A guide to fall practice that actually works

This thing ran long, far longer than I intended when I started writing; if you fail to read the whole thing, that’s fine. I mean, its 3500 4500 4700 4900 5000 words long for Pete’s sake! This article is meant to serve as a reference guide. If you only read the intro and then scroll down to the information that’s pertinent to your climbing, I won’t be offended. I tried to list things in order from least objective danger to the most objective danger, so naturally trad and bouldering are at the end, but they’re in here, I promise! Just keep scrolling.

We’re all familiar, to some degree, with the prevailing wisdom on fall practice, “whipper therapy” as some call it. We’ve all had friends say that you just need to “get over it” or “take the fall” as if that’s some magic cure to overcoming your fear. I’d be willing to bet you also know folks who have tried this and only come away more shaken and afraid. Some of you have attempted to coach your friends through fear on the wall, you send them up, they become afraid, you tell them to take the fall, they do it, it’s terrifying, and you’ve successfully reinforced the fact that the scary thing is scary to them. Nothing changed. You keep convincing them to take falls and every time they come away with greater and greater trepidation. When someone has a fear of falling, the problem often isn’t that they think it’s dangerous, the problem is that they feel like it’s dangerous. There’s a vast difference between the perceived danger and actual danger that’s present. If you’re reading this, you’ve likely been trained well and seen enough people climbing to know that, in most scenarios, the risk is low. Yet we’re still afraid. The feeling of fear is divorced from the level of danger present.

Taking long falls to conquer the fear does work for some people, but it doesn’t work for everyone. We need additional tools to work with fear and build a sense of comfort on the wall for everyone who wishes to develop mastery. You become what you practice. If you practice being afraid, you will become fearful. There is no need whatsoever for mental training to be frightening. Given everything we know about belays, the strength of gear, and various hard-skills involved with climbing, we know it’s possible to climb safely without risking injury. A phobia is defined as “a strong, irrational fear of something that poses little or no real danger.” Now, I’m no psychologist (I just have a tendency to peruse Wikipedia articles) and I’m not saying you have a phobia; however, insights from the processes of overcoming phobias can inform our practice regarding a fear of falling.

One tactic, known as flooding, involves taking the subject and exposing them directly to the source of the fear to push them through it. Imagine taking someone who is afraid of cars, throwing them in the passenger seat and driving around for hours until they calm down. It might work, or it might make them utterly hysterical. According to the Wikipedia article on Flooding: “This is a faster (yet less efficient and more traumatic) method of ridding fears when compared with systematic desensitization. In order to demonstrate the irrationality of the fear, a psychologist would put a person in a situation where they would face their phobia at its worst.” Flooding is the equivalent of the standard “whipper therapy” approach. Afraid of falling? Take some massive falls! Afraid of spiders? Let’s fill your bathtub with them and hop in!

Desensitization can be tailored to the individual, and this is what makes it so useful. You start by identifying which scenarios cause the most fear and slowly gain confidence with them one by one time using relaxation techniques, starting with the least frightening and working your way up. The methods I put forth in this article have worked the best for me and my own fear of falling, and I’ve used it to help many people overcome their fear. It’s less traumatic and much more efficient compared to “whipper therapy” and I’ve found it works for a much broader range of people whether it’s your first time wrestling with your mind or you’re simply recovering the mental game after an accident. As an added benefit, using this method will arm you with mental tools to better cope with fears on the wall in a general sense. Even better, it arms you with the ability to handle your fears in the moment as they occur instead of being overwhelmed. You simply can’t get that from whipper therapy.

The Big Idea:
The idea for my theories on mental training are simple: Isolate one variable at a time, then start with the easiest situation possible. Slowly increment the complexity or “extreme-ness” as you become comfortable until you feel relaxed in every climbing scenario in which you know your system is safe. My preferred relaxation technique is to stop what you’re doing, pause mid move (or while hanging on the rope) and just breathe. Focus on the breath as it comes in and out and feel your heart rate start to lower. Once it does, you may progress forward. Think Yoga, do climbing.

