A Step-by-Step Approach to Conquering Lead Climbing Fear

Feeling the nerves as you get ready to climb? You don't have to!

Feeling the nerves as you get ready to climb? You don’t have to!

When today’s guest contributor, Josh Thompson, approached us with this piece about dealing with fear, I (Missy here today, hey guys!) was on board right away.  As a person who a) has terrible fear of lead climbing, b) is even more afraid of belaying than climbing, and c) has had a lot of negative experiences with climbing in a short period of time, his approach of focusing on belayer competence, rather than the sink-or-swim, take-a-bunch-of-whippers-and-you’ll-feel-better school of thought that is the common wisdom just clicked with me.  Some of it may surprise you, but keep an open mind, and read on! Here’s Josh:

Have you ever tried to reason yourself out of fear? There you are, on the wall, ready to make a move, and suddenly you are flooded with doubt and what­-ifs. No matter how the climb unfolds (i.e. you send, you fall, or you take) you’re enduring this fear for at least some of the climb. We’ve all been there, but here’s the thing – if you wait until you become consciously aware of fear to deal with it, you’ve missed your opportunity.

Here’s my gutsy proposition: The only way you can conquer fear while climbing is by doing NOTHING that causes fear.

You may ask. But how can that be true?  Doesn’t trying to get over a fear of falling mean taking falls, feeling fear and facing up to it? That’s not exactly how it works, here’s why:

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Happy calm belayer = happy calm climber

Every time you climb while anxious, you teach your brain that climbing = anxiety. Your brain (especially your subconscious brain) is an attentive thing and doesn’t respond well to you simply wishing it behaved in another way.

You can retrain your brain only via experience.

The attitude you had on the last twenty routes you climbed will probably be the same attitude you have on your next climb. Break this cycle by building a long chain of POSITIVE experiences while climbing. Forcing yourself into uncomfortable, anxious situations counts as a negative experience, so you must avoid putting yourself in a situation where you’ll feel that fear.

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Inches Outside Your Comfort Zone

Conventional wisdom about training to lead climb will have the climber take falls over and over again in an attempt to inoculate themselves to this fear. This all-­or­-nothing approach is not just misguided, it is harmful. What I am suggesting is incremental progression to find the edge of your comfort zone, and then step ever-­so-slightly beyond it, and practice in this place until it no longer feels outside of your comfort zone. Then, step ever­-so-­slightly beyond your comfort zone, and do it again.

The following progression allows you to build confidence and move from “I have a lot of fear around falling” to “I have so much experiential proof that my belayer can safely catch me, I rarely feel fear in any situation.” The best part is, this can all be done without ever going very far outside your comfort zone.

As you start this training, keep the following two ideas in mind:

1. Your belayer is the most important piece of the puzzle. You should not even be taking big falls if your belayer can’t handle it, so we’ll focus on becoming (and helping your partner become) an amazing belayer whose judgement you can trust.

2. You and your climbing partner should both push yourselves equally hard.  Empathy matters and if you, as a belayer, are uncomfortable when your climber is above a bolt, it’s likely that you will also be uncomfortable when you are the climber in that same position.  So working on increasing your comfort with both roles is equally important.

The 5-Step Progression

This progression has worked for dozens of climbers, with a wide variety of experiences and levels of fear, and it will work for you. You will soon be having more fun, and climbing better and harder than you were before.

1. Belayer: Learn to Give a Soft Catch. A belayer uses a “soft catch” to prevent the climber from being uncomfortable and unsafe when falling. When you are driving through town and want to stop, do you slow down gradually, or do you slam on the breaks? As a belayer, you want to slow your climber down gradually (more detail on this in an upcoming post).

2. Climber: Learn to Identify a Soft Catch. Identifying a soft catch is the foundation to building trust in your belayer. If you can differentiate between a soft and hard catch, you can identify bad belayers (who keep spiking you and don’t stop even if you ask them to)
and you can find good belayers (who will at a minimum, give you soft catches).  This differentiation is also helpful for your belayer because you can provide them with quick and immediate feedback on how good their catch was.

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3. Climber: Take Small, Progressive Falls. Acquire the aforementioned “soft catch” skills by climbing up to the third or fourth bolt at your gym, clipping it, and then down-climbing a move or two, so the bolt is above your head. Now you’re on a little tiny top rope and should feel quite safe. (If you don’t feel safe, down climb some more so the top rope is even more apparent). Start taking falls here until you and your belayer have figured out the “soft catch” thing. It may take five or ten falls, but I promise ­this is the most worthwhile activity you can do to build trust and eliminate fear.

