How This Dutch Climber Manages Her Extreme Vertigo While Rock Climbing

Climber Roanne van Voorst

Hey! My name is Roanne, I am a writer, a social scientist and a groupie of the outdoors. Rock climbing and hiking in beautiful places of the world make me very happy and very tired – mostly a combination of the two. Both as a researcher and as a climber I’ve been fascinated with the theme of fear for the past decade, and I have done anthropological research into how people can learn to overcome fear in order to achieve their goals – even in stressful situations. I’ve written several books about the theme – the most recent one is called ‘Fear! How extreme athletes achieve their highest goals and overcome stress and anxiety’. I also and give on-and offline trainings in fear management.pu

Officially, I live partly in Amsterdam and partly in Philadelphia – that’s where my husband lives – but in reality, I’m mostly all over the globe because I travel a helluvalot for my work. For instance, this and the next month I’ll be in Switzerland (to give a lecture) in Spain (to climb), in Geneva (for research), in Austria (to interview David Lama), in Myanmar and Nepal (for more research and interviews). In between boarding and packing, I write, play around with my dog Jax, train or drink too much coffee.

Climber Roanne van Voorst

How and why did you get into your sport?

I’ve always been an active, outdoorsy type of girl. From the age of 18, I travelled around the world for solo hikes and other adventures – my trips to Greenland, Norway, Ladakh and Indonesia were among the highlights. Some years ago, my back-then boyfriend took me on a date to a climbing gym. He was a mountaineer and figured I would like climbing, as well. He was absolutely right – I love rock climbing, both in-and outdoors. I like the physical and mental challenges inherent to the sport, I like the places it brings me and the people I get to meet through it. Seriously, I owe the man!

What have been the best and the most difficult parts of your sport?

The interesting thing is that I rock climb, despite of the fact that I have extreme vertigo. And I’m not overdoing it when I say ‘extreme’ vertigo. The first times I climbed a route in the gym, I literally felt sick to my stomach and I was so dizzy I could hardly stand up straight. Over the years, my vertigo has become less severe, but it certainly hasn’t disappeared. I honestly don’t think it ever will – it’s simply a physical response of my body to being at great height. I’ve come a long way since that first time in the gym, though.

Nowadays, I thoroughly enjoy climbing multipitch routes and enjoy the views while climbing, but sometimes I still feel scared in very exposed or hard routes. And it can be challenging to stay calm and focused on those moments, when fear is creeping upon me. But I guess that’s part of what makes climbing so interesting and dear to me – it’s a sport that teaches me a lot about myself, most particularly about how we can control our minds and overcome our fears. Climbing has taught me that pushing hard doesn’t help me perform better but instead increases stress. A much more effective approach includes gradual and strategic progress. This is not just true for me, but counts for most people. And it doesn’t only work with climbing and vertigo, but has proven effective for many other scary stuff, as well, like with fear of driving or public speaking.

How do you finance your sport?

Climbing is not a source of income – that’s writing and researching for me, but it’s also more than ‘just’ a hobby. It’s a lifestyle. I’m lucky to have a husband who climbs, as well, and both of us prefer to spend our income on things that we like to do, rather than on money and things. In practice that means that much of what we earn goes into climbing trips, travelling and the odd nice dinner. While we both have full time jobs, our work schedule can be quite flexible and so we are able to reserve plenty of time to train indoors or climb outdoors during weekend- or holiday trips. We’re ridiculously happy campers, but we also like to have jobs that interest us.

Climber Roanne van Voorst

How do you eat and sleep?

About 90 per cent of what I eat is plant-based, but that has less to do with what I believe is healthy, than with me trying not to contribute too much to the bio-industry and environmental degradation. I supplement with B-complex vitamins and sometimes, when I’m really tired or jet lagged from all the travelling, I might take probiotics to prevent illness – getting a cold or the flu just always seems such a waste of my time!

Ideally, I’d sleep eight hours a night, but that’s not always happening in the reality of my life. I’m not a good sleeper in airplanes, at all, and as I often hop from time zone to time zone, I try to stick to the mantra that it’s bad to sleep too little, but that it’s even worse to stress about it. A relaxed and flexible mindset adds to my health and well being, or so I like to believe.

