Fear and Sport Climbing

Cover photo by Jarred Pickens

I’ve recently been working on a route that challenges my mental fortitude. The crux happens well above the bolt before it; whipping is part of the process.

Fear and I have an intimate relationship. Like most of us, I navigate it daily. Fear of social alienation. Fear of failure. Fear of success and meeting expectations. Fear while driving an icy road. Fear while hiking in bear territory. And yes, fear while climbing.

It begins as a subliminal feeling, creeping across my ribs and wrapping around my throat. My breath turns irregular. My heart becomes a palpable force. Something pushes play on my imagination, and the worse case scenario unfolds across the screen of my mind’s eye.

When I first started climbing, fear often prevented me from finding flow on the rock. It pulled me out of the moment and into the future. Fear, after all, lives anywhere but here and now—it dwells in shadows cast by what-ifs. No matter how strong or skilled one may be, fear is capable of thwarting talent altogether.  

So how do we climb despite, or perhaps with, the fear?

Since I’ve been exploring this question more than usual lately, I’ve decided to write down strategies I’ve learned: both to remind myself, and to hopefully help others who actively seek to manage fear on the rock, (not to mention life at large). 

Determine the WCS

Fear, in its simplest form, is lack of knowledge. Before and during a rock climb, I aim to gather as much information as necessary to bring fear out of the shadows. Before I get on a route, I look at all the variables I will need to consider when leading it: bolt spacing, angles between the bolts, angle(s) of the rock face, as well as the proposed grade and its relationship to my climbing ability in that moment. If there are any red flags, I take a moment to analyze the Worse Case Scenario (WCS).

Let’s say there’s a run out. More often than not, run outs happen because the route developer knew the fall would be safe. The rock is most likely vertical or overhung, and the run out happens in the second half of a climb, where the potential of a ground fall is null. If the route is well within my climbing ability, I’ll tie in and go for it. WCS? I take a big, though clean, fall. (Given I have a competent belayer—more on this below.)

If there’s a red flag about the fall, my WCS shifts. Let’s say the large fall happens above a slab, where a foot or ankle injury is possible. The WCS in this situation would merit a closer examination of whether or not the risk is worth taking. Sometimes I’ll opt out of a climb, and that’s okay. There are plenty of routes to experience; missing out on one climb is better than not climbing at all due to injury.

Sometimes variables materialize on the route, beyond the ground assessment. Perhaps the route meanders far to the left or right of the previous bolt. Perhaps the distance between bolts is greater than perceived. In these instances, I take a moment to identify real risks, usually on a hold I feel comfortable holding for the few extra breaths required to do so. 

When running rampant, the imagination’s version of the WCS will almost always be more drastic than the actual possibilities. WCSs spread across a spectrum, from safe fall to death. When we enter fight-or-flight mode, the imagination shifts to the “death is imminent” side of the spectrum. The further towards this side of the spectrum we go, the faster we breathe and the harder we grip.  

I’d venture to guess we’ve all experienced the vicious cycle of fear and pump. Taking a moment to access the WCS in reality is one way I’ve learned to still the needle on its spectrum. This is a proactive reigning in of the imagination. 

I look below and access the fall. Are there any natural obstacles I might encounter? More likely than not, the fall will—surprise—be clean. I run through a series of checks: Do I trust my belayer? Do I trust the gear? Do I trust myself to manage the rope? Given all these things check off, and I imagine the WCS of the fall will be clean, and I exhale. Better yet, I exhale loudly, sometimes as a grunt or a growl, shake out my hands, and continue onward.

If I’m on a route and discover the WCS in reality is injury, I return to the risk assessment I would have done on the ground. Am I capable of climbing the route without falling? If the answer is yes, I decide whether or not I want to risk it. Sometimes I do. Sometimes, whether I believe myself competent or not, I go in direct to the bolt and ask for the stick clip. Between stick clips and bail ‘biners, (a carabiner one leaves on the bolt), there are options to opt out of a climb.

The thing is, with a proper assessment of the route, the WCS will rarely be death. Not unless something totally unexpected happens, like a large block of rock falling or a bolt ripping out of the wall. In my opinion, these are rare enough instances to make them obsolete in my assessment.  

Taking a moment to gauge the WCS before climbing a route, or sometimes while climbing it, helps shed light on the fear. Nine-nine percent of the time, doing so reveals the fear to be imaginary.

Know Yourself

For me, this not only means knowing my skill set as it relates to a climb’s grade, as I would do in the assessment described above. It means knowing how to clip safely and manage the rope for a clean fall. Wall, rope, climber: this is how we fall clean. When we fail to do so, a safe fall turns potentially dangerous.

Developing this intuitive relationship to the rope takes nothing short of practice. If you’re not sure when to drape a rope over your leg, and when to step over it, take a class and watch videos. (I personally love watching Margo Hayes climb, as she’s bold and smart on lead.) Once you feel competent knowing how to manage the rope on lead, practice on climbs well below your project grade. Move left and right of the bolt line, practicing draping, stepping over the rope, and keeping it between your legs.

Trust Your Belayer

Beyond assessing the climb and my skills as a climber, knowing the belayer’s competence can either create confidence or intensify fear. If I’m climbing with a new partner, I’ll take a few safe and small falls. Building trust with a belayer may take a while. These initial falls with a new partner help me know what to expect from a particular belayer. With time, practice, and communication, the trust necessary to feel confident taking bigger falls will congeal.

I’m learning it’s not only okay to ask for what you need from a belayer, it’s vital for success. If you need a softer catch, ask the belayer to stand directly under the bolt and jump when he or she feels the rope go taught. We might fear hurting someone’s feelings by adjusting his or her belay techniques to our needs. But what’s worse: brief discomfort in a conversation or a broken ankle? Besides, some climbers have simply never learned how to give a soft catch, and you may be helping this person in the long run. 

Trust Your Gear

A simple but sure way to further inspire confidence: know the age and wear of your rope, check the draws for grooves in the carabiners, know the quality and age of your harness, and always, ALWAYS, do the partner check.

Take the Fall

Usually taking the fall you dread is the quickest way to dispel fear. Recently, I experienced the opposite. 

The other day, I decided to take the big fall. Even though I didn’t get injured, I decided I wasn’t comfortable with the WCS, (a broken ankle). I thought I would have to give up on the climb altogether. The fear-dust settled, and I looked at the crux anew. I decided to try extending the draw above the run-out, which meant I could clip lower on the crux, but I would take a larger fall above it. By taking the fall, I gained information to make necessary adjustments to the way I climbed the route.   

In essence, I think that’s what fear management on a sport route (and perhaps life in general) is all about: gathering facts to abate the imagination and move upward, empowered with knowledge.