Fear of falling. Now that’s a big hurdle that many climbers find themselves struggling to overcome. It’s an intense battle within the mind, where part of you has a strong urge to climb, yet another part of you may be paralyzed by fear.

Fear of falling is a unique fear when it comes to climbing. In most cases, the situations that elicit fear are usually avoided, but when it comes to climbing, the fear is essentially unavoidable because it is directly related to what we are so strongly passionate about. Falling makes up an enormous part of climbing, and although it’s likely that we may only fear specific types of falls, our passion for climbing always wins. We go through those periods of intense and even paralyzing fear because opting not to climb is even scarier!

Fortunately, our passion for climbing places us in a pretty advantageous position to overcome this limiting fear. Since our passion for climbing is so strong, it puts us in a place where we are already willing to take the required steps to tackle the fear. This readiness (or willingness) to face our fear of falling is actually pretty significant, and although the process may still feel scary and difficult, I promise that it does make it a whole lot easier. Part of the internal battle is already eliminated.

The first step in overcoming your fear is taking the time to dig deep and really understand it.

It’s time to get to the root of your fear!

It’s important for you to understand exactly what it is that you’re afraid of. Yes, I know you’re probably thinking ‘uhhh, falling obviously!!’ but what is it that’s actually driving that fear? Is it fear of failure? A fear of injury? Lack of confidence in yourself? Lack of confidence in your partner? Fear of heights? Fear of death? A fear of not being in control?

It could also be your natural survival instinct, the result of a past negative experience, or subconscious negative thoughts acting as a defence mechanism to prevent you from doing something that your mind perceives as unsafe.

When you drill into your fear and develop a good understanding of it, it makes it a lot easier to tackle. Without drilling down it’s very difficult for your mind to achieve clarity and respond in a way that’s appropriate and justified. Identifying that you have a fear of falling without going any deeper into it is a bit too broad for your mind to appropriately comprehend.

Your mind learns from your thoughts, your words, and your experiences, so providing clarity through these channels is crucial. By simply reinforcing (via your thoughts and your words) that you’re afraid of falling can be quite broad and can actually give your fear response permission to kick in during situations that are simply not justified.

For example, say you’ve identified to yourself that you have a fear of falling, and let’s assume that you’ve at least narrowed it down somewhat to specifically falls while lead climbing. So, you’re faced now with a lead climb that you’re about to get on, it’s a warm up, well below your skill level, however, your internal dialogue has only ever reinforced that it’s lead falls in general that you’re fearful of. As you stand at the bottom of this climb that you’re more than capable of, you may feel your body begin to tense, your thoughts begin to race, and fear begins to creep it’s way in.

Is this response justified?

It may not be.

The probability of falling should be low, but because you haven’t clearly and properly defined your fear, you’re actually allowing your fear to amplify the probability of a fall to occur. That’s just unnecessary and a complete blow to your climbing potential.

So think, is it certain moves? Holds? Features? Angles? Grades? Lack of confidence?

Keep drilling down. Answer every ‘why’ until you have a crystal clear understanding. Then with your new found understanding you can view situations with a different perspective and you may even find tackling your fear much more manageable.

I ran through this exercise with my husband Dan. Here’s a simplified version of what turned into a long conversation.

Me: Would you say you’re afraid of falling?

Dan: Yes.

Me: Why do you think you have this fear?

Dan: I think I’m afraid of getting hurt. I don’t want to get injured or die. Injury is more realistic than death, but death is the loud thought in my head that overcomes me. My mind goes to extreme cases, like gear failure, that would result in severe injury or death.

Me: What do you feel are the chances of severe injury or death on a climb?

Dan: Slim, assuming I do all the right gear checks.

Me: Do you do gear checks?

Dan: Yes.

Me: So, even though you do those checks, the fear is still strong?

Dan: Yes. I know I’ve checked all my gear, but my mind still goes to ‘What if…?’

Me: Would say your fear stems more from lack of faith in your gear over lack of confidence in your climbing ability?

Dan: I think my fear stems from what I don’t have control of. I know I’m in control of checking my gear but I feel vulnerable and not in control when I have to rely solely on my gear. In terms of climbing ability, I know I’m a good climber, but when I get on a route with a weird feature, I get so scared that I loose faith in my ability. I get so focused on my fear that I begin to over grip, or look for better holds even though the one I’m currently on is more than good enough. I spend so much time searching that I get pumped, and when I get pumped I lose confidence and feel like I can’t hold onto the original good hold anymore. From here, the thought process in my head goes something like ‘I can’t hold this, so I can’t pull this move, and if I do try, I’m just going to fall and snap my neck and die.’

Me: Ok. What if that route had no features and was just a flat wall?

Dan: I think I would be better for sure. I feel like a more confident route climber on flat and short routes. Height intimidates me and I don’t know if it’s because I’m high and a fall from that high would be more severe than a fall from a lower height.

Me: So it comes back to ‘Do I trust my gear?’

Dan: That’s definitely where my head goes. I guess I try and do everything I can to prevent myself from having to rely on my gear. For example, I can be on a great foot hold, but it doesn’t matter, I want the biggest foot and I’m shaking trying to find one and get to it. I’m not really thinking about how high I am, but more so about how exposed and unsafe I feel.

Me: Do you have confidence in your ability to fall?

Dan: Yes, I do have confidence in my ability to fall. I am willing to take a fall, what scares me is if there are features that can get in my way, or if the clip is off to the side and could result in a big swing. Straight, simple falls I feel more confident in.