I climb three times a week whenever my traveling schedule allows me, and in general I try to stick to an active life style: I bike or walk to meetings rather than driving a car, I usually do some yoga or core exercises throughout the week and I start my day off with a hike with my pup instead of checking my e-mail or making work phone calls.

How do you handle injuries and recovery?

So far I’ve been quite lucky regarding injuries – aside for the common neck complaints that many belayers experience, my body has been nice enough to keep up with my climbing ambitions. I am well aware of the risk of finger injuries, so if I climb well-above my level and on tiny crimps, I try to remind myself that I should not attempt the same move again and again, but instead be patient and try again – tomorrow. I’d rather have a slow but steady progress, than having to stop climbing for a long time because of an injury.

Climber Roanne van Voorst

How do you balance normal life with training?

I’m often asked how I combine training with work, relationships and my digital nomad-lifestyle, but all I can say is that I honestly just love living this chaotic life. It suits me, I guess. I’m not interested in balancing work and life; I don’t want to ‘need’ life to counterbalance my work. I’d rather have work that I love, and then do stuff in my free time that I also love. Which is exactly what my life looks like. I’m well aware that this is not possible for many people in the world, but I’m grateful to say that all things that I like doing, naturally blend: my lover and best friends are also my favourite climbing buddies, my research on risk behaviour serves as the main inspiration for my trainings and books on overcoming fears, and I wouldn’t want to have any other holidays, than going to a beautiful place somewhere in the world and climb there – which is also ‘training’, if you’d want to call it that, but for me, it’s having a good time!

It can be challenging to keep up the training while travelling, especially when I’m visiting conflict-regions or otherwise fragile countries for my research. Oftentimes I find myself in places where people don’t have the luxury, resources or time to engage in sports. Although I miss climbing a lot on such trips, I try to be pragmatic about it. I take my climbing shoes everywhere, so that if there’s a gym or a bunch of rocks around; I can always go bouldering by myself. If not, that’s not the end of the world: even in the tiniest, crappiest, most humid hotel rooms it’s always possible to do some core and arm exercises. My husband is awesome for many reasons, one being that he recently made me a pinch-block that I can easily take on trips and use for finger exercises.

Climber Roanne van Voorst

How do you bring your gear with you?

I never carry a suitcase, but travel everywhere with the 35-liter Patagonia Cragsmith backpack. It was designed to do multipitches, but I basically live out it because it is accepted as hand luggage by almost all air companies and easily fits my climbing shoes, a laptop, a book and some clean undies – what more does a girl need?

In the Netherlands, where it often rains, I use an Ortlieb backpack for my training gear. It’s water resistant and helps me to keep my shoes and harness dry when I bike to the gym. Oh, and it has a cool blue colour to keep up the spirits.

If I go on a climbing trip, I usually stuff the rope and other materials into my check-in luggage, because most security guards raise their brows when they see the quickdraws in my backpack, in combination with some of the stamps in my passports. In the best case, they think I’m a real clumsy potential killer.

Climber Roanne van Voorst

How do you organize things in your bags?

I’m an extremely fast packer, because I travel so often that I’ve developed habits that work for me. Usually I put the heavy stuff low and the stuff that I have to unload for the security guards – like laptop and Ereader – on top, so that I can get to it easy. I like it when a bag has small departments for phone, passport, and snacks. Oh, and I always roll up my clothing, instead of folding it. It saves space and it avoids about half of the crinkles.

How important to have waterproof/water resistant bags?

Being born and raised in the Netherlands – it’s crucial. The Ortlieb bag I spoke about earlier helps, and during autumn and winter – both rainy seasons, I also carry a Patagonia rainpants wherever I go, as well as a Bergans jacket.

How do your bags and gear hold up?

I’m generally happy. The only thing I can think of is that when I was younger, I bought a backpack that looked nice, but that wasn’t suit for my body. As a result, I experienced some pain in my shoulders and back. Nowadays, I make sure my bags are always measured to fit. So important for longer hikes!

Climber Roanne van Voorst

What has been your best sport purchase below $100?