Once you and your belayer are feeling good with falls while below the bolt, climb a move or two higher, and do it again. Make sure that you are getting soft catches throughout! ­If the belayer ever fails to give a soft catch, let him/her know, and try again.

Keep this incremental progression going for as long as you feel comfortable and relaxed. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, or anxious, or lose your interest, end your training. Remember that to train your brain to stop feeling anxious about falling, you need a long chain of POSITIVE experiences. Your mental willpower is just like a muscle – it wears out. So don’t try to do too much in a single day.

4. Switch Roles Often. Take turns as climber and belayer so both partners have the chance to practice falling and providing soft catches. The belayer needs to be intimately aware of the fear the climber feels, and vice versa. Again, this is why it’s critical that no matter what difference in ability may exist between climber and belayer, they must both be equally talented belayers.

5. Ask For and Give Feedback.  After a fall, ask your climber, “Did that catch feel OK?”and help your climber identify any instances of fear on the wall. An attentive belayer who wants their climber to feel comfortable while climbing is tremendously valuable. This way your climber can focus on climbing, and you can help them keep growing in confidence.

When you feel confident in your belayer, climbing is way more fun!

When you feel confident in your belayer, climbing is way more fun!

Frequently Asked Questions:

How long should this all take? One “session” of practice, where you each take maybe ten falls, is more than enough to start seeing the benefits but you probably don’t want to spend a whole climbing session falling, so spend fifteen minutes practicing falls at the beginning of your session, while you’re warming up. Then, pick up where you left off when you climb again. In two or three sessions, you’ll see big changes.

Should I practice only on overhung terrain? No. Everything above applies to all kinds of terrain – if you fear falling on vertical or even slightly slabby terrain, run through the above system on vertical or slightly slabby terrain. (I promise it’s safe to fall on slab – just start small, and build from there.)

What if I don’t have just one climbing partner? Try to get all of your climbing partners on board with trying hard and taking falls and getting awesome catches. If you can get them on board, you’ll have a big group of great belayers to pick from. Just keep in mind, when you start climbing with a new/unproven belayer, your confidence might evaporate until you build that trust; I’ve built a high degree of trust with a regular climbing partner of mine, but almost every time I start climbing with a new climbing partner, my confidence plummets, along with my climbing ability.

In Conclusion

Learning to climb with confidence is a slow, incremental process of building trust and competence as a belayer with a climbing partner. Communicate with your belayer, and when you encounter a scary situation in the future, you will know how to work through that fear in a healthy, safe, and incremental way.

We all experience fear while climbing, and as long as we stick with the sport, we will find ourselves in new and intimidating situations. The solution is not to convince ourselves that we must have a blind confidence and climb fearlessly, it’s to work with our belayers, take falls in a progressive manner, and make sure we’re being safe.

The sheer joy of movement lies just beyond the edge of this fear. Whether you climb 5.8, or 5.14, this joy can be yours, with just a few hours of intentional work. You will reap the returns of this investment for the rest of your climbing career.

Thanks Josh!

Josh Thompson is a guest contributor to Crux Crush who loves climbing, books, boxed wine, and his wife. (But not in that order.) He teaches climbing to climbers in Colorado and from behind a keyboard at www.joshdthompson.com.

Photo Credits: All our own photos! Follow us on Instagram to keep up with our adventures.

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29 thoughts on “A Step-by-Step Approach to Conquering Lead Climbing Fear

  1. Nancy says:

    I think they should all be wearing helmets! I remember you posting about here not too long ago (this summer) about head injuries and the woman who was climbing wasn’t wearing one! Climbers have to be smart about it, especially with lead.

    • AD says:

      She was belaying without a helmet. I imagine the risk of a head injury when belaying (because of falling rock) is greater than the risk when lead climbing. Especially if you and your belayer are competent.

    • Cate says:

      Point well taken Nancy! We definitely all need to be better about wearing helmets, whether belaying or climbing. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Josh says:

    Helmets are awesome. I always wear one while belaying and trad climbing, and most of the time while sport climbing. I figure it’s more likely that I’d get hit by a falling rock and drop my climber than he get hit by a falling rock.

    They are light weight and ventilated – the only “good” reasons left for not wearing one are “I’m not in the habit” and “I think I look funny in a helmet.”

    AD said it perfectly. Risk is higher for the belayer.