  1. Learn the systems well so you know how to make safety.
  2. Find a place to practice where you can implement a safe system.
  3. Find the most extreme scenario where you know that you are safe, and you feel comfortable.
  4. Move forward to a situation where you know you are safe and you feel just a little bit uncomfortable. Not extreme fear, not anything overwhelming, just a little bit of nervousness. Anywhere you find a place where your heart rate starts to increase due to stress is a good place to practice, as long as it hasn’t progressed to the point of outright fear.
  5. Practice trusting the safety system in this situation until it feels comfortable. If you start to get overwhelmed or genuinely scared, just stop. Don’t scream “take,” don’t jump off, don’t sprint up to finish the climb, just pause right where you are and start breathing slowly until you’ve reached a state of calm. Once you’ve regained calm, then you can make a decision to either continue or conclude practice for the day.
  6. Move a little further up, go back to step #4 and find a new and exciting place that makes you a little nervous and practice there until you feel fully comfortable.
  7. Repeat these steps until you instinctively feel comfortable in every situation where you know you are safe or feel you’ve made a good amount of progress for the day.
  8. Get out and enjoy some happy climbing!

Now that you’ve got a general idea, I’ll go step by step for growing comfortable on the wall for those of you who like an increased level of detail. We’ll start with toprope, then work to sport climbing, then trad climbing, and finally I’ll finish with a few tips for boulderers at the end. It’s important to remember that mental training should not be scary if you’re doing it right! If you feel overwhelmed, it’s usually best to ease off and back down to a place where you only feel a little nervous or uncomfortable. On the other hand, if a particular exercise is already comfortable for you, keep reading and push it up to the next step! Remember, though, we’re only working in safe terrain. One important note is to assess any risks or objective dangers from the ground and decide whether those risks are acceptable to you. Once you know what you’re in for and intellectually accept that it is safe, you’ve laid a solid foundation for your practice. Since we’re isolating one variable at a time, it’s better not to leave yourself assessing risk mid-climb.

It’s important to read from a variety of sources for climbing training
New to climbing (Top-rope Tips):
When you first start climbing, it’s normal not to trust the rope. Fear of heights is normal, and fear of falling is a sane quality to possess in most situations. Fortunately for those of us who have a psychological impediment that requires us to spend time high off the ground, engineers have designed some rather robust safety systems that can remove the need for fear in many climbing situations (though by no means all). Now, I can tell you all day that these ropes are strong enough to suspend my truck from the ceiling of Stone Summit, and it’s good to know that in your head, but it’s quite another thing to feel that safety instinctively and relax while climbing. Actually, that is an important point in its own right: If you go about it in the right way, climbing becomes a relaxing experience. The operative idea is that it’s a good idea to feel safe in all the places where you truly are safe. Fear makes climbing stressful and far less enjoyable. Imagine being able to relax on the wall as you do in a yoga practice (assuming you’ve ever done that), that’s the sort of payoff I’m talking about. For the following drills, it’s best to start practice on a vertical wall, we’ll get to the overhangs later.

First thing’s first, let’s prove the rope will hold:
The biggest fear at the beginning is fear of heights (at least, it was for me), and this becomes overwhelming when you find yourself with burning forearms 50’ above the floor. We’ll start a little closer to the ground. Find the easiest climb in the gym and start climbing. Picking something easy is important because the fear of falling is stressful enough already, adding the extra stress of increased difficulty will make the fear much harder to handle.

Once you get a few body lengths off the ground, call for a “take.” Now, take a deep breath, relax, and let go of the wall. Sit down on your gear and feel that it’s holding you. Now, if you’ve reached out and grabbed a hold from instinct, let go of the wall again. Just sit still and breathe until you feel somewhat relaxed while fully supported by your gear. Start climbing again and repeat this process until you instinctively feel confident the rope will hold you can begin to relax while calling for a “take” anywhere on the wall.

Note to belayers: “Take” is shorthand for “take my weight,” and it’s an active activity. Don’t just lock off the belay and stare at your climber. Pull in the slack, then lock off the rope, and sit down into the rope so you support your climber and absorb the stretch. Feeling that the rope is slack after saying “take” is far from confidence inspiring. Feeling that tension is essential when giving a proper “take.” In outdoor scenarios where climbers have to clean gear from bolted anchors, that tension is the only way the climber can know they are safely on belay. If you don’t feel that tension, unclipping from the anchor and trusting the rope is akin to playing Russian Roulette with a loaded revolver.

Next: Trusting the belay:
Now that you trust the rope for holding your weight, start climbing again. This time, pause and announce “falling” once you’ve climbed a few body-lengths. Belayers, don’t give your climber a “take,” this is supposed to be a small fall. If this made you nervous, sit and relax on the rope until your heart rate and breathing have returned to normal so you can relax a little. Continue climbing up the wall, periodically jumping/falling off. After you’ve grown comfortable with announced falls, the next step is to repeat the process with un-announced falls until you feel comfortable giving it your all, even on the most improbable moves!

