29 June 2014

Just Another Post About Fear

I know this isn't an original topic. It's actually a very popular one, having been written about before, numerous times. Emily Harrington and Shauna Coxsey have both tackled it, as did Steph Davis. Now I'm giving it a shot. Bear with me in the beginning here, I'm just making a comparison.

Every time Fritz moves in her bed in the middle of the night I bolt upright, heart racing, reaching for the baseball bat, or the pepper spray, recent purchases of course, thinking that someone has broken in--again.

It's gripping and controlling. As soon as the sun goes down the inside of my apartment is lit up like a Christmas tree, but still I don't sleep through the night. They did it once, they could do it again, so easily. All it takes is a fire extinguisher through the window and they can walk through my house as they please.

I can't move out; I signed a lease. But what happens if they come again? Would I hide? Where, under my bed? Please. Fritz barks like a damn rabid raccoon at the most subtle of sounds, she'd give us away in a heartbeat. Nope, I've decided to stay and defend my home. It's events like this that make you realize your fight or flight tendencies. In this circumstance it looks like fight.

Why is it not the same for sport climbing??

I'm up on my second climb of the day, still in the "warming up" process, and I'm getting a little pumped. Do I take? Or make another move, proverbial fingers crossed the next hold is good enough and my foot doesn't slip. What if the next hold sucks? What if my foot slips? I could fall weird, get my leg stuck behind the rope, twist around and hit my back or my head, or slam into the rock and break both my ankles. Nope, not gonna risk it--TAKE.

I'm so hesitant, overthinking every move that seems just a little "sketchy," moving slow and overly-cautious, clenching my eyes and waiting for the worst. Any move where I need to be even a little dynamic, or can't have my feet directly under me, my confidence vanishes without warning, thoughts of falling in the worst way possible uncontrollably flashing through my head. I'm climbing sloppily, over gripping, my feet are slipping, until complete panic sets in. I can't control my breathing, I'm too pumped to clip, and I have it in my head that falling just isn't an option. Quickdraws become my favorite clipping jugs. Relieved that I'm "no longer in danger" but frustrated with myself for letting fear hold me back, yet again. I've climbed V10 highball boulders for Pete's sake, why am I taking on 5.12a??

Not only did I 'take' in the middle of this route, I couldn't even finish it. I left my draws, got lowered and didn't climb for the rest of the day.

I'm afraid of falling. Obviously.

I'm not worried I'll hit the ground, that's not it. I hit the ground bouldering pretty often, actually 100% of the time. So what is it?? What is paralyzing me and holding me back so drastically?

I posed this question on my Facebook page and received some insightful and entertaining replies. I know I shouldn't be surprised, but it felt great to know that I was definitely not alone. A lot of the feedback stated that the fear comes and goes, there are good days and bad days, and a few practice whips will put me right back in the game. I decided to post some of my favorites below.

Mike I think it has something to do with gravity

Landen once a rope is attached to me, I look like I have Parkinson's.

Andrea DiGiulian I'm afraid of Sasha falling all the time!!

Claire Yes falling is SCARY!!!! Take a small amount of Xanax you'll be fine

Sean Everytime i tie in it's like Ive forgotten how to climb.

Alton I have MAJOR issues with as well. And yet we can highball comfortably in Bishop? Whats our deal?!

Michael dive into something that requires you to think more about the moves than anything else. that's where fall consequences take a back seat. get psyched on something and it'll dissipate.

John Yes. The fear can swell up and make your legs Elvis, make you hold your breath. That weakens your strength, turns out not just your lungs need oxygen. The mental struggle is what all climbers have. Whether it's a climber on a 5/8 to a climber on a 5/15, to help control your fear. You can train your body and make it stronger than you have ever been. The fear can still grab you and turn you mushy. Calmness in the face of adversity, is a great asset. Self confidence is a asset. You need to have a swagger. Eventually you can will yourself past it. Trust the skill of your belayer. Trust the gear. Try not to think about the bolts in the rock. My Coach John Myrick would say, do you need a straw? Why. So you can suck it up.

Brent I once hated falling!Pumped as shit and chicken winging like crazy just to hang on and not fall. Machine gun "takes" (take take take take take!!!) one foot above my last clip. Lol
Now days, mostly laughter with a huge sigh of relief follows. Oh yea, and a smile! It's only bc we lose sight of the moment and start think about the future. Which you have no control over. We "expect" something. The best and least scary ones come when an unexpected foot blows or a hold breaks. Nothing you can "control" there. Silly boulder-ers. Climb to the top, slap the chains, and "WHIP IT, WHIP IT GOOD"!
Oh and trust your knot before you leave the ground! Derrr.

