Climbing is supposed to be fun, never lose sight of that! However, climbing can be scary too. Sometimes that fear is justified; for truly there can be severe consequences for anyone throwing their body around in high places with less-than-fluffy landings. In places we know are safe enough, that fear isn’t serving it’s purpose. It’s keeping us from performing at our highest levels and enjoying the rock to the fullest.
Risk assessment is the most important skill you can develop as a climber, and it’s far too much material to cover here, but I think we can all identify with times that we logically knew falling was safe… and yet we were too afraid to make another move, and became overcome with hesitation.
That’s the sort of fear I’d like to address. This deep animal-fear of high places and falling, even when we know in our heads that everything is safe. It’s frustrating knowing you held back from giving your best because of fear, especially when you suspect that you could’ve made the move otherwise.
I’m far from the reigning authority on mental training for climbers, but it seems I’ve got something going for me in that department. Whether I’m runout on poor gear, pushing for the desperate crux move on a safe sport route, or high off the deck on a multi-pitch bouldering run, I’ve come up with a few tactics to keep my head together, I hope they can help!
I was leading in a gym, took the fall, and my belayer dropped the rope. I fell 35ft to the ground fracturing two vertebrae. Needless to say, when I came back to climbing I was a bit skeptical that this whole “belay” thing would actually keep me from becoming dead. The key to recovery was simple, but subtle. I had to find the edge of my comfort zone, and slowly push it outward.
The first step is to find the most extreme, but safe, situation in which you are simply uncomfortable with the idea of falling. Somewhere you are not afraid, not terrified, but simply uncomfortable, even though you know in your head it’s going to be OK. For me, I didn’t even trust a top-rope, but I was comfortable taking bouldering falls, so for me the ideal zone was to stack a crash pad at the base of the wall, clip the first bolt and take repeated falls below the bolt until I felt comfortable falling on command.
Next I pushed it to falling with the second bolt pre-clipped, then the third. Once I’d established comfort falling below these bolts, I started pushing it a little more. I fell as my knot was even with the third bolt. Next I climbed until my knot was even with the fourth, I noted the discomfort, and performed controlled falls until I was comfortable. Then I pushed slightly above it. And so on, up the wall, higher and higher, lengthening the falls only once I became truly comfortable with the current step. It took about 4 months for me to regain my confidence in the ropes, but it worked! Now I can confidently take a fall anywhere, anytime, as long as I know in my head I am safe.
It was spooky, it made me uncomfortable, but I wasn’t terrified. Discomfort is where we, as humans, grow and progress forward. We have a natural tendency to shirk away from the unknown and stay in a place we know we have mastered. This is useful, it keeps us from doing crazy things that could get us hurt, but the key is to perform a risk assessment whenever you experience fear. Afterwards you should stop, think back, and decide whether the fear was a response to actual danger, or hesitation from pushing outside your own realm of mastery. If it was the latter, then perhaps you’ve found a good spot to grow as a climber! Just remember, it takes time, progress is slow. After all, you are re-writing your instincts, and your mind doesn’t give those up easily. But be warned, if you push yourself to the point of terror and fear, then you will only re-enforce those fear-based instincts causing a feedback loop which further entrenches your hesitation and limits your enjoyment of climbing.
I sometimes would notice that I had a tendency to “chicken-clip” and “chicken-whip.” By “chicken-clip,” I mean I would get anxious, thinking I couldn’t clip from the necessary holds, grab the nearest off-route hold, and clip the next draw for a temporary top-rope. TAKE! “Chicken-whip” means coming into a move I thought I could not do, and taking a whipper (a.k.a. lead-fall) rather than try to make the uncertain moves.
The problem wasn’t that I feared the fall, I had already overcome that. The main problem was that I was too lazy to re-climb, boink, or do whatever was required to get back up to that spot and “wasting” that effort made me uncomfortable. Think about where you climb the most. There are probably a good many routes that you KNOW you could send on-command, right now. Pick the hardest one of those routes, and get on it.
Great send! Now climb it again. and again. and again. Pick your most trusted belayer and, climb laps on it until you fall off. Here’s the catch: You’re not allowed to chicken-whip, or chicken-clip under any circumstances. Choose the hardest route that you know you can send on-command, with safe falls on the whole route. Even if you absolutely KNOW that you can’t make the move, or can’t make the clip try with everything you have. PUNCH IT IRMA! You just might discover that you had a lot more in the tank than you anticipated. I’ve seen people climb for 50’ straight thinking “there’s no way I can make another move!!!” But somehow they completed the whole route! You get stronger without having to wait for the results of finger-boarding to kick-in!
Sometimes it’s not safe. Sometimes there is actually some good reason to be afraid of falling, and you’re stuck, committed, and you can’t back off. Sometimes you have fears on a route that no amount of falling or trickery will save you from. When I started climbing I was terribly afraid of heights. I was terrified, and that was the entire reality of my situation. Every move trickled more dread, adrenaline and fear into my system, threatening to overload my senses, but it wasn’t over yet.
Just wait. Don’t make another move. Stop. Pause, breathe. Think. This hand-hold is good enough, this foothold is sticking. I’m not going anywhere right now, I’ve got time. Use that time. Breathe, let your heart rate come down, and stop thinking about the fear. Think about what you have going for you, because you’re not falling yet, but if you keep hurtling towards overload you definitely will. Pause, create some space in your head where you can think again, focus on that breath. Pause, look at the fear and just inspect it in your mind. Realize that the fear is just a sensation like heat, cold, nervousness, or wind on your skin. Once the waters of your mind have stilled enough to think again, perform a risk-assessment and come up with a plan to climb on or back-off.
The important thing is to think and act, rather than marinate in the
terror and react desperately without control. Building this habit of control in stressful situations will serve you well both on, and off the rock!
Lazy Projecting:Some folks like to take on the “Never say take!” method of climbing, which can is great for performance, when you’re trying to climb your hardest, but greatly limits your ability to project routes and discover beta. Instead I prefer to take on gym projects with a Take-Take-Fall approach. Climb until very hear your limit, TAKE! Shake off, rest, recover, climb to another “take” position. Shake off, rest, recover, climb straight until failure. This way you can figure out moves and beta, and still maintain your mental training all in the same run!
After a practicing you might find yourself climbing through your two “takes” then reaching the anchors without falling. Now cut it down to Take-Fall, when you reach the top this way you know the send is imminent, and you can begin climbing straight until you fall. Then the key is simply to push your high point farther and farther up each day.
It’s important to set goals whenever you climb, and even more so when training. If you don’t have any goal, how do you know if the training is working? How can you select methods to train with no target in mind? Having fun in the climbing gym is a worth goal, but I see many climbers frustrated with their current levels of performance wanting more, but not knowing how.
The simplest shift you can make to get better is to designate a goal for your climbing day. Are you here to send, to train your body, or train your mind? Any of these are compatible with having fun, and showing up just to have fun is crucial for maintaining stoke and preventing burnout. But when you want to progress you have to decide: Do I want to send, or do I want to become a better climber?
Sending is just a demonstration of the ability you already have, if you really want to get better then you have to push yourself to the limit. If you’re truly at your limit, you’re bound to fall. And if you’re uncomfortable with falling, you’ll inevitably fall short of your limit and progress slower. Just don’t forget, no-one ever built strength in a gym, on the rock, or on a hangboard. They built their strength asleep in bed the during nights after a high-quality training session! So if your body is sore, sometimes sitting on the couch is the best training program you could hope for. Resting after a good session is like building strength without having to work!