Finally: Swing Falls
Up to this point, we’ve ben assuming you’re working on a vertical wall where the potential for swinging is rather small, but climbing terrain isn’t always so simple. Sometimes your anchors will be offset from the base of a route, or the wall can be overhung causing you to swing when you fall. Another reason to practice this skill is to learn which swings are safe. If you’re not yet sure, start small! Move a little to the left of the anchor and practice falling there, and then gradually move farther away to see how large of a swing you can get away with. Be careful, use your judgment, don’t engage in anything risky, and don’t be an idiot. This isn’t something to practice in the gym on a crowded night where you can smash into other climbers, or belayers, or entangle their ropes.

Keep in mind that your swing velocity is related to the angle that your rope has strayed from vertical. Because of this, it’s safer to take a swing offset from the anchor while you’re low down. In doing so you may swing further, but you’ll swing with a lower velocity than you would near the top of the route, and this gives you time to get your bearings and avoid swinging into something if you’ve made a mistake in your setup. This can be a good thing to practice at the climbing gym since they typically won’t hang a toprope anywhere you’re in danger, but you have to remember that it’s a shared space. Wildly swinging about can pose a hazard for others, not just yourself, be aware of your surroundings. Remember, the goal is to feel safe when you are safe, so don’t practice anywhere that seems dangerous outside. For swing falls, use common sense, make sure you’ve climbed higher than head-height, lest you swing around and kick people. It’s worth noting that a swift kick to the head is not a great way to introduce yourself to new climbers.

Sport Climbing:
Sport climbing can require at times that you take an actual free-fall instead of sagging onto the rope. This is a new level of engagement, so make sure you’re comfortable with toprope first. I’ve seen a few novice leaders that still didn’t trust the toprope system, so practicing falls on lead was counter-productive. They had to return to the basics. You should practice all of these drills on routes with safe, clean falls. Vertical or overhung walls with closely spaced bolts and routes that travel straight with no traverses are preferred. It might seem a little weird coming from your friendly neighborhood soloist, but this really is one of those safety-first situations. With training, it’s important to practice one variable at a time for the best effect. Since we’re working on your mental game, it’s important to remove as many variables that cause danger as possible. On that note, try to avoid any falls with swings until you’ve grown entirely comfortable with vertical falls.

Top-rope whippers:
Let’s start at the start, most folks feel comfortable jumping off the wall while close to the ground, just like you would while bouldering. Clip the first bolt while it’s still above your head and take a fall. If this is still too intimidating, begin by stacking crash-pads at the base of the wall until you feel okay enough to fall willingly. I was tremendously embarrassed the first time I decided to pull over crash pads in the gym for fall practice, but there was no need to feel self-conscious. We are not alone in this endeavor; people are very understanding about mental work! Fall here, below your first bolt, repeatedly until you instinctively feel that the rope will catch you. After each fall, rest on the ground for a moment to collect yourself (since you’re so close to the floor there’s little point in hanging in your harness, it’s just not terribly comfortable). Don’t repeat the exercise until you have returned to a state of calm. Once you’re comfortable falling at the first bolt, move up to the second bolt, and the third, and so on until you feel comfortable performing this exercise anywhere on the wall.

Small Falls:
Up to this point, you were essentially on top-rope since the bolts were clipped above your head, but now we’ll begin taking actual falls, albeit short ones. Climb to the third or fourth bolt (we want to be clear of any ground level obstacles, such as your belayer’s cranium), and take a fall once your knot is level with the bolt. Pause, breathe, collect yourself, and let go. After the fall, pause, breathe, collect yourself, and continue. Relax as much as you can between repetitions. Repeat the fall at each bolt until it feels comfortable and “normal,” then move up to the next bolt and so on until you feel comfortable falling anywhere on the wall. At first you may need to announce your falls to feel more secure, I know I sure did, but the key is to practice this until you feel comfortable taking those falls without any warning. Once you’ve mastered that, move on to the next step!

Whipper Therapy!
I know I’m always talking bad about taking whippers (longer falls) for mental training, decrying the practice as counter-productive, but it truly IS part of the process. The problem is that it’s a very poor place to begin the process, and some folks mistake it for being the entire process. However, now that you’ve felt successful with drills listed above, we’re ready for some rather conventional fall-practice!

