I must start by saying that you inspire me. Your ascents and your general aura of goodness drive me to keep climbing. Which transitions into my main point: I’m at a falling out when it comes to my climbing.
I began under three years ago. I threw myself madly into the sport, unaware of what the consequences may have been if I had made a mistake. I quickly got into trad climbing (because, I mean, crack climbing is the bomb) and acquired a rack. I led up a solid amount of pitches and attended a clinic before I took my sport climbing partner outside for his first trad lead. We hopped on an easy route, but his first piece was poorly placed and he began to panic. Rather than climbing down he pushed upwards, resulting in him being almost six feet above his first and only piece. Then he fell. I tried to catch him, but the rope never weighted and I watched as he smashed into the ground. I was stunned. The piece had ripped.
After that incident, he went on to continue leading sport routes. I, however, have only become more terrified.
I’ve been living on the road since the beginning of this year with the intention of climbing as much as possible. Months have passed and I’m still afraid to lead—sometimes I’m even afraid to follow.
I led up a pitch just recently called “Ladies First” in Indian creek (and barely reached the top although I had just top roped it clean). I was crying, afraid, shaking…
I come to you about this because, yes, you inspire me, but also because you seem very emotionally aware. My issue seems like more than an instinct to survive that has takes over. I have nightmares of falling and anxiety as we approach the crag. Have you ever been this scared? How did you overcome it? Do you have any tips in general in relation to this issue?
I appreciate your time. Stay rad.
A Falling Out
Dear A Falling Out,
Overcoming a fear after a traumatic incident is a huge obstacle that many climbers face. It’s probably one of the hardest parts about rock climbing. I think that it’s important to recognize that fear is a completely natural reaction to many things: rock climbing, spiders, the zombie apocalypse. Everybody reacts differently to certain situations.
It seems that you hit it on the nose when you said that your issue has become more of a survival instinct. In the sport that we choose to do, fear prepares us to react to a danger. You sense potential danger (even though you might be completely safe on a toprope or with a piece of protection at your waist) and this has become your body’s way of sharpening its functions for survival.
Even though fear is a natural response, our behaviors are still learned. Your situation is cause and effect; your memory did a great job of storing all of the details from that day. Memories can be very strong because your reaction sounds very sudden and physical. But the truth is, we have much more power in our brains than our lady fingers can crimp—and you can absolutely teach your body how to control your reaction.
My first suggestion is to go over everything in your head from start to finish. Let the logical side of your brain take charge for a little bit: why are you afraid? I know that you already know the answer but maybe say the words aloud or write them down in a journal (a great way to go back and reflect later on). Is there any benefit to the fear you’ve been feeling? In my experience, I have to completely embrace my fear—I can’t just wish it away, as much as I’ve tried.
If I’m being honest, it becomes awfully hard for me to bullshit myself. When I’m several feet above a piece of gear and my palms are starting to sweat, preparing to go into fight or flight mode, I know that the number one reason I’m afraid is because I don’t want to fall. I am afraid of falling. I am afraid of my gear ripping. I don’t want to fall.
Whether or not the gear holds or the fall is safe, I honestly just don’t want to take the whipper. So I take a few seconds to check my surroundings: I look below and my gear is bomber. I check left and right. Above, I can start to visualize the movement I need to make to continue upward. My fear response isn’t meant to hurt me (in fact, as I said before, it’s the opposite. Fear response is meant to protect us.)
One way to adapt your fear response is to try and use it to your advantage. Can fear be useful? Personally, I think yes. My response is to assess my situation quickly. I want to be able to assess all situations efficiently, especially in those stressful moments. If fear is meant to keep us safe, then try using it to keep you safe! Use it to better your awareness—it can help you distinguish very quickly what is safe versus what is not, which is a wonderful skill to have in the mountains.
Do you meditate? I’ve heard it’s nice. Personally, I’m too much of a squirrel to really clear my thoughts and have rarely experienced a state of calm outside of rock climbing. Scampering up a wall can be described as a meditative state for many people, and perhaps it was for you at one point as well. The trouble is getting back to that state of concentration.
You sound like you are concentrating pretty hard—just on the negative feelings (and less on butterflies and rainbows and breathing). Even if it’s involuntary, crying and feeling tremble-y on the wall means you are too focused on the terror. Mediation of any kind will require concentration, and yours is pulling you to the dark side. Come back! It’s like physical exercise and will require practice: the more you practice, the more fit your mind will become. The mind is a muscle too, right?
You don’t have to be chanting while you’re rock climbing. Do whatever works for you! Make it a routine. Sing some Taylor Swift to yourself if that’s your jam. (I’m not saying that I have or have not done this…I’m just saying that Taylor Swift is some people’s jam.) For me, it has always come down to my breathing (which, really, is what meditation is all about). Climbing with really supportive partners who are in tune with what I am feeling has been incredibly helpful. They watch my movement very carefully and know when I start to show physical signs of anxiety and tell me to relax and breathe.
And I do. And it works.
It’s a very simple but powerful technique. For me, it revives balance. Balance can do a body good, so begin with your breath. I like to take several deep ones until I fall into that rhythmic and smooth pattern. Shallow, rapid breaths will contribute to hyperventilation. Abdominal breathing (breathing in through your lower lungs) provides sufficient oxygen and will give you more control over exhalation. In through the nose and out through the mouth, right? A yogi told me that once. It’s true. Scientifically, breathing decreases muscle tension, calms the mind, slows your heart rate, and lowers your blood pressure. Take as many breaths as you need to start the process. You’ll find that you are in control of flipping the emergency switch back off—you are totally in that control.
Control is the key word here, I think. Emotions are hard because they can be overwhelming and there is a high degree of intense pleasure or displeasure. Whether or not we can control our emotions is still up for debate. Which emotion thrives depends on how much you intend on feeding it. Our emotions are wonderfully helpful, playing an incredibly vital role within rock climbing and within life, in general. Life would be so grainy and barren and not worth living without them—and I think this has to include the less wonderful ones.
I think a huge foundation for all of this is rebuilding your confidence. Keep climbing if you are willing to work through this. Stop climbing if you don’t feel ready yet—because that’s okay, too! A little break never hurt anybody and you can come back to it when you are truly ready; the rock isn’t going anywhere.
Climb a few numbers below your pay grade. I know plenty of climbers who specifically go out with those less experienced than them, which requires them to put the rope up. If that’s something you feel comfortable with, then go for it. You don’t have to climb all of the hard things to build your confidence (that’s certainly one way, but it isn’t the only way.)
You just need to make it to the top and feel good about yourself. And to top it off, if you’re taking newer climbers out for an afternoon toprope, they’ll probably be more appreciative than you know and learn a thing or two. Teaching others is a HUGE confidence builder. They get out, learn a few things, and you can feel great about it.
I don’t think it’s always about practicing taking monster whippers in the gym or falling a few feet with a bolt at your waist. You can. But I think this is much more of a “Let’s look inside of you” situation. Look inside, accept what you see, and then work with it. Repeatedly. These are all skills that you can cultivate. Continue climbing with loved ones and friends because they will be the most supportive, and good support systems are everything. They will share in your excitement, your victories, your down days, and everything in between.