Overcoming a Fear of Lead Climbing

lead climbing

Working on my fear of leading at Rumney

Overcoming a fear of leading or topping out boulder problems is a huge obstacle for many climbers. For years I top-roped my partner’s 5.12’s while being too afraid to lead even 5.8. When I did try to lead there were lots of “take”, tears, and frustration. It wasn’t until a birthday that I finally did something to change the way I perceived fear and the way it affected me. I had friends who for their birthday would try and lead as many pitches or send as many boulder problems as the age they were turning. For my birthday I decided I was going to take a lead fall for every year of my age. This was a transition point for me that has lead me down a path of leading my own projects, taking whippers and feeling mentally strong. I think something that many of us don’t realize is that everyone is scared: what separates us is how we deal with it. To me dealing with the fear is best compared to being an addict, it’s a constant battle. An addict considers themselves an addict for life and the fear of falling will never truly go away but the more you lead the better you will be able to deal with the fear. You can’t expect to get over the fear of leading if you don’t lead. Every time you force yourself to move through the fear it will get easier, every time you let the fear get the best of you it will get harder. Below are some tips that have helped me over the years and I hope that they can help you to.

lead climbing

Confidently leading in Kentucky

1. Be safe. If you and your partner know what you are doing and are climbing safe climbs then there is no need to be afraid of falling. If you are concerned with someone’s ability to belay you safely then don’t let them belay you. If you have a good belayer or spotter and are getting on climbs that take good gear or are bolted well then there is no need to be afraid.

2. Identify the difference between real danger and irrational fear. Are you scared because the gear is bad or there is a dangerous ledge you might hit if you fall or are you just feeling afraid with no real danger? The better you can assess real danger the better you will be at pushing past irrational fear.

3. Climb with people you trust and support you the way you want to be supported. Some of my favorite belayers are the ones who gently encourage me while I climb. When I hear my belayer encouraging me to “breath” or telling me that I’m “doing great” I know that they are paying attention to me and that allows me to forget about the belaying and focus on what I ‘m doing. When I am feeling extra nervous I always ask my belayer not to talk to other climbers so that I know their attention is focused on me.

lead climbing

Climbing in Colorado

4. Get rid of distractions. If you have children, pets or partners that are a distraction for you send them away while you climb or ask them to be quiet so that you will not be distracted.

5. Get efficient at clipping or placing gear. There is nothing scarier than having a bunch of rope out and not being able to clip. Practice clipping so that even when you are in a stressful position this will be one less thing to think about.

6. Breathe. I often find when I am feeling scared a few deep breaths while trying to relax my grip can do wonders.

7. Stop top-roping. Every time you top-rope you loose some of the mental edge you have worked so hard for. If the climb is safe there is no reason to top-rope it even if it is above the grade you normally climb.

lead climbing

8. Block out the fear. Once you have established that the fear is irrational and that a fall would be safe just move. Try to ignore the fear and force yourself to move past. Every time you do this it will get easier.

9. Fall. You must fall to feel better about falling. There may be tears but they are temporary, the satisfaction of overcoming the fear will last much longer and it will get easier.

10. Allow yourself a few steps backward every now and then. There are still days when I feel overcome with irrational fear on climbs that would normally be a warm up. It’s ok, just don’t let these days shut you down and cause you to fall back to old habits or excuses, i.e top-roping.

Climb on! ~Hilary

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12 thoughts on “Overcoming a Fear of Lead Climbing

  1. bieber4lyfe!!!! says:

    hillary is sooo hot! i watched her on dark star (5.13 c!!!!) and she is sooo close. one hang, making it look easy. i am going to stop top roping. i’m going to take 15 falls next time i’m outside!

  2. I stopped doing lead climbs the first time I fell! Even though my partner, sweetie Gian, encourages me to do lead climbs, I still have that fear of falling so until now, I am still top-roping. hehehe…

    These are really helpful tips. I’ll try to keep these in mind along with mustering the courage to do it. 🙂

    Climb on!


  3. Jeddii says:

    I have had awesome experience of watching Hil go from letting fear suppress her abilities to pushing her limits at red line hucking 40 footers. Hil worked hard and continues to work hard as a climber. What she does works , it may take a while but in the end soooo gratifying. Proud to be her friend & hubby ( most of all her climbing partner)

  4. Sasha says:

    Inspiring post Hil. Thank you so much for sharing your personal story and tips. I struggle in exactly the way you describe – training strength has never really been the challenge. In addition to everything you describe above it is also really wonderful to know you aren’t alone in the struggle. So thanks for being a rockstar!

  5. Rebecca says:

    I really love this blog, it’s so awesome! This post really motivated me to stop top-roping all together. I’m tired of always being the girl at the crag who mostly top-ropes things and that it be expected of me to do so because I’m a girl. I love lead climbing, but I let my fear get in the way most times and that sucks. There’s nothing more awesome than being able to clip the chains yourself 🙂

  6. Anna says:

    Hil is the epitome of sweet, encouraging and EXTREMELY hard-core. I have watched her encourage women of all abilities, from the budding 5.9 leader, to 5.13. I instantly feel better when I hear her softly say, “you got this girl. Breath.” And it has become my mantra for hard leads. I feel so privileged to have her and Jed around when I’m climbing!

  7. Jess says:

    I totally lost my lead head and getting it back has been a battle. This is good motivation to keep leading. Maybe I need to take 30 lead falls…

  8. Svet says:

    Awesome post! Taking pracice falls has definately helped me overcome my fear of leading. Also differentiating the perceived risk vs real risk which helps manage fear.

  9. […] this fall, Hilary Sherman shared her thoughts on overcoming a fear of leading. However, as we all know, leading is only half the equation – a good belayer is also […]

  10. JD says:

    Nice read for the new or struggling leader!
    We posted your article on ClimbingTechTips.com

  11. Mel the french girl says:

    Thanks Hilary! I read your article as you suggested to me when we met at the crag last sunday. Very inspiring…just like you. I’ll try to follow your simple tips…and stop top roping.

    I must overcome my fears…

  12. […] is a blog post from CruxCrush inspired me to find my inner strength and come up with this […]

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