Fear is basically impossible to get rid of, and it’s completely natural. When you’re climbing at your limit, about to make a big move, you will feel fear on some level. It’s instinctual, embedded deep in your animal brain, to fear falling from height. Fear of falling has its uses, to be sure – but for climbers, it can hold us back from what we want to achieve.
First, let’s clarify what kind of climbing we’re talking about: definitely not free soloing. You probably shouldn’t do that (we definitely don’t recommend that you do), and unless you’re Alex Honnold, you’re right to be afraid if you’re unroped, hundreds of feet off the deck.
We’re talking about “run-of-the-mill” bouldering, sport, and trad climbing here. Fear can be restrictive in these situations, to the extent that many climbers find themselves held back not by physical ability, but by mental strength to push through difficult and exposed moves. Imagine being in the middle of a crux move (the hardest move on a route or boulder problem) and suddenly feeling a sense of gut-level panic. Your body might be perfectly prepared to do the move, but without the right mental preparation, you can’t seem to make the move happen.
So, here are 5 actions you can take that will help you move beyond restrictive fear and crush that crux next time around:
In high-stress or “panic” situations, many people instinctively begin to breathe shallowly through their chests – if they manage to breathe at all. Think of a deer freezing when hit with car headlights – a state of mindless shock induced by an overwhelming moment. But a fight-or-flight response saps our brains of oxygen, which feeds right back into that stress response, creating a cycle that quickly leads to muscular exhaustion and a fall. It’s better to develop the habit of deep and diaphragmatic breathing in these types of situations.
When faced with an uncomfortable situation above the bolt, try to consciously breathe in through your stomach and diaphragm: 4 seconds in, 4 seconds out. This practice, instead of feeding the stress cycle, kicks off what Harvard researchers call the relaxation response: a state of (relative) rest that floods your brain and muscles with oxygen, lowering your heart rate and stress hormones. This breathing practice will help you perform across all sorts of areas of life, as you may have seen if you’ve taken a yoga class at First Ascent. Diaphragmatic breathing will also allow your brain a bit of extra “mental space,” otherwise known as presence – the next step for dealing with scary situations and moves.
2: Focus on the moment
What is it that’s freaking you out? What’s in your control, and what isn’t? All beings have an instinctual fear of serious injury and death. When you’re in the gym and about to pull a crux move above your last clip, those fears are probably overblown (unless you have an untrustworthy belayer – see the next section for more on that). When you’ve taken a second to breathe and rest, you’ll have the mental space and lack of stress hormones to be able to think through the realistic consequences of just going for it. The worst that’s likely to happen, at least in the context of most sport routes and boulder problems in the gym, is a bruised ego when you don’t stick the move because you were holding your breath and panicking.
When you allow yourself to breathe and create the mental space to parse these problems, you can remove the panicky emotions that hold you back from focusing on the only thing that matters in the situation at hand, and the only thing you can control: the next move.
3: Know your belayer
One of the most important ways you can increase your confidence when climbing difficult routes is to build trust with your belayer. You’re not going to want to risk a tough move if you aren’t entirely confident that, if you fall, your belayer will give you a catch appropriate for the situation. If there’s a risk you’ll get a hard catch and swing into a ledge, you’ll be that much less prepared mentally to make the move that might get you that kind of belay treatment. When finding a belayer or building a relationship with your current partners, look for these three qualities:
- Technical skill and experience: they know how and when to give you a soft catch, they manage the rope well, they know when you might be most at risk of a fall and can feed or take slack as necessary. This comes from practice and experience.
- Attentive and focused: they’re not distracted, looking around the gym, talking to friends. They’re focused on you, the climber, whose safety is in their hands, following your every move and acting accordingly with practiced technique.
- Communicative: the best belayers play their part in making sure the two-person team is on the same page throughout the entire climb. They know when to engage you verbally, when to encourage you, and when to keep it quiet. They communicate clearly what they’re doing on the ground using consistent language to boost the climber’s confidence and inform their actions.
4: Don’t avoid falls – practice them
The last piece of the puzzle of fear management in climbing is to practice the situations that scare you. It’s a tenant in modern psychology that to overcome fear, you must engage with it and habituate yourself to those consequences in a controlled setting, rather than avoid them. You’ll never get over the fear of being on the sharp end if you don’t practice it – and that means falls on difficult routes to build your “lead head.”
The first part of exposing yourself to falls is to make sure you’re up to snuff on your technical skills. Are you managing your position around the rope properly? Of course, falls aren’t fun or safe if you decide to let go with your foot behind the rope. Upside down is no place to be. There are plenty of guides out there to help you learn and stay updated on rope management and effective communication; Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills is a classic all climbers should own.
Once you’ve got your basic skills related to falls down, it’s time to practice. On September 24, we’re hosting a Whipper Clinic at FA Avondale with the American Alpine Club’s Chicago Chapter.We’ll cover essential skills for lead falls, including mental preparation, breathing, and fall mechanics, as well as skills for belayers, especially how and when to give a “soft catch.” We’ll also practice taking falls as well as catching them.
If you’ve ever been afraid of falling, this clinic will leave you with a better lead head so you can feel more confident when working your projects. It’s free for members, but you’ll need your lead certification. Check out the FA Avondale Facebook page for event info.
Outside of the upcoming Whipper Clinic, the best way to get more practice in is to set aside an early-season trip to warm up for the upcoming outdoor season. Go to the Red, get on an overhung route, and take a few short, planned falls, with an aware and skilled belayer. Make sure the falls are short, the rope gets rest, alternate sides, and include regular safety checks. After not too long, with regular and mindful practice, you’ll desensitize yourself to panicky falls on your project, and start sticking the crux instead.
It might sound silly, but smiling can help you overcome your stress response and remind you of something important: you actually enjoy climbing. You might be overwhelmed by negative emotions (fear of falling, fear of failing, or an “I can’t” attitude), but cracking a smile can put what you’re experiencing in perspective. Next time you’re feeling negativity creep in, smile, look around at your friends and the beautiful scenery, and remember why you love climbing in the first place. Because it’s fun!
Now get out there and crush that crux!
By Chris Rooney, an FA member and freelance writer specializing in rock climbing, fitness, and the outdoors.