The Art of Staying Calm 1,000 Feet off the Ground

World-class climber Nancy Feagin pushes her sport to new heights

SHEER rock faces weren't designed with short people in mind. So climber Nancy Feagin has learned how to put a foot up at ear level to extend her reach.

She would like to demonstrate. She looks around at the walls of the Versailles Ballroom, here in an interview at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. ``Well, maybe this isn't the right spot,'' she concedes.

However, there are few places that Ms. Feagin can't climb.

She is the only woman to climb the longest wall on El Capitan, 3,400 feet of sheer granite, in Yosemite National Park in one day. Most climbers take four.

In the middle of last winter, she climbed the ice-and-snow-covered 13,000-foot Grand Teton in below-zero temperatures. And last spring, she climbed alone up Moonlight Buttress, a 1,500-foot rock wall in Utah's Zion National Park. The solo attempt made the climb more like 4,500 vertical feet and meant she spent the night alone tied to the rock wall.

This year she has pushed rock climbing to a new level, ascending 20 of the most famous - and toughest - rock walls or mountains in 20 days. She and her partners scrambled up 60,080 vertical feet, walked 17 miles, canoed 2-1/2 hours, and drove 69 hours to meet the 20-day deadline. They averaged three hours of sleep per night.

As a result of her prowess, Feagin is a member of the United States Climbing Team, ranked third. In competition, she has won six of the 16 international and national competitions she has entered. Reebok has asked her to help it design a new shoe for women climbers and she will participate in Reebok outdoors clinics this spring. Expedition leader

Feagin is more than just a superb technical climber, however. She is also a mountain guide, leading expeditions into the Tetons. ``She teaches them about the environment and keeps them alive - it takes incredible training,'' says Peter Mayfield, who is also a mountain guide and creator of an indoor climbing center.

Fellow climber Ted Skinner picked Feagin to be part of his team when he climbed the most challenging wall in the world, Yosemite's Half Dome Rock, on a route that had never been done before.

``I had an opportunity to pick anyone - male or female - but I picked Nancy because she is comfortable being thousands of feet off the ground, and she can carry her part of the load,'' Mr. Skinner says.

What makes Feagin so good, he says, is that she remains calm even when ground zero is thousands of feet under her feet. ``A lot of people can operate 30 feet off the ground, but they are a little more afraid at 250 feet off the ground, and then just freeze up at 2,000 feet off the ground,'' he explains.

Feagin has learned to handle fear by breaking it down to ``rational fear'' and ``irrational fear.'' When she is climbing, she always has a rope tying her to the rock wall she is climbing. Often, someone is underneath her pulling in the rope at the same time. If she does get scared, she says, ``I just try to ask, `Is this a realistic or not a realistic fear.'''

What's a realistic fear? ``I am on this mountain and I don't think I'm going the right way,'' she says. ``There is loose rock everywhere, and the protection [`pitons,' or spikes driven into the rock] might not hold. Or if it does hold, maybe a loose rock will come down, and it's getting dark, and it's starting to snow, and it's cold, and you don't have very much food, and you're hungry.''

She tries to deal with those fears by staying calm and trying to see what she can do to change the situation.

If there is a lot of loose rock, she tries to get out of that area. If the weather is turning bad, she might try to get off the mountain or find shelter. It might mean she has to spend the night anchored to the side of a mountain in a sleeping bag. ``It's very logical,'' she explains.

Not all forms of climbing involve going up natural rock walls. Climbing gyms are increasingly sprouting up around the country. Inside these large rooms are 20-to-45-foot-high walls covered with a synthetic sandstone material. Safety lines extend from the ceiling to prevent climbers from getting hurt if they fall.

According to Ralph Erenzo, executive director of the American Sport Climbers Federation, there are now 100 commercial gyms in the country compared to three only three years ago.

The fast rise of these gyms point to a recent boom in new climbers. Mr. Erenzo estimates there are currently 250,000 to 300,000 people now climbing. A significant percentage of them have been climbing for less than two years. New breed of climbers

The newcomers, however, are not necessarily rugged outdoors types. ``It's less wilderness and more of an urban sport,'' says Erenzo, whose company, Extra-Vertical, sponsors competitions. He expects climbing will get a further boost when an international climbing event, the World Cup, takes place next October in Baltimore.

The competitions are usually held indoors to control rain, snow, and other natural hazards. They are also held on artificial walls so the athletes can't rehearse.

The winner is usually determined by the first person to reach the highest handhold on the wall. Sometimes the course will lead a climber into a trap. ``You have to be smart enough to figure it out before your strength fails you,'' Feagin explains.

Watching Feagin on a video as she practices in a climbing gym is like watching a gravity-free astronaut in a space shuttle. Without apparent effort, Feagin swings underneath an overhang, gripping the handholds with fingers and toes. Putting Batwoman to shame, she expertly swings from handhold to handhold, jackknifing her legs up to find places for her toes.

Feagin climbs five days a week, at least five hours per day. When she isn't climbing, she runs and stretches. During the off-season, it's cross-country skiing, weight lifting, and indoor climbing.

All this work is not particularly financially rewarding. First prize in a national competition is usually $1,000. The two best American female climbers have both moved to France, where there is more prize money.

Climber Skinner notes that many of the top climbers are tortured by the goals they set for themselves - they have little time for joy on a day-to-day basis. ``Not Nancy - she truly finds joy in what she does,'' he says.

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