Fear for All

I just visited your website and I may just have to check out your book. It looks very interesting!
I could use some advice. I’ve been climbing (mostly bouldering) for 7 wonderful years now and it is my greatest passion! I began as a ropey (sport) and then got spooked by leading which has kept me off a rope for the last 5 ½ years. I’ve recently itched to get back into it and have been doing well so far. Do you have any tips for me to help get over the fear of lead falls? The fact that I’m leading again, even if only on 9s and 10s is a great feat for me. I’ve elected to not top rope as much as possible because that is where I feel I went wrong in the first place – top roping for too long before learning to lead. Am I expecting too much in hoping that I will ever be free of this fear?

Any ideas would be appreciated.
Brandy

Steph,
Well, you probably hear this all the time but you are defintely one of my idols!!! I wish I had nearly the balls that you do. I absolutely love to climb but don’t really care so much for the leading; any advice on that? So I just got back from a short trip to the Dolomites (one of my favorite places) and was thinking hey I have the perfect job for me since I hate my job back here in Bend, Oregon. And that was I could be your belay partner, slave, etc. whatever you would want to call it. So if you need one, send me a holla.
Thanks alot,
Angelina
any advice on breaking through the head barrier would be much appreciated!

Steph, Do you experience fear sometimes? And if yes, what do you do? My fear is my worst enemy, especially when I climb…
Emilie

Hello Steph:
I have always admired your climbing and wonder how do you deal with
your fear of falling.
You are such a graceful climber that you make it look easy.
Keep up the good work,
Bill

Steph,
I’ve been meaning to ask you about your experiences with performance anxiety and sports. My AFF instructor pointed out my issues with performance anxiety and having someone call me out on it very much changed how I see jumping AND climbing.
Katie

Steph,
I know how to lead climb, and I’m expected to lead climb at comps, but I’m TERRIFIED. I know that the rope will catch me when I fall, but I’m scared anyway. My coaches keep telling me that the ONLY way to get used to it is to take falls. Do you have any advice?
Jessica

Dear Everyone,
This has to be one of the hardest parts of climbing, and I hope you can see already that you are not alone! I think the thing I find most frustrating about fear is that it is generally a performance destroyer. So it not only feels bad, but it often causes you to perform poorly, and therefore also not have a good time doing the thing that is supposed to be fun. In situations involving risk, loss of performance is also very dangerous. So being brought down by fear is no fun. But at the same time, it’s a constant presence for most people who climb, because of the very elemental natural instinct of an aversion to falling.

Personally, I think the solution is somewhat different for everyone. Some people can do that jump into cold water thing, and just start jumping off climbs, and then they feel fine taking lead falls. Other people are so traumatized by doing that, that the result is actually worse. I think you might want to consider trying both, or perhaps trying the gradual approach. You do have all the time in the world, so there’s no harm in taking baby steps.

If you’re very afraid of falling on lead, it can be a good idea to get a friend who is supportive, and go through a little training exercise on a likely sport route or gym route. Start by “falling” when the bolt is actually at your waist. And then after you’ve let go of the heeby jeebies a few times, go a little further ( like even 6 inches) and do it a few more times. Then go a little further, etc. Sometimes I think the body really needs to feel the sensation of falling and being caught, even if the brain knows how things are supposed to work, to really believe it. Make sure it’s a very safe, steep route, and make sure your supportive friend is also a competent belayer. Some people like to let go at the anchors, without clipping them, on long steep sport routes. It’s up to you. You might feel embarrassed or silly doing this on a route. Just go somewhere off by yourself, with a good friend, and don’t worry about it. If it results in feeling better and having more fun, it will be an hour very well spent.

Another thing that can be good is to find a project that appeals to you, but is a little above your ability level. If you work it out, over and over, eventually you’ll be pretty confident in your knowledge of the climbing, and you’ll also be extra motivated to send your project, which can work wonders for your psyche level.

Above all, don’t beat yourself up about being nervous. It’s totally natural to take time to let go of deep, natural instincts like the fear of falling. I think a big part of feeling more courageous is gaining confidence in yourself. If training and increasing your strength will give you that confidence (I know it does for me), then train. If climbing with the same partner all the time will make you more confident, do that. If climbing lots of routes that are below your toproping ability level makes you more confident, do that.