  3. keith says:

    if we’re talking about risk probabilities, head injuries in sport climbing are incredibly rare. it’s fun to play the verification bias game and pull up articles about the guy who knows the girl whose cousin’s room mate got hit by a rock, but if you consider the number of people sport climbing each day, and the number of falls taken, and the number of those that DON’T result in ANY injury (let alone head trauma), the stats are really, really in your favor. Further, there are probably examples of more people getting severely injured in the gym (per capita) than at the cliff. By this logic, we should probably don helmets and stuff mouth guards into our mouths before training. I dunno, maybe we’re all just perpetuating a western ideal of prolonged life and productivity. When your time’s up, it’s up.

  4. Dan says:

    My first thought was also “Why is nobody wearing a helmet here”… but I think that watching most climbing videos, too.

  5. Tim says:

    “the sink-or-swim, take-a-bunch-of-whippers-and-you’ll-feel-better school of thought that is the common wisdom”

    Is it really common wisdom? I’ve never known anyone to advocate taking big falls as a way of building leading confidence. As far as I can see “common wisdom” pretty much mirrors what has been said here: incrementally larger falls designed to nudge your comfort zone that little further each time.

    One thing that I’d add is that it’s important to be aware of the reversibility of leading confidence training. In my experience, while it is possible see increases in confidence from just one session, unless falls are kept up that confidence can evaporate surprisingly quickly.

    • Josh says:

      Hey Tim – I’m not sure how commonly people recommend taking huge whips to get over fear, but the internet is littered with that advice. There’s good advice out there too, so, this was just my attempt to move the needle.

      You’re 100% right with the reversibility of confidence on lead. It’s a perishable skill, but one worth having. Confidence also fluctuates with new belayers! I’ve climbed like a scared kitten with some belayers. Not fun.

  6. Jay Jackson says:

    Great article folks, thanks.

    We teach a lot of folks to lead, and always focus on lead belaying more than the climbing – most people are very appreciative of an approach that focuses on; “Once you experience how easy lead belaying is you’ll naturally feel safer when you lead climb, since you know how easy giving a good safe catch is.”

    I will point new leaders and belayers in the direction of this article – really helpful.

    Happy climbing!

    Jay

    • Josh says:

      It sounds like you know what you’re doing, Jay. Folks learning from you are lucky. The “learn from a friend who barely knows more than you” method leads to problems down the road, and near-death experiences in the present. (I thought I knew how to lead belay, and then failed my lead belay test four times in a row. What poor soul let me belay them prior to that point?)

      Thanks for spreading around good knowledge! Keep it up!

  7. Jess W says:

    I am a true boulderer… you know, us boulderers gotta get on our top rope proj type of thing, but my husband LOVES to sport climb. When ever I feel loving enough to sport with him I usually try to work this way. Taking small falls that get bigger as as I get more confident REALLY seems to help. If I stop taking the purposful falls the fear creeps back in. Great advice, Josh.

    • Josh says:

      You’re a generous soul, Jess, to climb with your husband. I know boulderers who don’t even own a harness, and look with scorn upon us roped climbers.

      A few practice falls is a great way to start off a climbing session. I’ll often sprinkle a few in on my warm up climbs, just to make sure I’m comfortable. I often find myself trying to avoid taking the practice falls, which just means I REALLY need to take them.

      That pesky fear. Always creeping back in. Good luck belaying your husband!

  8. Rachel says:

    Great article! Josh, do you have any advice for climbers who have a fear of falling while bouldering? I find that I am much more afraid of falling while bouldering than when I am on a rope and this fear interferes with my ability to push myself on harder problems. Since this type of falling doesn’t involve a belayer, are there different “exercises” a climber can do to become more comfortable falling while bouldering?

    • Josh says:

      Hi Rachel,

      I’m terrified of bouldering to the tops of the walls at my local climbing gym. I won’t climb to the top unless I am almost 100% confident I can do the moves without falling.

      Two things could be helpful:
      1. Distinguish between controlled and uncontrolled falls. Controlled falls are MUCH safer, because you can land feet-first, and roll. (Spreading out the force) rather than landing in an awkward position.
      2. Don’t try to land straight on your feet. It’s really rough on the knees to keep falling and landing on your legs. So, try something akin to a parachute landing fall: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parachute_landing_fall

      Both of those items will be refined with practice and experience, so the next time you’re bouldering, keep ’em in mind, and see if they make falls a bit easier/softer/safer.

      And then get back to ropes! That’s where all the fun is. 🙂

  9. Brian says:

    I hear a lot of differing outlooks on helmet wearing, but all signs seem to point to them not being absolutely necessary– I think a lot of apprehension around climbing is just based around anxiety.

