groove and use my leg strength to lift me, not the right technique, but hey, it works.

“Yeah! You did it!” Evan exclaims with excitement.

rock climbing at mt cook

We take a moment to look at how high we have climbed in a short amount of time, and I remember why we do this stuff; the sense of accomplishment and achievement is an endorphin rush.

It’s out of this world. I can see the village, the small white horse hill where we are going camping later, the towering scree fields on the mountains opposite and the valley leading into Mount Cook.

This is a magical place and a perspective I’ve never seen before. I see cars like ants driving by. Wondering if they can see us, I worried. Probably not. From down there, it looks impossible. Just two hours ago I said so but now?

Conquered. I am like a real adventure king. This is life.

rock climbing at mt cook

Rock climbing in NZ – where to go for all the info

New Zealand has a multitude of rock climbing options from beginner to advance. An excellent place to start for first-timers is indoor or guided climbing. NZ Alpine Club has a directory of rock climbing walls to help you find an indoor climbing spot near you. 

There are many tour operators in New Zealand that provide guided rock climbing trips. If you would like to try a guided trip in Mount Cook National Park and even experience Sebastopol Bluffs for yourself, check out Alpine Guides. They cater for every ability level and have a range of trip options. 

For climbers with experience looking for route options, check out ClimbNZ, which has an awesome up to date database of climbing routes throughout New Zealand. 

If you are doing any type of outdoor adventure in New Zealand, I recommend looking at the Department of Conservation’s safety in the outdoors section site. It has everything you need to know to plan and prepare for your trip, including gear selection, understanding NZ weather, identifying risks, and more! 

rock climbing at mt cook

Just when I think my adventure is done and it’s time to go back to the van and enjoy that wine and cheese, my brother directs me to the next face. This one looks gnarly and high. It’s on a tight razorback type ridge. I take a gulp and pretend I am confident. He’s my brother, and I can say whatever I want, but I don’t want to show him this weak side.

We’ve competed with each other our entire lives.

We used to swim casual laps at the local pool down the road, which would never stay casual. They would always turn into sprint offs. We used to see who could hold their breath the longest over the Rangitata or Rakia bridge. We would race, fight, and tease each to see who would win all in the name of sibling rivalry. Sometimes I even came out on top. 

Whatever he does, I try to do better. Except he goes paragliding and I have come to accept that I simply don’t enjoy that.

rock climbing at mt cook

Away we go. My brother takes a few pauses (obviously it’s a bit tricky) and makes it to the next station with minimal effort. He shouts some encouragement my way. Every unclip of the carabiner elevates my palpitating heart. Don’t fucking drop this Lee-Ann! I’m not rock climbing fit, so I’m sweating too.

Again, you almost have to hang upside down. It looked horrific when Ev did it. I try not to look down. I know that’s the worst thing you can do. But of course, I look. I quickly dart my head back to the rock. Bad move. It’s fucking high. I know the facts.

There is only one way out of this. And that is up.

rock climbing at mt cook

I don’t know how but I do it, but I make it over the hump. I couldn’t repeat it if I tried. It’s like a wild sense of determination came over me. I found what didn’t even look like grooves to put my hands and feet on. Perhaps with enough will, there is a way!

These rock-climbing shoes are gold.

They have a grip like they are made for this. Oh wait, they are. Perhaps the trade of pain to grip is worth it.  My brother is ecstatic. I am sure he thought I was going to struggle on this face. He’s used to me saying I can’t do this, and getting a glimpse of frustrating, 12-year-old me. But he’s patient. He always has been.

I make it to the ledge where we stop for a bite to eat. We clip in our safety’s and sit down to a stunning vista. We take some photos. I lean into the rock as my safe place. A warm alpine summers afternoon shines down on us.

The vista in front is of snowy capped mountains, the tail of the Tasman glacier, the valley below with the river bed, the village, the Hooker Valley, the campsite, and my brother’s gleaming smile.

rock climbing at mt cook

What goes up must come down, right?

But we’re not done yet. We have to get back down.

Abseiling or rappelling back down. It’s an extremely unnatural feeling. I begin the dreadful task, and the thought of a rollercoaster emerges. What will happen to my belongings? I’m glad I have life insurance. I wonder what it would be like to fall to my death. Will anyone come to my funeral? I struggle to get going, but my brother assures me if I lean into it, the whole thing will be more comfortable—a paradox of fear as I lean back in my harness and descend back down to the ground.

I am pretty scared and never wholly give in, but towards the end, I begin to see the fun in it. Trust the gear. It’s got me this far.

My confidence begins to grow, and the next hurdle is chucked my way. I have to dangle in the middle of the air with just my safety because of that hideous overhang. Instantly the OCD kicks in. I check my carabiner multiple times, and the thought parade begins. Imagine if I was stuck up here for the rest of the day! I could probably reach around and grab my phone. But what a palaver it would be to get me down! My harness would probably break by then. We do this technique named ‘fireman’s rappel.’ What would a firefighter be doing up here?

Over and over again, we rappel down until we make it to the bottom. It’s a bit of a process. But we make it.

rock climbing at mt cook

We can all do hard things

When we finally get down, I am surprised I haven’t died. I am ecstatic. Incredibly proud of myself, it’s hard to express my joy. Now it feels like I understand what they mean when they say life begins outside of your comfort zone. There’s no other way to get this feeling.

We are high on life and pack up our stuff. I release my toes from their sandwiched situation inside my rock climbing shoes, and we make our way back to the van, smiles ensure. Finally, time to consume that red wine and cheese!

A little word of encouragement to you guys reading: 

I don’t expect you to do the same thing. We all have different ways of pushing our comfort zone. It’s relative. Do what you need to push your own barrier. Fear is natural and a prelude to potential pain. But what if that pain doesn’t really exist, and is actually where you find real experience and growth? The fear and anxiety we imagine are almost always worse than what it is in reality. My most important tip is to surround yourself with people who will help you push your limits.

If you don’t have anyone in your life, seek to find them, find people who are pushing their limits, and naturally, you will too.

Do you have anxiety and love adventure too? What would you like to do, but fear and anxiety are holding you back? Have you ever surprised yourself by pushing your comfort zone? Share!

rock climbing at mt cook

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