I think, though, sometimes it goes even deeper than the pure fear of falling, and the fear of failing gets bundled in there too. This makes everything even more of a mess. Let go of internal pressure. The thing that drives me truly insane is hearing someone say “I’m just so mad because I should have been able to onsight that.”

Whenever I hear that at a crag, I think to myself, “WHY?” Personally, I never think I “should” be able to do anything….what I mean is, I don’t approach climbs with a preconceived notion of my ability versus the alleged “difficulty” of the climb, and then make that part of the story of my experience on the route. I know it’s hard, because climbing is so permeated with numbers and comparisons, but really, forget about all that stuff. Approach a climb like you are a little kid and it’s a tree. Don’t bring expectations or ego attachments up the route with you. They’re too heavy.

But back to the normal fear. The best way to dull fear is to practice repetition. The more times you are in an environment or situation you find scary, the less it will intimidate you. So every time you put yourself in an intimidating situation, even if you don’t actually do much (i.e., you take a 4 inch lead fall onto a giant bolt on purpose after alerting your belayer, instead of…taking soaring, monster whippers onto a blue TCU as you nearly get through the crux of your project), you are STILL making progress, and you should be happy, and keep at it. The first time I started trying to free El Cap, I was terrified! Actually, when I started working on the Salathe headwall, I was also terrified. 🙂 But I gradually got used to all the exposure, and was able to relax (somewhat) up there. Just keep at it.

Again, don’t worry if this is a very longterm progression. And don’t worry if your progression is different from your friends’ or anyone else. It’s your climb! You want to enjoy it.
🙂 Steph


  • Thanks for a GREAT article Steph! This is where I, as an individual run into trouble – with the “should be able to…” so I love this: “Approach a climb like you are a little kid and it’s a tree. Don’t bring expectations or ego attachments up the route with you. They’re too heavy.”

    Great advice, and it’s nice to hear someone else say it 🙂

  • Steph Davis

    I’m glad if it could help!
    It would be great to hear if other people have any tips, or things that have worked well for them….

  • I once saw an article recommending first practicing falling in a climbing gym in a controlled manner just to get used to the feeling of falling. However, that was a baby step because it was just falling on a top rope which isn’t really that scary at all. Falling on lead is a whole different story – especially on trad gear when you are new to it!

    I can’t think of any other tips, because practicing it, along with time and learning to trust your gear and placements are what will make you feel more comfortable – along with a belayer that you are used to working with!

  • Greg

    Steph,

    How is it that you continue to remember the things that everyone else forgets?

    This quote:

    “…I never think I “should” be able to do anything….what I mean is, I don’t approach climbs with a preconceived notion of my ability versus the alleged “difficulty” of the climb, and then make that part of the story of my experience on the route….Approach a climb like you are a little kid and it’s a tree.”

    encapsulates something I’ve seen in the most talented people in a variety of endeavors throughout my life.

    The most talented people look at every problem with brand new eyes, with the full realization that just because they solved the last problem, there is no guarantee that this problem will just roll over and let it be solved by them. They see the challenge every time, and they recognize that they don’t know everything, can’t do everything, and so must apply themselves completely to the thing they are doing…and the problem doesn’t care about your reputation, or the thing you did last time. This is this time, so have at it. If you don’t solve it, whatever it is, try another approach, and keep trying. If you can’t solve it that day, sleep on it and see what a new day brings. The joy is in the trying.

    This is also, I think, why kids are often so joyful, and why, as they grow into adults, they often lose that joy. They forget to remember that the point is the joy of doing the thing, and that is it. When a bunch of kids climb a tree, they all end up at different heights, depending on their comfort and ability…the point is, they’re all in the tree ..not which branch they’re on.

    http://www.members.shaw.ca/jschindler/cummings.htm

  • Greg

    …when I’ve first introduced people to leading on gear, I have a route which lets me set a toprope AND which accepts good gear in a bunch of places…but is not a crack, so it forces climbers to climb above their gear before making the next placement.

