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.

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2 thoughts on “Conquering Your Fear of Flying”

  1. Well written as usual. We all know the feeling of fear I suppose. One day I can climb a route without any thinking about falling, another day I am more occupied by the results of a possible fall then I am enjoying the climb. I remember climbing a very easy chimney, and suddenly realising how I would ping pong between the walls when falling. That stayed with me the entire climbing trip. Very solid advice here!

    1. Well, that scenario in the chimney is a different aspect of mental fitness, one that I’ll address in future articles, the advice in this article relies on the assumption that you are on a safe climb where falling is unlikely to cause injury.

      The mental game of climbing can be broken down into a few different aspects, one of them is your ability to trust the belay system when you’ve created safety on the wall… But in that chimney scenario things are objectively less safe, so we have to learn how to trust in our abilities. A lot of that practice for trusting in yourself looks similar to the breathing exercises described in the beginning of this article, and eventually I want to devote an entire article to that subject… It should be upcoming in a few weeks, probably sometime in January? I have a few more posts to come in the next few weeks to go more in-depth with learning to trust the system, and then I’ll be ready to move onto another thought.

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