For the past couple months, I’ve dreaded climbing.
It took me a while to realize this, because I still wanted to go climbing. But every time we headed out to the crag I felt a pit of anxiety in my stomach. I actually was relieved when snow stymied our approach or we picked a crag further down the canyon, because it meant I had more time until I had to tie in.
When I did finally rope up, I experienced intense anxiety and panic attacks on the wall while lead climbing. Which meant that climbing, my very favorite thing, wasn’t fun anymore.
Although it took me some time to recognize what was going on, I knew where all these feelings came from. A few months ago, I took my longest and scariest lead fall ever, and though I was physically fine except for lots of superficial scrapes and bruises, I was severely shaken up. Then, only 48 hours after that, I witnessed one of my best friends break her arm and dislocate her elbow on a bad bouldering fall in the gym.
These experiences were clearly traumatic, but I was still surprised how much they affected me on the wall. I simply tried to push through my fear, as I have often done in the past. But this wasn’t my normal fear, and it turns out that force wouldn’t work against it.
Once I could see how deeply I was dreading climbing each time I headed out, I knew I had to try a different approach to actually address the root of the fear and figure out how to change the pattern.
I began by re-reading relevant sections of the book Vertical Mind, particularly the part about fear of falling, then went down the internet rabbit hole and found as many articles as I could about different approaches to lead climbing fear (and who knows, perhaps this post could be a resource for someone else in the future).
After acquiring all this information, I was ready to try spend a day at the crag and try some techniques that resonated with me and what I was feeling. I psyched myself up in the morning with a little dance party to reframe the day in a positive light (“yay, we’re going climbing!” instead of “this is terrifying”). I enlisted my favorite belayer, a fantastic friend who knows how to support me, to be my partner for the day and help me work through this overwhelming fear.
One of the big issues I was dealing with is that falling didn’t seem safe anymore, under any circumstances. Even though I rationally knew that most of my falls would be safe, as soon as I got above a bolt, panic would set in, and I would start thinking about all the things that could go wrong. I only felt relief when I clipped the next bolt, hands shaking and Elvis-legging.
I knew I needed to retrain my brain to remember that the sensation of falling was okay. To do this, I made it my goal to not say “take” on any climb (and told my partner not to let me). I had to either keep climbing or take the fall.
My other goal for the day was to not let panic set in. If I started to feel like I was headed that way, I would try to stop it – by taking a deep breath, try some positive self-talk, or even grabbing a draw to steady myself.
I picked my favorite local crag (Little Eiger in Clear Creek Canyon), and when we got there, I found that I was actually psyched to tie in. My partner led the climb first to hang the draws (and leave the first one clipped), which helped give me a sense of security, and soon I was climbing. Slowly but steadily, I made it through the route, until I hit a tricky section at the top. As I paused, frozen and definitely afraid, I heard my belayer’s voice, “You’re doing great. You’ve got this, and I’m with you, so don’t be afraid to make the move.” And even though I was shaking a bit, I eventually went for it, made the move, and finished the route. I was okay, and I could already feel the progress.
On the next route, my partner took an unexpected fall as he was leading. But he was fine, and this was actually a technique mentioned in Vertical Mind – seeing someone else take a fall you’re afraid of can show you that it is actually safe. After he finished the route, he came down and gave me the beta for that section, and told me that it was okay to fall there. And I did. I let go on purpose a few times, and then I worked through it and the rest of the climb.
By this point I was feeling good – and I was even having fun! Our next climb was one I had bailed off just the week before, and I wanted to finish it. I slowly worked my way up to that point, and then I took a purposeful fall to feel what it was like. It was not nearly as scary as I had made it out to be, so I made the move and continued on. At the very top, I was nervous about the last move to the anchors, but I was already above my bolt, so there was nowhere to go but up. I clipped the chains and couldn’t have been happier.
My lead head was back, and climbing was fun again.
Sometimes you can’t just push through the fear, you need to truly process it. In fact, it’s a little like projecting – step by step, you put the work in and figure it out.