Again, climb to the third or fourth bolt to be clear of any obstacles. Climb until your knot is 12 inches above the bolt, take a breath, try to stay calm, take a practice fall. As with prior drills, repeat this fall until you feel calm, and move up to the next bolt. After some time, you’ll likely become comfortable with these short falls, and you can begin moving even further above the bolt. Good benchmarks I’ve found for indoor fall practice are falling 12 inches (one foot) above your bolt, falling with the bolt at knee level, falling with the bolt at foot level, and falling with your knot near the next bolt. That last suggestion represents the “worst case scenario” at your local gym, if you can feel confident with this then you can feel comfortable anywhere on the wall!

One last note:
Now, the difference between indoor and outdoor climbing represents a sharp break for some, so it’s entirely possible that you still find yourself feeling fear outside. If that’s the case, perform a little bit of fall practice during your warm up at the crag each day to build your instincts for outdoors climbing as well! Performing these drills during the warmup has always been particularly effective because it won’t cut into your “climbing time” when you’re itching to send, and it will avoid straining too hard thus increasing the effectiveness of your warm up!

Trad is Rad!
Cams and nuts have been designed and engineered as units for fall protection. That means they have been specially created for the purpose of catching falling humans when they are used properly. Today I’m not going to tell you how to use them properly, that could be the subject of an entire book. Actually, it is the subject of an entire book. GO, READ THAT BOOK! Even if you don’t climb trad. If you climb outside in any capacity, read this book. It is an excellent primer in the fine art of not-killing-yourself. And then, once you’ve read that book, read the trad climber’s bible. Those books just might save your life, if you let them.

Trad is a touch more complicated than sport, there are no pre-placed bolts or anchors to designate your stopping points, so naturally staying safe will depend on your abilities of risk-assessment and your competency with gear placements. Again, we want to practice on a vertical or slightly overhung climb that is relatively straight with minimal traverses. You should be completely comfortable with all of the sport-climbing fall-drills before starting this section and very competent with your gear placements. If you are not competent with your gear placements, bring a friend who is. And then read “Climbing Anchors” by John Long. Actually, on second thought, read that book before you practice. Yes, I hot-linked his book four separate times, its that important.

This crap is voodoo magic, and I don’t trust it one damn bit!
I think that could be a good title for my autobiography. “This crap is voodoo magic, and I don’t trust it one damn bit: The Austin Howell Story.” Now all I have to do is go out and do something exciting that’s worth writing about! This could take a while….

I mean, just look at a cam. It looks like a death metal band’s interpretation of a mushroom. It’s not inherently obvious that it will save you from the grip of gravity. So it’s usually best to start over at the very beginning, much like the first-time climber who doesn’t trust the rope, we have to learn that a new piece of gear can be trusted. To a certain extent. When used properly. *cough* Have you read that book yet? (it’s linked five times now, you have no excuse.)

“Take!”
Once you’ve found an appropriate route, lead about half-way up placing gear with a “normal” safe spacing. If you don’t trust your gear, send your qualified friend up to build a two-piece anchor at the half-way point, or somewhere where you can fall safely, then climb up, clip the anchor, and place one piece of your own just a few inches above the mini-anchor. This is your practice station. One benefit of having a friend build your mini-anchor while you’re placing the cams for fall practice is that it will allow you to develop trust in your own placements while knowing that something solid is in the wall in case you screw up. On the other hand, if you DO trust your own judgment and are quite competent with your placements, it’s best to build your own practice station.

Now, try to relax and call for a “take.” Pull onto the wall and inspect your gear to make sure it hasn’t wiggled into a poor placement, if everything looks good call for another “take,” repeat this process until you feel comfortable letting the cam hold your weight, and you instinctively feel confident that your gear will hold. If this is too frightening, bring extra gear and start cramming pieces in the wall until it finally feels safe. I once performed this drill with a two-piece equalized anchor and six additional pieces. Eight pieces total in a 4-foot long span, with a decent sized audience since it was a busy day at the crag. Hey, everybody has to start somewhere right?

One critical point:
After every time you weight your gear you really should inspect your placements to make sure they are still solid. Trad gear tends to wiggle when weighted, repeated falls can wiggle your pieces out of the wall. This is why we have at least one backup piece, just in case. It’s better to have it and not need it than to encourage gear failure.

Fall Progression:
Return to your practice station, and practice each of these scenarios until you grow comfortable with them:

  1. Announced falls, below your highest piece. Just like “toprope whippers” in the sport climbing section.
  2. Unannounced falls, below your highest piece.
  3. Unannounced falls, 12 inches above your piece. Just like the “small falls” drill in the sport climbing section
  4. Un-announced falls, with the gear at knee level.
  5. Un-announced falls, with the gear at foot-level.