    I put them on a double belay…..a lead rope and a dynamic (non static) top rope, and send them up. They know that even if their gear fails, the TR will catch them (so they are not going to hit the ground), but they get the full experience (fear factor) of leading above their gear, hanging on with one hand,placing, testing, clipping. I usually leave some slack in the TR so they know it is only a stopgap safety device, not their key fall limiter. The key fall limiter is NOT FALLING and climbing to the next placement.

    I’ve found this to be pretty successful at getting folks used to the idea of falling, and used to the tactics needed to avoid falling (downclimbing, rest positions or jams, relaxing, etc)..which makes them better climbers.

    Then, I have them take falls on their gear after they’ve placed it…with the TR backup in case it fails. They get to know what placements would work, and which wouldn’t, without any injury consequences. Usually, their placements are bomber, so they leave the experience with confidence that their gear will hold…or with the knowledge of how to improve placements so they will hold.

    Cheers.

  • Some people might need to start at something less scary than falling while leading with the bolt at their waist. If bolt-at-your-waist feels terrifying to you, you may need to start by taking some practice falls on TR, with a tight belay and with a little bit of slack, then on lead when below the bolt.

    One of the best things for a beginning climber may be to stop saying “take” when falling on TR. A belayer shouldn’t need any warning to catch a fall — if they do, maybe they shouldn’t be belaying.

    One inconvenient thing is that it’s safer to fall on steeper (harder) routes. At least in my area outdoor climbs don’t get overhanging until the 11s (mostly granite and basalt vs. juggy stuff like limestone). So if you’re a 10 climber, don’t fear the 11s (as long as they’re bolted safely, it’s easy to the first bolt and/or you can use your stick clip or ropegun to clip the first one, etc). Or just go to the gym to find the overhanging 8s.

    I like what Dave McLeod has written, he’s got a book out, and lots of stuff on his blog, like:

    http://onlineclimbingcoach.blogspot.com/2009/07/beating-fear-of-falling-in-5-sessions.html

  • Steph Davis

    Thanks for the great tips and great links!
    🙂 Steph

  • Steph – thank you so much for writing this!! It really resonates with me, especially the expectations and ego parts. I have a lot of trouble refraining from yelling at myself for not being able to do things I think I should be able to do. I say things like,

    “Why are you afraid? You shouldn’t be, you’ve done this before! You’re safe, stop being scared.”

    “You’re so silly for being scared, and your climbing is suffering. You should be able to do this!”

    And boy does it mess me up. That kind of self-talk is so defeating, and I’m guilty of it almost every time I climb. The hardest part is accepting the fear and finding a way to deal with it on my own terms – that it’s okay to want the same belayer all the time, it’s okay to take it one step at a time.

    I’m going to try the start-with-a-tiny-fall concept next time! It’s funny, being on lead terrifies me, but bouldering doesn’t scare me at all.

  • Paul

    Hi Steph! Thank you for your wisdom. You are an inspiration.

    One thing that I have become fascinated with is fear. I came to challenge my own fears when I began racing motorcycles a few years ago. In that sport, decisions are made in 10ths and 100ths of a second. However, over time, those decisions became instinctual through repetitious training. It’s an amazing feeling of when you cheat death and never thought about what to do, rather just did it. That was 2 years ago with a near miss with a car head on. It was a long process of mental recovery, but it was good to get back to basics and reprogram myself.

    I had to repeat this process when I took up climbing. My first lead climb was a sport lead that I did, like 5.6 slab, on my second climb ever! I was never thinking about the consequences, rather just wanting to do it! Then over time, I read and heard about the consequences and the fear began to build.

    I’ve been sketched out on leads and in retrospect, I realize that it wasn’t a hard climb, it was my mental strategies that weren’t solid. I realized that I was too focused on being runout, than being focused on my technique. My stretched out shoes at the time didn’t help either. Since I got my new shoes, I’m climbing way better and I feel way more confident.

    The first time I did an offwidth, a 5.6, I led it! I almost backed down until I figured out the technique. The second part was a 5.7 finger and fist crack. I was standing on a ledge with 6 feet to go. I was so exhausted from that OW that I was really scared of taking a whipper as I had no gear left for the size I needed. I focused on breathing. It took me like 10 mins to realize that the proceeding 6 feet was like a 5.5 flake. Then I was like, “DOH!” and just walked right up it practically.