Mary I was terrified for a really long time, but that's because I would stop and overthink a certain move and wouldn't continue if I thought I would fall. It got to a point where I wouldn't lead a 5.7 when I consistently could toprope 11+. It definitely is a mental issue that you can't let control you.

Justin It happened to me so much when I started sport climbing. Something that helped me was to get on stuff that was harder than I could really climb. You know you're gunna fall and you just work on when and how. If it's falling at the crux it just helps cause I'll fall over and over again and gradually you are a little more confident in falling. You got this, the hard part for you will be finding routes outside your grade. ;)

Jennifer It's not the fear of falling it's the mistrust between you and your equipment. Or plummeting to your death. I just experienced an Alex Honnold moment, as I like to call it, last weekend. My boyfriend told me to sing to myself. So I did! I started singing Miley Cyrus We can Do What We Want To because it was a running joke with my friends while we were all on Alaskan adventure. I was able to calm my nerves and climb my first 5.9 and come 6ft from completing my first 5.10b. It was amazing!

Colin Alex - This same thing is happening to me. The weird thing is that I used to be able push myself until I fell. It scared me to fall of course but it wasn't a huge deal. Now suddenly, for what reason I don't know, I've dropped two grades off my norm this year and have bailed off several climbs I normally would try and push through because I'm terrified that I'm going to fall. Please share any insight you come across. And thank you for sharing your fears for the rest of us to see we're not the only ones.

Savannah Yes. We are afraid of the consequences from falling, at least that's what I am afraid of. I often fear that something will happen like my leg getting stuck behind the rope or I slam into the wall, etc. I don't think I fear falling... I just fear what could happen if it were to go wrong. Fear of the unknown is such a bitch... It affects all aspects of my life! I guess it's one of those things you have to learn to just let go of... Know that whatever happens happens for a reason.

As you can see, I got some pretty funny ones, and am grateful for the helpful ones. So many people validated my fears and offered advice. I was also gaining more insights into my own head by reading the explanations of others. Honestly, I've been so lucky to have never taken a really bad fall. My fear was purely mental, and my hesitant climbing was making everything worse. Second guessing my capabilities could cause an even more dangerous fall.

I figured I'd try again. I went back up to the crag. I was so determined not to be afraid. My plan was to practice falling and feign confidence; which is usually my advice to pretty much everyone who asks: act like a badass. Even if you don't feel like one, fake it. Eventually if you fake it long enough you'll start to believe it.

I warmed up on a climb in the 5.11 range, got about six clips up, made a few more moves, and pressed away from the wall. I fell about a whopping four feet. Pulled back on, went a few moves higher this time, and same thing--another mellow, soft little fall. I did this four or five times, each time I climbed a little higher and fell a little further. I was starting to feel pretty good about it.

Then I got on that same 12a that I 'took' on. I feigned my confidence the entire way up that thing, punching through the moves, not even thinking twice about what might happen if I pitched off, and I soon found myself clipping the chains.

Time to test this theory on something harder! I chose an exposed arete with an overhanging crux and a tenuous finish. I made my way up to the crux and went for it, with gusto, falling multiple times, and not little falls, either! Powering through, I found myself clipping the chains on this one as well, and even though I didn't send, I felt relieved and proud to have pushed through this mental block I've been having with sport climbing for the past few months. Today was the first day I felt like a rock climber in a long time.

I wasn't expecting my "results" to completely 180, and I'm still not. Of course I know there'll be good days and bad days, and some days I'll be terrified again. But to have just one day where I felt normal again has made this whole thing worth it.

Thanks to everyone who posted for making me feel human, sharing your stories, giving advice, and making me laugh.

Good luck!


  1. Great post (as usual), Alex. This makes your birthday challenge even more impressive!

    I think part of why highballs are somehow less scary for some is that the consequences of falling are a known quantity, whereas falling on a rope, particularly for the less experienced sport climber, involves a lot of unknowns: what if my leg gets caught, what if my belayer has too much slack out, what if a bolt blows out! But those are all fears, and as a wise lady told me recently, fear isn't real. It's imagined.

    Keep trying and keep falling. Life off the deck is sweet.

  2. This is a valuable post. thanks for sharing this.

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