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The Climbing FEAR!

The Climbing FEAR!

Ailefroide climbing 224The fear, particularly of leading, is something that everyone has at some point or another in their climbing life.  For some it starts high and gradually recedes whereas for others it strikes to your heart just when you least expect it, giving you a right fright.

I want to let you into a secret.  I am really scared and the fear has quite often overwhelmed me to the point of tears.  Recently in France I was climbing with Emma on some short sports routes.  They weren’t hard (well within my capability), and I was the second, so the danger was very low, but on one route I had only got three metres off the ground, with one foot on a pinnacle jutting away from the wall and the other on the face of the slab, and I froze and became completely incapacitated.  Nothing would move, my hands were dripping with sweat and I could feel the anxiety reach such a stage that tears were filling up my eyes.  My breathing went shallow and fast and I felt really really bad, like I might die.

Before it even came to this I’d already decided that if want to carry on climbing I’d have to overcome this fear – perhaps not overcome, but start to assert some control over it and be able to solve the problem in my head whilst on the route without exhausting myself, which was what I was doing at that point.

So, what did I do in my moment of extreme anxiety?
I told myself, first of all, I can do this.  I only climb what I am able to climb.  I knew I could do that route and I told myself that slowly, in my head and also out loud – ‘I can do this’.  I’m not saying that this is a miracle solution, but I think that changing what I’m saying to myself is the start to becoming a much more controlled climber who can overcome the fear enough to climb challenging routes without falling to pieces.  After that, or maybe during it, I took control of my breathing – big breath in, controlled, slow breath out.

This evening I led a VS and an HS route at Hobson Moor, my local easy-access crag in the Peak District, straight-off.  I didn’t warm up and I haven’t done any trad climbing in the last three or four weeks.  I have only previously led a few handfuls of VDiff and two Severe graded routes.   This is a happening!

So what was different this evening?

Today I went climbing with someone who can’t place gear.  So I had to lead and I knew this from the start.  I know the crag reasonably well, as it’s near to my house, but not well enough to know the gear placements and every route name!  When we arrived there were two people at the crag – Nik (F) and Jim (M) – who I knew already very vaguely from a recent climbing meet.  Nik can do the infamous back wall traverse – five times in one night.  She’s strong.  Jim is quiet and somehow quietly motivational.  Before I even said what my plan was, we had some chatter and then he pointed to a route and said with clarity and confidence ‘why don’t you do that one – you can do that’.  Then he said he had his gear in the car and could lend me the exact cams I would need to get up it with security.  He trotted off and duly arrived, ten minutes later, with more cams than you’d find in the DMM factory.  Nik came over and said that she’d led it recently, laced it with gear and it was a pleasant climb.

Somehow, the stars aligned to make me think I might possibly be able to consider giving it a try.  Then Jim said the deal maker – ‘just give it a go and come back down if you don’t like it’.  For me this was just perfect.  I do not like to be beaten.  For months and months I have been putting pressure on myself not to be beaten by these crags and now, I feel that perhaps I can take that pressure off and accept that, ok, I might be beaten.  And it’s ok.  I can down climb, reverse moves and stop and take a step back, then get back on it.  If I want to.

And that’s exactly what I did.  Anna, my partner, belayed me quietly and attentively from below, while I slowly moved up and found some gear placements.  About a third of the way up, getting stuck, I just couldn’t see where my hands and feet should be to feel secure, so Anna gave me gradual slack and I came back down to the floor.  Coming down I was thinking ‘I’m going to get someone to retrieve that gear’, but then I had a good hard looked up there, just past the difficult section, and a massive hold shone out from nowhere – how I hadn’t seen it I don’t know.  A few minutes of relaxation had given my head the space to think and this is what I’m working on getting during the rest of my climbing.

So up I went again, much more confidently this time, past that difficult spot and on to another.  All the way up I was so confident that I had the gear that would fit whatever cracks were available, thanks to Jim passing me all of his cams to use on the route – I was jangling like a Christmas reindeer!  Almost at the top I was tempted to just carry on and top out without placing any more gear, feeling so confident, but my inner monkey sent warning bells to my brain, telling me to slow down and place a final cam.  I did.  And then up and over in a flash.

This is the first part of me overcoming my fear of leading.  Taking the pressure off, having all the gear possible, positive self-talk (I know that sounds like psychobabble, sorry!), being with positive & knowledgable people – all of these things conspired for me.

I know I’ll be coming back to you on this, because so many people I speak to at crags and women’s clubs, on Facebook and Twitter, talk about their fear of leading.  I’m one of you and I want it under control.  Give us any tips you’ve used and I’ll use them and share them on future posts.

