On a rock wall. Afraid of heights.

Two weeks ago, I had my first opportunity to climb outdoors. My friends were going to Hell’s Gate – the national park two hours outside Nairobi that inspired much of the Lion King film.

I have been afraid of heights my whole life. That fear is one of the main reasons I’ve never gone rock climbing outdoors. In a rock climbing gym, the controlled environment feels like a pretty safe space to dangle from a rope two to three stories up. But when I get near the edge of a cliff, I feel like I suddenly have to fight the urge to leap into the void.

This really freaked me out when I was younger, even though the fear was tinged with a sense of exhilaration, too.

Aside: Recently (read: five minutes ago), I learned this urge is called the “high place phenomenon.” In one study on the feeling, researchers found the desire to jump wasn’t correlated with suicidal thoughts and was instead correlated with “anxiety sensitivity.” Anxiety sensitivity is essentially how anxious being anxious makes you – specifically how reactive you are to the physical sensations of your body telling you it’s in danger (like the quaking in your knees as you look over a cliff).

It was one of the most beautiful days I have ever experienced. It had been rainy all week (we’re just wrapping up the rainy season in Kenya), but the day we were climbing was all sunshine and scudding clouds.

We hired a climbing guide to set up two top ropes so that we could belay ourselves after that. We had one easier climb and one harder one. Later, another climber showed up and set up another climb and we moved the easier rope to another wall. I was able to try all four and got to the top of three. The fourth had an overhang and was the last one I attempted. I got my arms onto the overhang but couldn’t haul myself over the top that late in the day.

Nervous? Who, me?
My friend Maddy documented my first climb of the day
I learned some actual climbing technique on the many cracks in the wall. Improving over the day felt like the biggest win.

I was pretty freaked out by the view and the drop off at the top of this one, but after the first descent I got comfy sitting on the rope and hanging out at the top of the other climbs.
Also got to learn how to belay with a gri-gri.
It was Maddy’s first time climbing outside, too.

After we “cleaned” the routes (removed the equipment we had used for top-roping), we drove through the rest of the park to reach some sulphur hot springs on the opposite side. The whole landscape was wide open and gorgeous.

At one point a giraffe just started running alongside our car. It was magical.

10/10 experience and made me really want to climb more!

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Hannah Blackburn

Hannah Blackburn is an associate at IDinsight in Nairobi, Kenya. IDinsight is a non-profit organization that uses a variety of data-driven research methods to help decision makers in the development field maximize their social impact.

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