Practice each of these until you feel comfortable with the fall at this particular practice station.

The next steps:
Eventually, you want to develop enough understanding of the gear to build your own practice station, and then to build enough confidence to reduce the size of your practice station to only two or three pieces. We want to get comfortable with the knowledge that our gear will hold WITHOUT sacrificing safety by removing too many pieces from the system. How few is too few? That’s a personal judgment call, all I can say is make sure John Long would approve of your anchor system, and you’ll probably be alright. Once you’ve got a small and sleek practice station, the final step is to start practicing in other places with more exciting terrain. Experiment, keep it lively but keep it safe. You want to gain experiential knowledge of when and where it is actually safe to fall, and not split your cranium on an upward-facing guillotine flake.

Um…. this is how bouldering works, right? Photo Cred: Stephanie Harabaglia

Decking Practice Bouldering Practice:
This is tricky. Every fall while bouldering is a ground-fall, so we must be careful. If you have a particular boulder problem that you want to send, but fear is shutting you down, it is possible to carefully and systematically work on this fear. The crux of the issue is this: Are you safe?

Start at the beginning and consider what would happen if you fell off. Does it feel safe? Are you okay falling while attempting the move? Even better, look from the ground up and decide how high you’re willing to go. Once you know what will be safe, we can establish a zone for practice. Once your toes are a foot or two off the ground, jump back down to the pad. Then do the same one move higher. Now another move higher. Slowly practice inching your way higher and higher, stop as soon as you feel unsafe. The key is to feel safe falling in all the places where you are not in danger but to do that you have to familiarize yourself with falling to use proper technique. It helps to ask folks how to fall properly; it helps to practice short falls an attempt to make them as comfortable as possible. Start in the gym with a well-padded floor. Take special care if you’ve had ankle or leg injuries, you don’t’ want to make them worse.

Just like our practice sessions for the other disciplines of climbing, you want to practice each fall multiple times so that you feel comfortable with it. If you can’t get comfortable with the fall, that’s an indicator that you may be pushing too far above the ground, and you’re getting a little too close to the danger zone. For bouldering practice, I feel it’s of particular importance to have external supervision from someone you trust. Since every fall is a ground fall, it’s important to take extreme caution. Sometimes you are right to be afraid of falling. Bouldering is always an exercise in proper judgment.

Calm climbing is safe climbing:
Terrified climbing isn’t fun climbing. Terrified climbing isn’t safe climbing. When you’re frightened, it’s easy to make hasty reactionary decisions that can put you in danger. I know a climber who shouted “take” while he was above a nut placed for a downward pull. Since he was above the piece, the tension on his rope pulled the gear sideways and ripped it out of the crack. He decked from thirty feet. Luckily he only needed staples in his head and was able to walk out. I knew a climber who called take while sport climbing above his bolt, the weight of the belayer slammed him into the wall. He smashed into the wall with such force that he compound-fractured his leg. Once the doctors installed a sufficient number of screws and pins he was able to walk, but never quite could climb again. In either of these situations, the climbers would have been safe and injury-free had they just taken the fall, but fear clouded their decisions and ended their climbing day, or climbing career.

Controlling your fear is essential to being safe, and essential to having good fun on the wall. That’s why I’ve been writing these articles lately. I see a lot of climbers struggling with fears on the wall, they read books and posts on the Internet and come away scratching their head confused trying advice that’s ineffective or that makes their problems worse. All you have to do is start small and live in your discomfort zone for a little while to chip away at your fear from the sides until it’s small enough to handle!

You don’t have to take me at my word, though, try it! If it doesn’t work, you can come back, throw a drink in my face and call me a liar. What do you have to lose? All of these exercises are designed to fit in your warmup, so it’s not like you’re missing out on hard sends or time spent on your project. I’m confident in these methods because I’ve seen them work. I’ve got this idea that climbing doesn’t have to be scary; it can be comfortable and relaxing!

One thing that became apparent to me as I recovered from my injuries was the amount of habits that filled my life that I couldn’t justify. If you can’t find a reason for your habits, perhaps they aren’t doing anyone any good? And what kind of life is that? I’ve questioned why I bother to keep up this blog a few times over the past year and questioned why I would continue to do so. In the end, I decided that a post is worth writing and publishing as long as it has a chance to be helpful to someone. For me, the best things in life come from helping others to accomplish their goals and have fun. It’s all about spreading that Good Mojo! If that’s not a good reason to write, I don’t know what is, so here’s hoping this advice helps you as much as it did me! And maybe, just maybe, together we can lead a paradigm shift in the accepted methods for overcoming our fears and find peace on the wall!

