Today was the first time in a long while I did some lead climbing. I remember the last time being a brief period in the summer when I was taking a clinic that encouraged it to learn certain falls. Some people can switch into lead climbing with complete confidence. For me, personally, it is always a struggle. For one reason or another, lead falls scare me more than any others. I take bouldering falls with much less fear. Leading can also be a struggle to jump back into when you have lost confidence in your ability to clip the rope in quick draws. It seems like that is the last thing people worry about, but when you are scared and panicked about falling, struggling to clip feels like the worst slow motion moment ever.
In fact, I encountered such a moment today. I was in an awkward position, I wasn’t feeling very confident, and my hands were getting sweaty. I wanted to clip in quickly so I could shake out, take a couple deep breaths, and then continue on. I was struggling to clip properly, and sheer panic was overwhelming me. The more panicked we get, however, the harder it seems to do what we need to. It is important to stay calm.
I realized this and when I noticed the fear beginning, I switched my focus back to my breathing. I was breathing in and out, deep and slowly. I made sure each breath was thought out and deliberate. I also repeated helpful sentences to myself. For instance, on climbs where I knew the moves were well within my level and very easy, I told myself “This isn’t hard.” It seems like something so easy it would be ineffective, but it really worked.
Part of my fear from sport climbing is the idea that anything could happen. A hold could break off outside or spin inside, something could throw the climber off like thinking they know what a hold is and then finding out too late it is not what they think. Outside things could interfere like rock fall, animals being in a hold or flying into you, etc. Much of these fears are irrational. Some are possibly but unlikely. Some are realistic. It is helpful when dealing with fear to eliminate any that are irrational or unlikely because they are adding distress and disrupting your climbing. By saying “This isn’t hard.” I’m merely reminded myself that many of the fears are irrational. Chances are that climbing levels below my limit, I will be able to flawless make it. When the holds are big and easy enough, even a spinner most likely won’t cause a fall as I know I am strong enough to keep at it. Getting rid of the irrational fears, helps clear my mind and add some relief of the stress.
There are fears that are needed in climbing to help us take precaution. It is important to eliminate the irrational fears, so we can think clearly about any real dangers. For instance, there was a time I was lead climbing and came to a part I was unsure I could do. The next clip was well above my head, but I tried to reach it and clip first anyway. I was completely outstretched and in a weak position. It is no wonder I feel. Unfortunately, that is a bad place to fall because there was so much slack out and I fell very far. I fell very far and almost had a dangerous fall because irrational fears clouded my mind from the very logical precautions. Sure I might have fallen at the place but realistically I was only slightly above the clip below me and I wouldn’t have fallen far. My fears of that section were irrational. However, clipping way to high and pulling out a lot of slack could have caused me very real danger. We need to be clear headed when making lead climbing decisions. It is important to stay calm.
Focus on breathing, think through movements from one clip to the next, keep in mind some comforting words or phrases, and remind yourself that certain fears are irrational. If you notice that fear rumbling in your gut, take action. Breath, take a moment to shake out, think about the pros and cons, make a solid decision, and remind yourself you are okay.
It’s also good to start small. Work on easy climbs for you to practice clipping technique and refresh yourself on those lead climbing skills. Gradually work your way up to harder climbs and more difficult challenges. It is important to build up confidence. It will help you feel more secure and clear headed. Make sure you use these easy climbs to practice staying calm, and shaking out. The more routine and ingrained habits become, the easier it is to use them in difficult times.
It is also good to take some practice falls. Start by falling at the clip a few times until you feel confident. Then move a little further up and fall. By taking slowly bigger falls and practicing, you are building up confidence and lowering fear. A lot of people don’t think to practice falls, but then they fall into panic situations for fear of falling. Deal with your fear right away while it is safe. Having one less thing to worry about is important.
If you get scared returning to lead climbing after a break, take it easy on yourself. It is actually very common. Sure there are lots of people you see at the crag or gym that look like they can sport climb fearlessly. Some of them can. Some of them aren’t showing how terrified they feel on the inside. Some of them have to do these same things to build up confidence. I’ve heard lots of people that worry about lead falls for a variety of reasons.
If you have a supportive and close belay partner, you might even want to let them know. Maybe they can help you by offering reassuring words, understanding if you need to take at clips to breath and calm down, or to be extra careful with how they are with catches. It is important for you to feel secure and a belay partner letting you know they have you, could help you.
I did all easy sport climbs today, but that’s what I needed. It felt good to build up some confidence, get used to clipping again, and work on effective techniques to help me stay calm. The fact that I was able to get on so many showed the progress I was able to make. I felt very proud of myself for getting on so many and sticking with them even when I felt scared or really struggled. It felt easy to give up, but I pressed on. I doubt anyone else would have thought I did an incredible job or been proud of me, but it doesn’t matter. To me it was a large personally accomplishment. I look forward to getting back into it and continuing to get stronger at overcoming my fear.
There are some great sport climbs out there that I don’t want to miss out on. It’s always good to work on pushing past personally limits and irrational fears.
What techniques work for you?