For many years, I thought I could not cope well with cold temperatures. I was always so embarrassed when my fingers and feet were too stiff and cold to even hold a piece of rock, or when I lay shivering in my tent, while everyone around me seemed to do just fine! Until I realized that they were wearing good-quality clothing, and I was just depending on my fave baggy jeans. After I’d invested in a (recycled) down-jacket and sleeping bag, everything changed. It wasn’t me, it were the materials! Unfortunately, good stuff costs good money, as well. However, Patagonia’s long underwear and base layers do at least half the job, and they’re priced well below 100 USD.

What other favorite gear do you have?

For climbing tops and pants, I prefer Prana or Patagonia, because they try to produce in an environmental-friendly. I’ve just discovered the Mythos climbing shoes – super comfortable for multipitches or not-too-challenging outdoor climbs.

For approaches and hikes, I use the La Sportiva 17VBMTX3 Women’s – they’re comfy if you have broad feet, like I do, and give good grip when scrambling.

Climber Roanne van Voorst

What inspired you to write your book?

My most recent book is called, ‘Fear! Extreme athletes on reaching your highest goal and overcoming stress and anxiety’ and was published on 31 December 2017 by Motivational Press. It’s currently available now on Amazon. It’s an interview bundle with some of the world’s best climbers, mountaineers and basejumpers about how they deal with anxiety and self-doubt – and what we can learn from them on achieving our personal goals – be it climbing a mountain, or giving a public talk when we have stage fright, or overcoming a fear of failure. Featured are Alex Honnold, Steph Davis, Lynn Hill, Catherine Destivelle, Hazel Findlay and many others.

Each athlete shares their approach towards fear, and their personal best methods of overcoming fear. Some use visualization, other rational risk analyses, and yet others relaxation techniques. The cool thing is that their methods are universally applicable, meaning they’re not just practical for climbing or other sports, but can be useful for pretty much any type of fear.

The reason I wanted to write this book is that I think that there exists a myth about these athletes, namely the idea that they were born fearless. But they all struggle with fear, sometimes. The difference between them and the rest of the world is not the lack of fear, but the extent to which they are able to gain control over their minds in stressful situations. So instead of perceiving them as abnormally brave, we should think of them as fear-experts – and try to learn from them.

What is your best advice people new to the sport?

I often hear people remark that they could never climb or mountaineer, because they fear heights. Well, I’m the living proof that you can overcome that, if you give it time and use proven-effective methods. And while I don’t want to claim that climbing is for everyone, I do believe that it is worth it to try and overcome some of your fears. Because if you don’t control your fears, you essentially allow fear to control you. You’ll lead a life that is limited by what you dare or not dare, while you could lead a life that is based on what you want – and that’s so liberating! Even small action steps can give you a feeling of empowerment. If you’ve never travelled by yourself, start by planning a mini-solo adventure, like going to the movies or making a short hike, and see how you feel afterwards. My guess is: pretty damn proud.

For more experienced climbers, it’s not my place to give them any physical training advice, because they are likely much better climbers than I will ever be! On the mental side, however, I do have something to say to those who think they can never be cured of their fear of falling or lead climbing or committing. It might be that they have pushed too hard, or tried random methods but lacked a clear strategy. If that’s the case, I hope they will give it another chance, and this time use proven-effective methods. I describe different of those methods in my book, and go more into depth in my trainings, so those can be useful, but a good sport coach can certainly also be of great help. Whatever you do, don’t ignore your fear or try to suppress it, because the physical responses of your body towards fear make it harder to focus and make decisions – as such, you won’t climb at your best. Instead, accepting that you are afraid, and then applying strategies to overcome that fear will make you perform better and will allow you to have more fun during climbing.

Climber Roanne van Voorst

What will the future bring?

I’m planning to do a solo hike this summer, this year, but I’m not sure where. It will be a busy and adventurous year, as I have three books coming out in three different countries, and will do some public talks and trainings as part of the launch and PR. Other than that, just lots of climbing, travelling and writing – lucky for me, I may say: the usual stuff.

For more information about Roanne’s trainings and books, check her website, follow her on Facebook and Instagram, and her book can be ordered on Amazon


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