Cheers, and Happy Climbing!
Austin Howell – Atlanta Climbing Coach

“Always pass on what you have learned” – Yoda

Conquering Your Fear of Flying

I’ve got a secret, one that nobody seems keen on spreading: Conquering your fear of falling is easy, and it follows a very simple easily explainable process. (PS: I feel that first sentence sounds like clickbait, and I apologize)

Why should you care? Only because climbing is the most fun thing in the world, and it’s a lot less fun when you’re terrified. Sure, that terror will also limit how hard you can climb, but nobody really cares how hard you can climb. “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun”, and if you’re terrified, that’s not you. Conquering your fear of falling is useful because it makes climbing more fun, and that lets you become the best climber in the world!

But hold on, why should you listen to me? I haven’t published any books, I’m not a competition climbing coach, I haven’t climbed anything notable, and high-school girls have been known to onsight my projects at the gym. Essentially, in the grand scheme of things, I’m a nobody. But… I’ve been smashed by gravity. In the course of my climbing experience I’ve smashed a fair number of random body parts, and that made me afraid. When I first learned to lead-climb I quickly overcame my fear of falling, as many people do, by practicing long falls. Since that time I’ve had a series of unfortunate accidents, each one re-instilled a fear of gravity within me, each one shattered my trust in the belay system. Taking long falls was out of the question due to the fear it caused within me. Despite this, each time I became injured I still managed to overcome my fears and come back stronger than ever.

Post Edit Note/disclaimer: Those injuries are not indicative of climbing in general, and are not indicative of the situations described in this article. I have been injured while engaging in dangerous situations. During my recovery and afterward this caused me to feel fear even in safe situations. This article is one option for learning how to feel safe when you know that you ARE safe. This is advice does not pertain to unsafe or uncertain scenarios. The only reason that I bring up the injuries at all is to point out that these techniques work even for folks like me who have experienced intense bouts of recurring fear.

Oops I did it again...
Oops I did it again…

You should listen to me because I am a nobody. I overcame my fears enough times to become practiced at overcoming fear. It’s not an ability I was born with; I had to learn it the hard way. I have no super-powers or special abilities, but I’ve had the luck misfortune opportunity to work through these fears a few times more than most people. My superpower is that I’ve been afraid more often than anybody I know, so hell… If I can do it, anybody can! And yes, I mean you.

Don’t Take the Whipper!
Mental training might make you a little nervous, but it should never make you outright terrified. If you’re afraid, we’re doing it wrong. Whoever decided that taking massive falls is the “silver bullet” magic-cure for fears on the wall was terribly misguided. Jumping off the wall ta a great height where you start to get overwhelmed with fear and only reinforces your instinct that falling is terrifying no matter how safe the system is, for most people anyhow. However, there is a certain subset of folks who can greatly benefit from this, and they are the reason the myth keeps lingering. They’ll proudly proclaim “It worked great for me!” with all the best intentions of the world, and it did, for them, but it’s a very small view of the complete solution. I’ll begin the discussion by talking directly towards the largest audience, sport climbers, but at the end eventually in my next post I’ll bring things full circle to include new climbers who are afraid on toprope, trad climbing, and even boulderers! (in other words, the next post will be a great read for anyone who’s introduced a friend to climbing and been dismayed by the fact that your friend was terrified the whole time. Hint: screaming “c’mon, it’s only toprope!” Isn’t helpful).

Relax, It’s only Rock Climbing!
All of these drills are best performed during your warm-up. The point of this is to isolate variables. When you’re tired it’s natural to feel more insecure, and that insecurity leads to an increase of fear and anxiety on the wall. If you’re anything like most of us, you’re dealing with enough of that already!It’s also worth noting that taking falls when you’re a touch nervous tends to raise the heart rate and can get some people just a little “amped up” with adrenaline. Now, I don’t advocate climbing for adrenaline, but in this particular instance we can make our fears work for us as a pretty good warm up. That little release of adrenaline and twinge of uncertainty developed in fall practice can help raise your heart-rate and core temperature, which readies you for climbing stronger for the rest of the day.

See! Fun! that's what climbing is all about!
See! Fun! that’s what climbing is all about!

