Fight The Fear: How To Overcome Fear When Climbing

Pushing past a fear of heights.  Photographer: Dan Williams

Pushing past a fear of heights. Photographer: Dan Williams

You’re high, very high. You’re tired, you’re stuck, you don’t know where to go and the holds feel like they’re getting smaller by the second. Your hands get sweaty and your legs begin to shake. You’re going to fall, you know it, and you can feel a sense of dread welling up to drown you.

Sound familiar?

Every climber gets scared, but learning how to control your fear is one of the most satisfying and valuable parts of the sport.

There are three types of fear that often prevent new climbers from getting into the sport and stop enthusiastic climbers from reaching their full potential: fear of heights, fear of getting stuck and fear that the safety gear is going to fail. But the good news is that it’s possible to train through the fear and eventually beat it.

Why are you scared?

Fear is nature’s way of stopping you from doing stupid stuff. It comes from your lizard brain, that most ancient part of your psyche that doesn’t know about ropes and carabiners and kilo-newtons, it just knows that if you’re hanging by your fingertips above uncertain depths then you’re in very real and immediate danger. The problem is that fear isn’t always right.

What’s the problem with fear?

The key to climbing well is good technique. Your feet need to go in precisely the right place, the tension through your legs and core needs to be the perfect balance between keeping you on the wall and allowing you to move quickly and lightly, and your movements need to make use of your momentum to get you through sections of a movement that you otherwise wouldn’t be strong enough to hold. All of this requires focus, and being scared forces all of your attention onto how scared you are and away from your movement and technique.

All that careful training and planning suddenly goes out the window, and you revert to clunky, hand focused movements that drain your energy and make you fall off far sooner than you would have otherwise.

Overcoming fear part one: Fear of heights

Uncomfortable with the height . Photographer: David Comer

Uncomfortable with the height. Photographer: David Comer

I used to have a crippling fear of heights. When I first started climbing, I would only get a metre off the ground before being so terrified that I had to come down. My boyfriend and friends love climbing and often go on climbing trips in the summer. I would watch them get to the top of the crag and long to be able to do it too. It was a shame that my fear got in the way, because I loved climbing too (until I reached a height that made me nervous). I’m in my twenties and fit and flexible from regular training in martial arts. There was no reason why I couldn’t be as good at climbing as my friends, if only I could get over my fear of heights.

Why is it necessary for climbers to deal with their fear of heights?

Height is an unavoidable part of climbing. The real shame of it is that it’s not technique that stops climbers with a fear of heights from completing a route: the fear prevents them from going beyond a certain point.

Many people will say that if you don’t like heights then climbing isn’t the sport for you.

I disagree. It’s possible to overcome a really bad fear of heights through focused training. I did, and now I can join my friends at the top of crags. This is how I did it:

  • Start off on a top-rope. Bouldering is not as good for focused training for a fear of heights as bouldering walls are restricted to a fairly low height.

  • Choose a route that you can easily climb. The goal is to get to the top of the wall, not to practise technique. You don’t want your progress on dealing with your fear of heights interrupted by a difficult move that you can’t complete.

  • Keep climbing up metre by metre. Always make sure to pause every couple of metres apart and look down. This trains you to get used to the height. If you’re nervous and freeze up when looking down, try and stay on the wall and acclimatise to the height. Push on at least another two metres if you can.

  • If you have to come down after a certain point, remember where on the route you got stuck and try to get at least a couple of metres past it next time.

  • Repeat until you’re at the top.

  • Tip: it sometimes helps to let go and dangle for a few minutes when you get stuck due to fear of heights. This reassures you that you’ll be safe if you fall off and the height can’t hurt you.

  • I started off training in Vertical Limit and would recommend focused training to overcome a fear of heights in an indoor wall, at least to start with. Training in an indoor wall removes the other risks associated with outdoor climbing: you know that the ropes, bolts and holds in an indoor wall have been safety-checked, and it’s easy to find and choose an appropriate route that you can easily climb. This means that you can just focus on dealing with the height, without other worries getting in the way.

I finally overcame my fear of heights through focused training . Photographer: David Comer

I finally overcame my fear of heights through focused training. Photographer: David Comer

Overcoming fear part two: Fear of falling

Hard to hold on.  Photographer: Dan Williams

Hard to hold on. Photographer: Dan Williams

The most obvious source of fear when climbing is the fear of falling. Fear comes from the unknown: you get into a scary situation and you’re not sure what will happen if you fall so your imagination fills in the blanks. The good news is that there’s a very simple solution to this, you just need to fall off. By falling off in controlled situations many times, you remove all unknowns from the situation and learn that nothing bad will happen to you as a result of the fall. Without this gap in your knowledge, your imagination has nowhere to fill with visions of horror and you’re free to focus on your climbing.