Me: While on the wall do you get overcome by doubt?

Dan: To be honest, yes, I think so. I doubt myself a lot. For example, even watching you lead this climb that had this big flakey seem, I was on the ground already telling myself that there was no way I could do that climb on lead.

Me: Is your fear mainly associated with lead climbing? Do you feel fine when you’re on top rope?

Dan: That’s the weird thing, I don’t! I don’t get it. I know I’m more secure on top rope and the fall is nothing compared to lead, but the fear is still there.

Me: So again, it comes back to not trusting the equipment?

Dan: I guess! Being up on a route makes me uncomfortable and nervous, and when I’m nervous I feel like I’m more likely to make a mistake and fall, which puts me in the situation where I have to rely on my gear. I feel a lot more comfortable bouldering.

Me: Would you say it’s because you are a lot more experienced at bouldering?

Dan: Maybe.

Me: Maybe because you are so experienced with bouldering you have more confidence in your ability and you know how to fall properly?

Dan: It might be because with bouldering, you know you’re going to fall. It’s just going to happen. I do experience some fear when bouldering, but it’s completely different. It’s not intense or completely debilitating like the fear I experience with routes.

Me: Plus, you’re aware of how much you are going to fall with bouldering. With top rope it’s a bit more unknown. It’s the stretch of the rope and how much slack your belayer has given you. With lead climbing, you never really know how far you’re going to drop. Could any of your fear stem from lack of trust in your belayer?

Dan: No. It doesn’t really cross my mind.

Me: Then would you say part of it is the fact that you don’t know the degree of the fall? You don’t know how big the fall will be so you can’t anticipate exactly what to do. With bouldering it’s a bit more predictable.

Dan: What gets me with being on a rope is hitting the wall. It’s likely that you are going to swing back and hit the wall or a feature on the wall. There’s something about features that really freak me out.

Me: What about overhang climbing then? Depending on the degree of the climb, when you fall the impact into the wall can be little to none.

Dan: It’s weird, it still freaks me out. I know I’m not going to hit anything but still I’m afraid. Even though it may look like the cleanest place to fall, it still scares me. Even on top rope it scares me because I’m swinging out from the wall. I don’t like hanging or trying to swing back to the wall. So it may not actually be the act of falling that I’m afraid of but the result of falling. Being suspended after a fall makes me feel much more exposed than being on the wall. This is why I prefer flatter walls where there’s less of a chance of just hanging and being suspended in the air.

Me: Say you’re not falling. You yell ’take’ and now you’re just hanging there. Are you scared?

Dan: I’m not comfortable with it. I say ‘take’ and know the rope is going to be tight and I’ll have some stability. I pull myself up to make the rope as tight as possible. Basically, I want to let go and be completely stationary.

Me: But while climbing you feel fine?

Dan: Yes. What gets me while climbing is the thought of being in that other situation. When I’m lead climbing or top roping I’ve never been in the situation where I’ve felt comfortable enough to push my climbing ability. I’m always climbing below my capabilities and I convince myself when I’m outside that I can’t climb a 5.11 for example, when in fact I know that it is something that’s well within my abilities.

Those were basically the main points of our conversation.

Looking back and examining it a bit more, you can see that Dan didn’t really have a clear understanding of his fear at first. From the start of his climbing career he labelled it as a fear of falling without really giving it any extra thought or attention. This conversation forced him to think about his fear on a deeper level.

Dan seemed to associate his fear with:

  • the potential for severe injury or death
  • gear failure
  • not being in control
  • the height of the fall
  • feeling vulnerable or exposed
  • that his doubtfulness will lead to mistakes and increase the chance of a fall
  • the uncertainty of the degree of the fall
  • being suspended

The main one that stood out to me though, and that kept coming up, was lack of trust in his gear. The way Dan talks about falling made it seem like he’s mainly terrified of actually hitting the ground. He figured out that the act of falling isn’t what actually scares him, but the result of falling. One scenario is that his gear fails and he plummets to the ground, and the other scenario is that his gear catches him, but his lack of trust in his gear convinces him that it might fail and again result in a horrible plummet to the ground.

Dan doesn’t want to relinquish control. When he’s climbing, he’s completely in control because he’s the one holding himself onto the wall, not his gear. His intense drive to want to stay in control, coupled with his intense fear of having to rely on his gear, results in extreme over gripping and an over active mind.

This explains why he also experiences fear on top rope. The falls on top rope are much less scary than the falls experienced on lead, yet his fear is just as intense. Why? Because falling means he has to rely on his gear. It really has nothing to do with the fall, but more so the consequences of a route fall, because when your gear completely fails when you’re up on a route, it really makes no difference whether you were lead climbing or top roping. A fall to the ground from a route is just not going to be pretty.

Bouldering on the other hand, well, Dan loves bouldering! There’s no gear to rely on, except a good crash pad and good spotters of course, which allows Dan to feel much more in control. He doesn’t view the consequences of a bouldering fall as severe, giving him much more confidence, not just to climb, but to even push his limits.

I’d like to think that after developing this deeper understanding, Dan will one day feel comfortable enough to start pushing his limits on routes as well.

By incorporating some breathing techniques to promote relaxation, learning how to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, and a ton of exposure therapy (perhaps starting with a lot of visualizations and working up to real life situations), debilitating fears will begin to dissolve and one day you will have the confidence and ability to overcome them.