The 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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