Fear of falling

I was at the gym last night and got asked a question which will be relevant to many climbers out there...

"I'm just so afraid of falling right now. It's really affecting my climbing, what can I do about it?"

So first up - has it always been like this, or is it something has has come about recently? If so, try to identify why. Change in belayer, recent scary fall, witnessed an accident? If it's always been like this, then you have to train away the fear with practice. Mental exercises and visualisation can only do so much.

I truly believe climbing is 80% mental and 20% physical. So regardless of all the training we do on the bouldering wall or in the gym, if our biggest weakness lies in the mental arena, we're not going to improve out there on the rock. So what can we do?
  1. Establish climber-belayer trust
    If you don't trust your belayer, you might as well not leave the ground. I often hear things like this "Well, I was with a group of newbies and they hadn't belayed a leader before so I couldn't climb anything above grade 16". This is a load of crap. You either trust your belayer 100% or you don't. So if they're an inexperienced belayer, you spend extra time with them on the ground, teaching them the principles of belaying a leader. Personally, I feel better when my more inexperienced belayers use autolocking belay devices such as the Faders Sum. Climb up and slump on the first bolt so they get the feeling of what a fall will feel like. Spend the time and teach them well. They will appreciate it, and you will gain a reliable belayer. If you have doubts as to their ability, teach them until your doubts disappear.
  2. Dynamic belaysThe art of belaying has changed in the last 10 years. It used to be that the climber would fall and the belayer would reef in slack and sit down or run backwards to take up rope. This was great for limiting the length of the fall, but was also good for smashing the climber into the wall and breaking their ankles. These days in a modern sport-climbing scenario, belayers should give their climber a dynamic belay. Providing it's a clean fall and the climber isn't going to hit anything, as the climber falls, the belayer either stands tall or jumps slightly (for light climbers) as the rope takes up, which has the effect of slowing the climber down more gradually. This takes the jarring impact out of a lead fall. Practice this technique - it is vital!
  3. Take test falls

    If you're scared of falling, you need to take safe falls to prove to yourself that falling is no big deal. So, you need to find an appropriate route. Something not overly hard that you can at least dog your way up. Preferably something overhanging or something with a bolt on a bulge so you can fall into clean air. A good route for SE QLD climbers is something like Slider (22) on Mt Tibrogargan or perhaps Dysentery (17) at KP. Remember, you're not interested in ticking the route. You're here to take falls, so come up with a plan with your belayer i.e. "I'm going to climb to the 6th bolt but not clip it, and then I'm going to fall and you'll give me a dynamic belay". Then put your helmet on, get on and do it. Start small, with the clipped bolt at your chest, then waist, then knees, then feet, and finally get above the bolt. Take multiple falls of increasing size. It will be scary at first. Keep doing it until you reach a level of comfort in the process.
  4. Take REAL fallsNow, take the skills you learned in test falls and apply them in a real situation. This means, choose a route which you know is going to be hard for you and on which you probably will fall. It might be the route you took test falls on, or it might be something a bit harder. It should be something again which is well bolted and offers safe falls such as Squealer (23) at Mt Tibrogargan. You don't want something with dodgy gear, evil ledges or nasty blocks. Pick your route. Now, before you leave the ground, discuss the route with your belayer, talk about where you might fall and where they should be paying extra special attention. Now get on and go for it. If you think you are going to fall, do not grab the draw and do not yell "take!". You may call "watch me!", but keep climbing until you actually fall. If you manage this, congratulations. You are well on the way to mastering your fear of falling.
Remember, not every route gives safe falls. In fact, on most routes there will be sections where you definitely don't want to fall. That's okay. Usually these sections are easy climbing. However it's important to discuss the route with your belayer before you leave the ground so you both know what you are up against.

I hope that was useful. If you've got any suggestions, real-world examples that may have worked for you, or any other advice to share, please feel free to post them here.

Other info
Training for climbing: fear of falling and anxiety (Climbing Coach blog - UK)
Beating fear of falling in 5 sessions (Dave MacLeod)
Fear of falling dictates your technique - yes you too! (Dave MacLeod)
Ethan is not afraid of going LARGE in the quest for the hardest route in China.


Adam said...

