Climbing and Intimidation

Andrea 3

For this week’s post on climbing and intimidation, we look to guest contributor, climber Andrea Brennen. Despite having climbed since 2005, Andrea, like most of us, still battles that intimidation factor. Today, she explores its place in climbing. You can read more about Andrea below and at her website

Rock climbing is a sport that is, in part, defined by being afraid. As a result, climbers tend to be pretty adept at confronting and overcoming some very common fears: of heights, of exposure, of falling. Intimidation, however, is something different — something much less about physical danger and much more about mental game, confidence, other people, and ego.

To borrow from Dave MacLeod’s Nine out of Ten Climbers Make the Same Mistakes, intimidation is not the fear of falling, but the fear of failing.

Intimidation is what you feel that first day of climbing at a new area where unfamiliar rock makes the warm-ups feel impossible, or that moment right before you pull onto a new route — a climb that’s not your “style” or one that’s graded just above your limit — when you can’t help but wonder “what the @*!#*!$ am I doing?”

It’s the feeling that other people — who are stronger or fitter or more experienced or who have some expectation of how you should perform — are watching.

And of course, it’s also the familiar feeling of not climbing as well as you “should” be climbing: the day you don’t win, or you can’t send your project, or you can’t climb anything at all. The self-doubt starts to creep in and you either shrug it off…or you don’t.

Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine who just started climbing.

Him: “So, I was at the gym the other night and I realized there are two kinds of guys who boulder: the guys who climb with their shirts on and the guys who don’t.”

Me: “That didn’t take you long. So…what kind of guy do you want to be?”

Him: “Well, at this point, I don’t think I have much of a choice. At my gym, it seems like you have to climb at a certain V-grade to be able to take your shirt off. Is it like that everywhere?”

Me: “Well…yea, pretty much.”

Him: “It’s a little intimidating for us noobs. Bouldering, in general, can be a little intimidating…everyone sitting around watching you climb…and fall.”

Me (aloud): “That’s silly, you shouldn’t be intimidated by other people at the gym just because they’ve been climbing longer than you have.”

Me (thinking to myself): “Although…it’s probably a good call to leave your shirt on for a while. Hmm…what is the threshold for shirt-off acceptability? V10 ok, V8 ok, V6 I dunno, V2 probably not….wait, am I really thinking about this seriously? I guess I can see how it could be an intimidating scene.”

Andrea showing the boys (without shirts) how it's done.

Andrea showing the boys (without shirts) how it’s done.

This “shirts-off” conversation got me thinking about feeling intimidated — by climbs, by climbers, by the climbing scene. It also made me think about how rare it is for climbers to talk about the fact that feeling intimidated impacts their performance. Ego, it seems, is never the source of the problem; it’s always the conditions, or the setting, or the sandbagging, or being hungover, or my finger hurts, or my shoes suck, or I’m tired, or I climbed yesterday, or….whatever.

If everyone feels intimidated now and then, why don’t climbers talk about it more often? Is it because we assume other (i.e. better) climbers don’t get intimidated…that there is a certain ability level — like the V-grade threshold for (semi-)acceptable shirtless climbing — at which it stops being an issue? Are we worried that acknowledging the feeling will make it worse?

Clearly, some climbers, regardless of their ability level, handle intimidation better than others. What’s their secret? How can the rest of us channel their confidence? In our next post, Crux Crush talks with pro climber (and former girl crush of the month) Meagan Martin about what intimidates her in climbing and how she deals with it in the high-pressure context of competition.

Stay tuned…and climb on! ~Andrea

About Andrea Brennen: If you climb in New England (or Colorado or ABS Nationals or Jordan) chances are that you know or know of Andrea. On the weekends, she can be found at any of the local climbing areas, giving the “tough guys” a run for their money, constantly pushing herself, all the while encouraging others. At our Thursday Ladies’ Night bouldering sessions, Andrea’s become our climbing guru, to the point where we find ourselves stuck on a route, asking, “WWAD? (What would Andrea do?)” Her skills from her “day job” as a designer in data visualization at MIT also come in handy. This last year, she and her STNCL group designed and ran the scoring at ABS Nationals and MetroRock’s Dark Horse Finals. (You know that amazing score board that allowed viewers to see how the competitors were doing in real time? Ya, that was Andrea).

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5 thoughts on “Climbing and Intimidation

  1. Jess says:

    Great post! I have certainly have had those days where I don’t send a single boulder problem or get caught up afraid in in my head leading something at my limit. I guess you just push through, remember you climb because you love it and it feels so good, and come back fresh the next time :)

  2. Christa says:

    As someone who’s been climbing for 15 years, I deal with this a lot. I constantly feel like people expect me to be a much better climber because I’ve been doing it so long. I get really intimated and I’m afraid to get on hard routes, lest I flail and look ridiculous. Of course the problem with this is that I don’t get on hard routes, so I don’t develop my skills and strength, reinforcing the fact that I don’t climb that hard :-(

    It can also be pretty frustrating when it seems like everyone who has only been climbing for a few years leads harder then I do. I’ve really had to learn to relax and just have fun with it no matter the level of climbing, because in the end, it’s about having fun, that’s why we do it as a hobby. I also find that when I make having fun the focus, I’m more likely to try those hard routes because I’m not focused on failing and looking like a dork :-)

    • missy says:

      Totally! I also have found when I just focus on the fun, I climb SO much better. And really, it is all about the fun.

  3. At the other end of the scale, as a beginner learning on my own, every time I go to the gym I have to spend some quality time breathing and yoga-ing to give me some courage to go out in front of a line of 20 (half of them topless) guys to stumble my way up a wall. I rationalise by thinking of all the other reasons someone might be on a V1, tiredness, injury, warming up, etc. Turns out the only people who really take any notice of me are friendly folk offering help, which is awesome. Toplessness is confusing though. Can’t say I get it, in an air conditioned indoor climbing centre!

  4. Jordan says:

    I have a different mindset: I’m more impressed by people taking falls. Say you’re in a gym, you send your route and hardly anyone notices – you may get some kudos, and that’s nice. But if you take a huge gnarly boulder-bail at the crux, even if it’s just a V2 people are going to cheer your effort, because you’re at least going for it.

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