  • The first step in your training is to find out where exactly it is that you start to get nervous. Where this is will vary from person to person. For some, it’ll be as soon as you start to tie in and for others, it will be lead climbing above a bolt. The important thing is that you’re nervous rather than outright scared as going too far too soon can damage your confidence.

  • Once you’ve found your point of nervousness, take a deep breath and let go. As you fall, sit back in your harness and let your legs bend slightly to take any force out of the fall. Now climb back to exactly the same place and fall off a few more times until your experience has changed from mild fear to mild boredom.

  • Do the same thing next session, and hopefully your point of nervousness will be slightly higher than it was the last time. Keep falling, keep practising, and after a few weeks you’ll be wondering what was so scary in the first place.

  • The key here is to be consistent. Make sure you keep getting a few practise falls every session and make sure you’re falling off in as many different situations as you can find. Look for slabs, overhangs, falls with a swing, falls while leading a traverse and just about any other situation you could plausibly imagine yourself falling from.

  • Remember your buddy checks for both indoor and outdoor climbing. Additionally, if climbing outdoors, you should be checking your ropes, equipment and safety gear for excessive wear and tear, cracks or damage before you climb. If in doubt - replace it. Even if you only climb indoors, you should still be checking your harness, belay device and any other equipment you bring each time for any damage. The only way to guarantee your safety if you fall is to make sure all of your equipment is in good working order and that you have tied in correctly.

Overcoming fear part three: Fear of commitment

For some people the scary part isn’t falling off, it’s the idea of being trapped in a dangerous situation with no way of escaping. Just imagine, you’re two hundred meters off the ground and you reach blank rock, no idea where the route goes and no gear placements in sight. Or maybe a storm rolls in, or a rock falls and cuts through your rope.

The training for this is to get really good at self-rescue. Learn how to abseil, and how to set up an abseil in a variety of different situations with a variety of different gear. With this knowledge, it doesn’t matter how far away the ground is, you can always get back to safety without the need for anyone else to intervene, putting you back in control.

Additionally:

  • Learn how to place trad gear quickly, creatively and well. Spend a day just walking around a crag placing gear in as many different ways as you can, then hang off of that gear to see what holds. If it holds a hang, then try jumping on it. Once you can place good gear a lot of scary trad climbs become safer than sport climbing.

  • Learn how to down-climb effectively, and how to ascend a rope, and how to abseil past a knot, and anything else that could one day get you out of a sticky situation.

If you can always rescue yourself then the fear of a committing route becomes far more manageable, and you’ll find yourself trying stuff that would have scared the life out of you when you first started climbing.

Choosing a gear placement . Photographer: Dan Williams

Choosing a gear placement. Photographer: Dan Williams

Managing fear

No matter how much you train, there’s always going to be some moves that scare the hell out of you. When you can feel the panic rising, the first thing to do is focus on your breathing. The fight or flight response that is triggered by adrenalin causes you to take short shallow breaths (or sometimes stop breathing all together) and tense up: traits that are great the second before a tiger attacks but really unhelpful on a climbing wall or rock face. Taking slow deep breaths defuses this response and helps you to think clearly and focus on good technique.

The next step is a question: are you actually in danger? If the answer is no, then it’s time to focus on climbing with good technique. Snatchy panicked movements will feel better in the moment but won’t help you conquer your project! If the answer is yes, work out how to make yourself safe as quickly as possible. Can you place gear? Can you down-climb or traverse to a large hold or a ledge? Can someone lower a rope down to you?

Learning how to weigh up the options and keep a clear head in a high-stress, high-stakes environment is the single most useful skill that climbing can give you, and mastering it can help you in all walks of life.

Fear should never stop you climbing

Don’t let fear stop you from climbing. Follow our advice and make your fear a thing of the past.

Vertical Limit offers climbing lessons in top-roping, lead-climbing, belaying and one-to-one tuition. Perfect for new or nervous climbers, or those who want to develop their technique with the guidance of a friendly instructor.

Credits:

Editor/writer: Georgie Bull

Researcher/contributing writer: David Comer

Photographers: Dan Williams and David Comer. Photographs used with permission.