Good advice Lee. Also, when you are coming to a section that is at your limit and may fall, try to focus on your breathing. In deeply through the nose and a really strong breath out. This is a very effective way that you can take mental control over your physiological state and vice versa. You will find yourself in control and the cascading panic reflex will be avoided. I even start my climb with a nice brew of green tea and put on my favorite motivational music on my ipod and go to the sendage zone!!!

Lee said...

Definitely Adam. So much could (and probably needs to) be said about breathing. Garth Miller bases much of his climbing/training philosophy around being aware of and maintaining control over one's breathing.

On hard routes when you get into a 'rest', we often say "Get your breathing back!". Essentially this means get your breathing back under control, lower the heart rate, get the panic under control before continuing.

Often you can't get rid of the pump on a poor rest, but you can spend the time to focus on controlling your breathing, and this will make all the difference.

Doug Scown said...

Hi Lee. It was my partner who asked the quesiton. I thought you might find this interesting. The way our heads work is fascinating. You can do IATs at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/ Try a few. These tests cover Race / Gender / etc reactions but it applies to anything we do. Basically given the nature of our brain/body the main thing that determines rapid reactions to a situation is what you have been exposed to in the past (experience) and NOT reason at the time. You might use 'reason' on a climb ('if I was 2 feet off the ground I'd be fine so I'm fine etc) but that only works because of past experience (useless for a beginner). Falling? What past experience do you have? None? SHIIIIT! Or graduated experience - don't even have to think because it's familiar.

Theres a book called Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. A great read. Not technical. Lot's of great illustrative stories. Recommended by a bloke who lectures me in neurology. I thought you might find this interesting.

Rodney Polkinghorne said...

Lee, do you have any non-obvious advice on dealing with accident related fear? I find it tricky to tread the line between dangerous overconfidence (Lynn Hill cratered because she didn't know what she was doing, and I do) and paralyzing fear (I'd better place a nut 50cm above that perfect cam, because cams keep ripping out at Frog).

There are some obvious things to do: Get back on the sharp end at once. Accept a spell of timid climbing, and expect it to be temporary. Remember that you've always accepted some chance of dying climbing, and that the alternative is dying some other way.

Those all worked when people got hurt occasionally, and there was time to get over it. But lately it seems people are getting hurt all the time, and I'm finding it harder to let go of what happens to other people and stay centred in my experience.

Lee said...

I don't have the answer. Perhaps some thoughts/musings...

I don't accept dying climbing. It might happen, but I don't accept or acknowledge it. It's not like mountaineering where you accept a bunch of very real objective dangers when you set out. I put processes in place to ensure I don't die. I make choices regarding risk and safety, in order to keep me alive. I don't view sport climbing as a dangerous or risky sport. Certain trad routes may have added risk factors associated with them, that's fine.

So when I see someone get injured climbing, I try to determine what happened. Were they operating outside what I would do? If so, disregard. If not, examine further.

Of course the problem presents when a seemingly perfect placement or safety protocol fails. A perfect cam blows. What?! If I can't reconcile this and get some learning out of it, I must disregard it. I have fallen on all sorts of gear and had few failures, and learned from each one.

It is critical for me to maintain my faith in my own safety protocols, else risk eroding my mental capacity to a point where I can't climb effectively.

brian said...

Along the lines of Rodney Polkinghorne's question: Do you have any advice for the Fear of Gear Failure? I have started climbing again after a 10 year break and find myself questioning the strength of the equipment (slings, rope, harness-belay-loop, bolts, etc.) I know this is foolish but it is still in the back of my mind. Do you have any statistics/data on equipment strength?

Lee said...

Hi Brian

In this case, I don't think it's stats and data that are going to help you. You know as I do that each of those items when used for their purpose are BOMBER and rated well above the strength that can be generated in regular climbing.

So what we have here, the fear in the back of the head, is a self-preservation instinct (a good thing), but is actually acting as an inhibitor to your climbing. If you can't focus on the climbing 100%, you are limiting your potential.

So, what you need to establish is a "set-and-forget" safety protocol. You discuss the route with your belayer, potential safety issues, and have everything sorted in your mind before setting off, then once you begin climbing, you conciously stop yourself from worrying about those things, and are 100% climbing-focussed.

How do you get familiar with the strength of gear? Aiding. Aiding is excellent for teaching yourself what works, and how far you can push things. Get to a trad crag with good cracklines and aid some lines. Aid properly, or free climb, and rest/bounce on every piece!

Good luck!