Climber conquers fear of heights

Sarah McKay harnesses strength to teach adventure to girls

When Sarah McKay first considered rock climbing in 1995, heights petrified her. Now with hundreds of climbs behind her and a whole career crafted around the sport, heights continue to terrify McKay. Yet still she climbs— through and around the fear. It never goes away. Fear is good, she discovered. Fear draws from a well of respect for the risk inherent in climbing.

Sarah McKay

Perhaps due to the trepidation that floods her limbs when she climbs higher than about 20 feet above the ground, McKay prefers bouldering. Some bouldering problems, done without ropes and close to the ground, rank among the most difficult physical challenges in the entire sport. But her heels don't have 200 feet of air beneath them.

"I don't have to manage fear when I'm bouldering," she says. "I get to just play!"

About nine years ago McKay began work at Vertex Climbing Center in Santa Rosa. She serves as the company's general manager, with a staff of about 15. Not satisfied with merely physical aspects of the sport, McKay pursued a bachelor's degree in exercise physiology and a master's degree in kinesiology. She wrote and published a thesis on how women are represented in media such as Climbing magazine. At the time, she could find only one other thesis with similar topic matter by a woman in Maryland.

McKay's introduction to climbing came at a gym in Santa Cruz. "When I was in high school, some of my friends climbed," she says. "I thought they were insane. It seemed crazy."

An accomplished athlete at the time, she participated actively in field hockey and softball. A scholarship in field hockey paid for her undergraduate education.

McKay won a radio contest with a prize of a free beginning rock climbing class at Pacific Edge gym. "I remember being terrified" at the 50-foot walls, she says. "Until my forearms gave out, I could not let go and lean back" to be lowered on the rope to the floor.

Sarah McKay

In most sports there's a mental aspect: how to approach the physical activity in such a way as to maximize performance. "But I was never afraid to go out and play," on the field, McKay says. Climbing takes an athlete into an entirely new level of challenge: working out intense physical and mental problems on rock while channeling emotion. "It's one of the biggest physical challenges I've ever had," she says. "There's the mental challenge. Then there's facing down my fear. That just hooked me! It was the right kind of challenge for me. It's my hobby and my passion."

McKay had always been physically powerful. While other girls struggled to do even one pull-up, she had a swimmer's physique and could do several. Endurance was never her strong suit, but now at age 35 she's training for a triathlon.

"Then there's facing down my fear.
That just hooked me! It's my hobby and my passion."

McKay's mother, born in the late 1940s, faced acute discrimination. "She played basketball," McKay says. "They wouldn't let girls cross the center court line because they didn't think girls could run up and down the length of the court for that long. All of that changed in one generation. That is fast!"

"Climbing is refreshing. Women perform at a level that is right there with the men. There's a lot more respect earned by women in climbing."

"I'm interested in gender and sport," McKay says. "Even as an eight-year-old I was aware of inequalities that women still face on the field" even after the 1972 amendment of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which banned sex discrimination in schools receiving federal funds, including athletics.

In outside climbing, McKay estimates that women constitute about 30 percent of climbers. But indoors in gyms, she finds the balance close to even. "In just the last five years, it's not uncommon to see more women than men in here."

McKay volunteers as a leader for GirlVentures in San Francisco. The non-profit group works especially with girls aged 11 to 14 from varied backgrounds, ranging from the economically privileged to those in foster care. "That's when girls tend to lose their sense of self," she observes."Until then they're strong and capable, willing to try anything. Then they hit that prepubescent stage where they retract." The organization uses two-week intensive outdoor expeditions including climbing, rappelling, kayaking and backpacking to build girls' sense of personal power. The course encourages healthy conflict resolution along with leadership.

Sarah McKay

"Some of these girls have never been into the wilderness. We drive them up to the Sierras, throw them in a tent. The next day they are on a rock, climbing. This is a lot!" Teaching at GirlVentures "pushed me to grow way more than I ever anticipated," she says. "I started thinking about my own life. If I'm not willing to do these things, it makes me a big hypocrite."

McKay has never started a climb without encountering her fear of heights. "When I first started, I thought I would overcome my fear," McKay says. "For me, it's not something you get over. I learned how to deal with it. Many things are going to scare us in life, challenge us. We learn skills necessary to deal with being terrified."

"Climbing is refreshing. Women perform at a level that is right there with the men."

Part of fear management entails rational analysis: "The gear is good," she says. "The rope is good. I'm tied in. My harness is good. Fear doesn't have to stop me from doing this. I'm here in the middle of this pitch and I'm terrified. I recognize that fear is sitting here with me. And I do the climb anyway. Fear doesn't have to dictate what we do or don't do. It also doesn't have to be negative. It can help motivate us with no value judgment. Fear is not bad."

"Climbing is to be taken very seriously," McKay says. The risk pushes her to be a safe climber and to choose climbing partners who are responsible and conscious. The bond between climbers can be extraordinarily deep. "I'm very selective about my partners. I always do safety checks."

She sometimes climbs with her husband Rob, who prefers traditional roped climbing and aims to teach classes at Vertex. "I'm going to help him build curriculum," she says. "I push myself to lead, to do roped climbing."

Climbing can be a powerful metaphor for other areas of life, especially building trust and community. Facebook, Twitter and other electronic social networking forums tend to form relationships that barely exist in the real world, McKay observes. Climbing creates social bonds that are strong and genuine. "Climbing brings us back to the present," she says. "We challenge each other. We succeed and we fail together. It's important to connect in a real way."

—James Dunn
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