  10. don mcgrath says:

    Nice article Josh. I like how you present the balayer aspect. I’m going to refer to it in my blog on http://www.masterrockclimber.com/

  11. Shelli says:

    Really enjoyed this article. I would love some feedback on our issue. My husband is an awesome belayer but outweighs me around 100 pounds and it seems that even with practice on timing and jumping, this weight difference makes it almost impossible to soft catch when I’m on lead and fall. On the other hand, when I’m his belayer, he is almost guaranteed a softer catch. Any thoughts and/or advice would be appreciated.

  12. Shanna says:

    Nice article Josh. I have overcome a serious climbing falling injury (requiring hospitalization and surgery to fix). As expected, I had to rebuild confidence in falling.
    One of many strategies I used (and still do) was the safe fall practice as you described above. In my situation, I actually had to start falling with the bolt at my waist and then slowly progress upwards. The incremental progress was painstakingly slow and initially I could only handle 2-3 falls/day due to the high level of anxiety this practice created. I would like to advise that in situations when you have experienced a very bad catch resulting in injury it might 40 or 50 sessions (over a couple of years) to regain confidence. I hate to sound pessimistic, but I would not want someone in a similar situation be frustrated if there are no big changes after 2-3 sessions. On the other hand, with lots of dedication you can overcome the fear of falling and still climb hard. Thanks,

    • Josh says:

      Hi Shanna,

      Yikes. This experience you had is truly catastrophic. I’m so sorry, and I’m really impressed that you are back climbing and taking falls. I’d expect not that you’d be able to handle “just” two or three lead falls a day, but that you’d not be able to lead at all, or you’d stop climbing completely.

      Kudos.

      And, right you are, that someone starting in a similar position as you might not see much improvement in just a few sessions. I’d argue, though, that any dedicated falling training is remarkable progress, regardless of how many falls took place.

      Again, I’m impressed. Thanks for chiming in, and I hope you are well on your way to health and a solid lead head!

      -Josh

  13. Katie says:

    I just wanted to say thank you for this guide. I read it back when it was posted in December and finally decided to start using it with my husband/climbing partner. Not only is it working (quickly!) on calming my fears. Additionally, it taught me that I need to give a harder catch since he has 40 lbs on me.

    I was so worried that I’d never enjoy lead climbing, but, thanks to this post, I know I will sooner rather than later!

    • A little late on my reply here, Katie. I’m so glad this was helpful to you!

      If he has 40 lbs on you, a harder catch sounds exactly right.

      Are you enjoying lead climbing yet? I hope so. Let me know if you are not!

      • Katie says:

        Thanks for the response, Josh! I was doing pretty well for the first half of this year. Even climbed at Red River Gorge and set the draws on a route. Buuuuut, then I had hernia surgery in July and since then I haven’t really led much of anything. Mentally I feel back to where I was last year. 🙁

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  15. Kent Johnson says:

    Great article.

    My advice to fearful climbers bears in mind one of the first things you mentioned – by the time you’re scared it’s too late. I tell them to slowly climb and be very mindful of fear.

    The moment you feel it coming, reverse one move to the last stable position. Take all the time you need. This usually works. Becoming aware of the rising fear is key. We all get “the fear”. All of us. Realizing when it is irrational and then breathing through it and sending is one of the most rewarding aspects of climbing.

    Like the article says, work on practicing success.

    • EJ says:

      I think this where a really good belayer can also play a part. The times when I was afraid and had a belayer talk to me calmly about assessing the upcoming moves was so valuable! I wasn’t left to my own brain to try to handle fear and analysis; that outside voice injecting a rational perspective was so affirming and allowed me to finish some climbs that would have otherwise shut me down! The difference for me was crystal clear. I have asked my climbing friends what they want to hear (or not hear) from me as their belayer. And it has caused me to consider what I want/need from my belayer, and verbalize it.

      • 100% agree, EJ. My brain often tries to derail my climbing, but when my belayer is watching and says “You’re safe in this position” or “you’re fine making the next few moves, even if you can’t clip for another five” or something…

        soooo helpful.

        Good for you for asking what sort of encouragement your climbing friends want. I just started doing the same in October!

    • Glad this was helpful, Kent.

      I love that you encourage climbers to be mindful of fear. Sort of the opposite of what most people do, but totally the right thing. pay attention to it, realize when it happens, and back down a bit and gather yourself before continuing.

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