And now we begin:
This is the first step. Next time you go to the wall, find the easiest climb you can for warming up. Step up to the wall, grab the first hold, take a deep breath and make a mental note to relax. It might feel a little weird at first, but this is something I do for every major climb. It becomes a little ritual that helps bring you “in the zone” for whatever it is that you’re intending for the climb. Now, pull on the route and make a deliberate effort to climb it slowly, sink into every position as much as you can for a good stretch. The goal is to feel 100% relaxed and calm for the whole climb, that’s why we chose something easy. Every time your mind wanders, bring it back to this move, this body position. Think about how solid your hands are, remind yourself that your feet are stable and unlikely to slip. Your mind will wander eventually, and that’s fine, just bring it back to the moment by focusing on your breath and continuing to relax your way up the wall. Don’t be hard on yourself when your mind wanders! We’re making a practice of directing your attention, and you can’t bring your mind back to task if it never wanders to begin with, so having a wandery mind is a great staring point!

Great! We’ve established a baseline, we’ve found somewhere you’re comfortable. Even if you weren’t able to maintain focus and relaxation through the whole climb, that’s okay. You were probably able to achieve that relaxed state for at least a few moves. If you’ve had that one moment of peace and relaxation, then we can start to expand that feeling to the rest of your climbing, doing so is a lifelong process and our practice of growing comfortable with falling is just one possible starting point. The idea on this first climb is to practice relaxing, without thinking about falling. You could even do this on top-rope if you wanted.

Trusting the System
First, we need to pick a route for practice. It’s important to assess the risk from the ground, that way you don’t have to figure out whether you’re safe or not while climbing. Get your thinking over with at ground level. Look up at the climb, imagine falling from each bolt. What would the consequences be? The idea is to choose a route that’s easy, so you will feel physically secure the whole way, and safe so you can know intellectually that there are no dangerous fall positions on the route. You want something easy, but you want a climb that is at least vertical, a slight overhang is even better for safe, clean falls but we must keep the climb easy enough that climbing laps on it will not be stressful. We’re only working on one stress at a time.

Avoid slabs and climbs with runouts, we're trying to keep it chill and safe
Avoid slabs and climbs with runouts, we’re trying to keep it chill and safe

Tie into the rope and climb up. Practice stretching and relaxing as much as you can, just as we did with the first climb of the day. As you climb through your first few bolts start thinking about how you would feel about taking a fall. If you feel it would be frightening, keep climbing until you find a point where it feels more comfortable. If you reach a point where it only feels “uncomfortable” or “nervous”…. That’s perfect! Pause at the point where you start to feel uncomfortable, take a breath, try to relax, jump. Repeat the fall at this point until it feels absolutely normal and relaxed, just a part of doing business.

Real Life Example:
Seven years ago, I fractured two vertebrae when my partner let go of my rope and dropped me to the ground, when I first came back to climbing I was afraid even to fall when I had a bolt clipped above my head. The fear was paralyzing. Even though I didn’t feel safe anywhere on the wall, I did feel safe while bouldering, that was my comfort zone. I felt safe taking short bouldering falls.

I dragged Jeremy to the gym and let him in on my plan. He dragged a few crash-pads to the base of the wall, then I climbed up and clipped the first bolt while it was still above my head. “Hey man, you ready? Are you sure you’re ready? Like really ready? You’ve got this right?” “C’mon fucker, just jump already!” (I might be paraphrasing his response a little a lot) I tried to relax through the nervousness that swelled within me and jumped off. The rope held! I mean, of course it did, but it felt surprising at the time since I had lost all trust in the system. I repeated that fall until it felt normal and comfortable, then moved up to the second bolt, then the third, and so on until I felt comfortable falling below my bolts anywhere. For the next step I started falling equal with the bolt, and then slowly inched my way above the bolt.

Falling

Your Personal Practice:
If you feel comfortable doing so, climb up to the second or third bolt, and clip it above your head. While your body is below the bolt, think about falling. Does it feel comfortable, uncomfortable, or scary? If it’s comfortable, we can push further up the wall or climb up above the bolt to start practicing. If it’s scary, we need to back off a bit. Perhaps you could come closer to the ground and stack some crash pads to feel safer. If it’s just slightly uncomfortable, we’ve found your practice point.

