Step One: Letting Go
It’s not normal. You’re high off the ground, high enough that if something goes wrong, it’s going to be bad. Yet you edge past the bolt until your last trembling toe leaves it behind. You’re pumped, forearms screaming for a rest. But still you push on. The crimp is sharp and feels like a cheese grater. Meanwhile, your fingers feel like weak cheddar. Suddenly the foot smear you knew you shouldn’t have trusted betrays you. Your heart drops, and you’re aloft in space. You race towards the wall that so recently thrust you away. Then you do something silly. You feel angry. Well, mostly you feel scared, but that’s not the silly part. The silly part is the anger. Because it’s not normal. Putting your body and mind through all of that and then getting angry that alarm bells are going off is not normal. Falling is scary. Of course it is! And the fear you feel is a perfectly normal human response. Only when you accept that it is okay to be scared can you truly begin to let go of your fear.
Unless you’re a mental masochist, you probably don’t enjoy beating yourself up. It’s probably not on a “to do” list in any self-help book. So if you’re trying to help yourself mentally, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. Beating yourself up about something is a negative experience. If you’re beating yourself up about being scared to fall, you’re creating a negative experience. You’re creating an atmosphere of frustration, anger, and self-doubt. Do you really want to climb in that kind of headspace? Didn’t think so. That’s not going to make you enjoy climbing. Or falling. So just let that anger go. It’s okay to fall, and it’s okay to be scared. Beating yourself up about it is not going to make anything better.
Only take a fall if you feel like you are in the correct headspace to do so. Some days will feel better than others. Some days you will be in a positive headspace, when your mind is at ease and you feel happy and safe. Practice taking falls on those days. Your positive headspace will create a positive experience. However, some days you will be in a negative headspace, when you will feel angry, irritable, and unsteady. It happens to everyone. It’s probably better to say “take” on these days. And that’s completely okay. If you start to feel angry with yourself for taking just take a deep breath and say “I am not in the right headspace today. It’s okay, it happens to everyone.” As you have more and more positive headspace days taking falls, falling will start to become a positive experience.
Step Two: Trust
The wrong belayer can throw a positive headspace completely out the window. I will never forget one day at my local crag when I saw a guy from my gym belaying a very new lead climber on an easy route. She was at the fourth bolt and trembling violently. Obviously terrified, she clung to the jug she was holding like it was the Titanic’s last lifeboat. She was crying. The guy from the gym was casually sitting on the ground leaning against a tree, belaying with a beer in hand. For how little effort he seemed to want to put into anything else, he was sure putting plenty of effort into being a jerk. “Oh come on, it’s only 5.8”, “quit being a baby and take the whip”, “god you’re being pathetic”. He seemed more than a little surprised when his beer can was plucked from his hand and he was yanked violently upward. Luckily he was too shocked to retaliate as I thrust the brake end of the rope into his hand and yelled at him to shut his mouth. I smiled at the girl and spoke gently to her, eventually coaxing her to down climb to her last bolt, take, and be lowered. After making sure she was okay and not completely traumatized, I had a nice long chat with her belayer. After his ego had calmed down, he eventually realized that his methods were maybe not the best when it came to helping new climbers. Meanwhile, the girl was eternally grateful for my intervention, and we ended up becoming great friends. The moral of the story is, don’t climb with someone like that guy. Choose your belayer wisely. I have been climbing for fifteen years, and I only have about five people I trust to belay me. These are all people who give me their full attention while they are belaying me, give me a nice soft catch and are aware of ledges and other dangers, and, most importantly, are very encouraging and never make me feel bad about not wanting to fall. This kind of belayer makes all the difference in the world. If your belayer is awesome but doesn’t know what a soft catch is, learn together. The right catch can completely change your mind about falling. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to be direct. If you feel that your belayer isn’t paying attention, yell “watch me!”. When you get down, calmly discuss with your belayer that you felt they were not paying attention, and why it bothered you. This goes for your belayer doing anything that you don’t like. Your life is in their hands, and you’re allowed to have some say about it. If your belayer has a bad attitude about you voicing your concerns, it’s time to find a new belayer. Part of being in the right headspace means being able to fully trust your belayer.
While we’re on the subject of trust, let’s talk about gear. A good belayer is also one who will check your knot every single time you climb. I work at a climbing gym, and last December on New Years we had an accident. The gym was pretty much empty, only a few people including two regulars who were very experienced climbers. The climber wanted to pre-clip, and tied just an overhand knot in his belay loop to bring the rope up with him a few feet so he could clip in and down climb. He pre-clipped, climbed back down and began talking and joking around his his belayer. He got distracted. Neither he nor his belayer checked his knot, which he has forgotten to re-tie into the safe figure eight. He climbed to the top of the wall just fine, and leaned back. His overhand knot came undone, and he fell forty feet. I was at the front desk when I heard the scream. He broke his spine in two places, fractured both feet, broke his pelvis, and dislocated his thumb. All of this could have been avoided had he and his belayer done a safety check. Some people might laugh or make you feel stupid for wanting to do a safety check. Tell them this story. If they still won’t do it, find a new climbing partner. Doing a safety check also helps your mental game while climbing. It’s a reminder right before you climb that you are safe. The last thing you need before taking a fall is to question whether your knot is good, or if your belayer’s grigri is loaded properly. This might sound silly, but another thing I like to do before I get on the wall is look at my gear. I look at my harness, my rope, my draws, my cams, everything. I look at them all and remind myself of the engineering and technology that went into them. They work. Gear failure is highly uncommon, most accidents are caused by user error. Before you get on the wall, remind yourself of this. Trust your gear, trust your belayer, and trust yourself.
Step 3: Focus
This step takes a bit of practice. Stop thinking about falling. When you’re on the wall and you’re cruxing, there’s a good chance you’re calculating the chance of falling in you head and imagining the fall. Quit it. One way to do this is to focus entirely on your movements and nothing else. If you do this, there will be no room in your mind for thoughts of a fall. This is a good step to practice in a gym. Go to the gym with a belayer you trust, and get on routes you know you will fall on. If you feel comfortable with it, tell your belayer that you are not allowed to take. If you’re going to force yourself to fall it’s best to do it in the gym, where you’re in a safe environment and most likely in a positive headspace. While you’re on the route, practice focusing only on your movement when you feel secure. As you move into a crux where you feel less secure, do your best to maintain that focus. This way when you fall, it’ll be over before you were even aware of falling. I call this getting in the zone. Everyone’s zone is different. Some involve music, silence, cheering…. mine happens to involve talking to myself and sticking my tongue out, which most photographers aren’t too happy about. Find your zone, and do your best to stay in it. As I said before, this takes practice. Focus on the climb, not on the fall. Your fear of falling won’t go away overnight, but if you keep at these steps hopefully it will go away in time. Don’t get discouraged, climbing is worth the effort. Remember, the fear of falling is nothing compared to the fear of never leaving the ground.