    When I we did the Royal Arches, I was relying on the fact that we’d have an extra ropegun that could take over if I was feeling tired or sketched out. Well, he forgot his harness and shoes at home! So he made a harness out of webbing and wore my trail running shoes and made it through the climb! So that meant I had to lead the whole thing! I had already felt anxiety in the days leading up to it and that was evident with a nightmare I had the night before the trip.

    I was doing okay the first 5 pitches and was beginning to feel drained. I wanted to give up, but I realized that had to finish the climb, since retreat would be a big PITA with only 1 rope. So after a pitch or so I got into this sort of speed rush as I was more concerned about the incoming weather than anything else. Over the remainder of the climb, I was getting faster and faster with less and less pro. I was constantly focused on my technique and not on being run out. There were a few times where I thought, “oh s@#$, I’m runout!” (like 60 feet!). But I looked for the next placement and made that my goal. With each “goal,” I felt more and more accomplished, with that I felt more and more confident. This built up to the psychological crux of the climb, a 50′ or so slab traverse with one bolt at the start. There was no way around it. “Fawk it!” I focused on technique and I felt very little fear, if any. I made the traverse to a slick area, then down climbed to a ledge. Finally, it was over!

    That was the most victorious I have felt on leading a climb. I know where my mental limits are and have yet to find my physical limits.

    I won’t talk about whippers as I don’t want to jinx myself. (knock on wood) 😉

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  • Solid article!

    I believe it’s good to have a partner that shares similar fear of falling. This way the climbers can “compete” against each other and falling will be a part of the game. Before they know it, they are both better in climbing and the fear of falling is long gone.

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  • Peter Parker

    First, thanks for the advice and inspiration, Steph, do it for the love is definately a great tip!

    I haven’t read all of the comments, so forgive me if someone else already mentioned this tip. I read once that when you panic, it’s your body’s defense against death so you may not really be thinking of death, per se, but if you replace the panic (I beleive fear, or at least some of it is good) with a scene in your head of what you will drink, eat, or other pleasantry after you finish climbing then your body’s fight/flight system will cool down and you will go back to climbing well.

    Three deep breaths is a similar, but very simple, techniques, but I also wanted to add that I often find that fear (and sometimese even panic) charges me up for the difficulties ahead. When I remember that, I can allow it to wash over me, and subside, then carry on with even more energy and motivation!

  • Steph Davis

    Thanks Peter!

  • Mayra

    Wow, what an incredibly all encompassing encouraging and wise answer. Thank you Steph!

  • That’s a real great and encouraging reply, I’ve been leading for maybe a month or so and I took two huge falls for my first falls actually… Fell about half the wall, still terrified when I get on a lead wall, my climbing literally just degrades due to the fear. Hope I can overcome it soon enough.

  • i hope so too!

  • Mikeinmammoth

    Rad Advice!

  • Claire

    Those are the exact things that go through my head Katie! Also, I tore a hamstring top roping (2 months no climbing) and have had a few nasty shoulder injuries – on certain moves I just see and almost feel tearing muscle or dislocating joints as I look at the next move. I am even scared on certain bouldering moves and I am just trying to take it baby steps at a time, get super strong and practice my foorwork a lot as this helps me. I make a move I’m scared of e.g. a big leap and grab in a context I’m less scared of, i.e. toproping, then work that move that into an ‘easy’ bouldering route and so on.

    This article helped me loads though, I always over think things and that’s when I mess up – ‘Approach a climb like you are a little kid and it’s a tree’ is such perfect advice. Thanks so much for this Steph – it’s good to know that even the bravest and best get a little scared, they just learn to deal with it.

    ‘Again, don’t worry if this is a very longterm progression. And don’t worry if your progression is different from your friends’ or anyone else. It’s your climb! You want to enjoy it.’ This is also such good advice! I climb with a friend I have similar strength and technical ability to but I can’t climb some stuff that she can as she is braver than me and just ‘goes for’ moves that have me sweating.

    Thanks again Steph!

  • You’re welcome, and thanks for sharing your experience 🙂

  • Vikram Murthy

    spoken like a true veteran !!! i am generally on and off my high ball bouldering fears owing to the breaks i take ..but reading this surely makes me want to go back there tomorrow 🙂

  • good luck!

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