Happy fearless leading.


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  • Beth
    August 12, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    Well done on the trad leads! VS and HS!? bloody brilliant, you should be very proud. I agree with all of your points. Having calm and motivational people who put no pressure on around is vital for me to feel quietly confident. I’m glad you are making real progress to beating your fear 🙂

  • Steve Perry
    August 13, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    Hi Emily

    Massive congratulations on your progress so far, keep up the fantastic work. I’m looking forward to reading about your progress.

    I have trodden a similar path, and still am doing. I wrote about my experience on my blog, too. The post is here if you are interested (other relevant ones are linked within it). I think the main thing is making the decision to conquer the fear. It gets easier from there!



  • Gill
    August 14, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    This post couldn’t have come at a better time! In fact, probably at the very same time you were writing it, I was telling my friend that I go climbing with, over a coffee, about the fear I encountered whilst climbing with my husband on Sunday.
    We usually go with our friends who are really experienced and they’re our quiet motivators, like your friend Jim. My husband’s just invested in all his own kit though, so we were on our own for the first time. I haven’t been for a while but was really enthusiastic to go and yet, once there, everything felt so wrong and I ended up in tears!
    Firstly, there wasn’t anyone else in sight, let alone my trusted motivators! Secondly, it was a new place we’d never been to, covered in broken glass and graffiti, a plaque for “a sadly missed daughter” and overlooking the motorway! Nothing like our usual outdoor destination. Suddenly I had talked myself into a panic and out of being able to achieve a climb that I can totally manage. I did crack on, finished the climb and did another afterwards, so I overcame it to a point but didn’t enjoy it and felt really disappointed in myself.
    Last night, however, we went again. This time our friends were there, (not climbing near us, but there!) We were at our usual place overlooking peaceful countryside and other climbers were around too. To coin your phrase: “All the stars aligned”! (I like your way of putting it.) I didn’t achieve any great challenges but I did have the most enjoyable night climbing that I have ever had so far. For me it comes down to feeling comfortable and safe. I know people often strive to step out of comfort zones but everyone has a comfort blanket of some sort and the absence of mine can throw me entirely.
    I suppose the mind is so powerful – sometimes you can convince yourself that you can’t and other times everything ‘aligns’ to make you so sure that you can. And if you find you can’t you need to know that there’s time and space to safely consider, opt out or continue.

  • Pingback:Climbing fear | Lively Librarian
    September 6, 2013 at 2:36 pm
  • Po
    November 14, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    Hi Emily

    I got here after googling “climbing fear” – something that I seem to have developed out of the blue for no reason. My husband is a non-climber and somewhat risk-adverse, I think his constant negativity about climbing may have rubbed off.

    It’s very annoying and suddenly I find myself being timid, not committing, using waaaaaay too much gear and questioning my route-finding. Worst of all is when I get on a route I’ve redpointed before and suddenly find myself yelling “Take!” in a big panic.

    I’ve decided just to boulder for a moment, and get used to that feeling of being uncomfortable/committed/about to fall off. So hopefully when I get back on the proper rock I won’t be so put off every time I feel a bit pumped.

    Good luck to you!


  • Emma
    October 20, 2014 at 10:11 am

    Beinf well equipped with gear makes such a difference. I’m much more confident since we invested in some good cams.

  • Charlotte
    April 16, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    This is so true! I started climbing last year, and the temptation for me is to always need to make it to the top! But then the fear started kicking in and it went to pot. By telling myself that it’s ok not to make if I don’t want to, that I can come down and reassess, has made all the difference. I’m calmer, think more clearly and am more in control of my fear!

  • Iwona Gabrys
    August 7, 2020 at 10:11 am

    Thank you, Emily! Just what a needed! I have recently completed learn to lead on trad routes. I was doing quite well and a little hesitation sent me sliding down the slab (it was only a D but wet after a rain), not far, mind you, but enough to leave tear on my waterproofs. Massive scare and even bigger hot flush! I was clinging to the rock for couple of minutes trying to get my breathing down. I did pull myself together, positioned myself safely on the rock, looked carefully around for the next move and the next gear placement and pressed on, still shaking but now with a plan in my head. I did it, completed the route. I have developed a huge respect for the rock and the risks it brings, placing gear and creating bulletproof anchors became a sole focus but also became more confident and willing to try more challenging routes. This was last Sunday. Yesterday I completed my first 5c on sports route, only partly leading but I was leading on the top bit. Came down shaking but very proud of myself 🙂 it’s a fantastic feeling when you overcome something so big that it stops you progressing.

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