Make each increment as small as you can. You should take small steps forward after each instance where you gain confidence. If fear of the heights is taking over, only move up one bolt and begin practicing again. If the fear of falling is taking over, seek your next practice point by moving only 12 inches higher at a time. We want to have small incremental progress. The idea is to take a point that feels uncomfortable and make it feel normal, thus expanding your comfort zone. Eventually, by expanding your comfort zone in small increments, it will engulf all of the areas that once left you feeling terrified!

Final notes:
At the onset I thought I would expand this post to include bouldering, trad, and toprope practices… but I’m at 1400 2000 words in length at this point, and I fear I’m losing your attention because I talk too much. Plus, it’s the holidays and my family wants to spend time with me, so I’m done writing for today. However, I will devote my next post to tailoring this practice for those disciplines.

Remember, climbing isn’t fun when you’re terrified. If you’re like the bulk of climbers who seek out safe routes which have little danger, then you know intellectually that you’re safe. It seems odd that we can feel so much fear while taking so much effort to ensure safety, but it’s perfectly normal. That’s just how we humans were hard-wired at the start. The good news is that we’re also hard-wired to learn. Think about the first time you ever drove a car on the interstate. It was probably pretty terrifying, wasn’t it? Slowly, bit by bit, you grew accustomed to it and understood that you have a relative amount of safety, and some control over the situation. The same thing happens with climbing, in time. If you keep working at it, climbing can come to feel just as ordinary as driving your car to the gym!

I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

Free-soloists's advice on falling: don't.

Psycho-Illogical Progress

I remember my last trip to the black hills. Back then I had all the fearlessness of a young fool who had only broken his back once. My MO at the time was a penchant for extremely runout slabs and the occasional free-solo in a good secure crack. Being in an oldschool trad destination like the Sylvan Lake Needles was perfect for me and I felt right at home. When I returned this fall, I was expecting to slip back into the groove like slipping on a pair of resoled Mythos….  like an old friend brought back to life. Having broken myself didn’t slow me down last time, why shoud it this time? This time, the place gave me the creeps. It took me a while, but eventually I figured out why.

After leaving The Needles I went back to my favorite old haunts around Tennessee and Alabama and was pulling on sport routes into the 12+ range without fear. I mean, I was a little tense about my shoulder, but pulling seemed to help the rehabilitation effort. I was back to free-soloing, even if only on routes up to 5.8 and thought my mental game was back in top-shape.

For the winter I decided to focus on climbing trad at Tennessee Wall, and that’s where the trouble started. Even on moderate 5.7’s and 8’s I’d get extremely nervous while making thin moves above gear. On slightly slabbed bolted routes I’d have the same fears resurfacing and it nearly paralyzed me… except… I didn’t trust the gear so I had to keep going.

There are three important parallel branches of mental fitness in climbing:

  1. Trust in the system
  2. Trust in your abilities
  3. Sports Psychology

While I was out soloing, my mental game seemed perfectly back to normal because I felt 100% solid. My trust in myself was still going strong, but I was still feeling limited. It turns out the only reason I was able to climb hard routes is because I reverted to soloist thinking. Any time I felt like I could make it to the next bolt, I felt perfectly safe. When I thought I  was getting pumped, or the moves seemed dicey, I’d immediately scream “TAKE!” In essence, I was taking each route in little bolt-to-bolt mini solos, so any time I thought a fall was possible it really gutted my brain. But I didn’t notice it much, because I felt safe with my little islands of “take” scattered up the wall.

  

Until I resumed climbing trad, that is. Since my fall occured while aid-climbing with only body-weight hanging on my gear, I didn’t even trust a cam to hold a “take.” This left me perpetually shaky on trad lines. At T-Wall I tried to get on a 5.12, and felt awful. I thought it was just the line so I got on an attractive looking 5.13 and felt terrified on that as well. I bailed on both of them. On a 5.8, and a 5.6 that same day it was the same story, that’s when I realized I had a problem and I needed to work on it.

The first crucial point of mental training is to feel safe every where you know that you are safe. No sense shaking in you boots on a toprope problem when you know the rope can hold up a truck! Even though I knew I had plenty of gear in the wall that could hold a fall, I was paralyzed. My instincts were not in-line with my intellect. Actualy, they still aren’t.

That’s my winter project: re-establishing instinct. Again. I’ve tread this road a few times now and I’ve gotten rather practiced at it. At the end of the day I was taking confident falls with gear below my feet. Fear saps the fun out of climbing, but the good news is it can be overcome fairly easily! More on that in the next post. 

In the meantime I’d like to hear your stories! Have you ever had to overcome fear or mental blocks in climbing? How did you manage to do so? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear your perspective!