Climbers and the fear of falling

Hi there! After some time I finally decided to post something about rock climbing, my hobby and some kind of a passion one would say. First up in line is a short story about the fear of falling and how you can practice overcoming it. Enjoy!

Fear of falling. According to Wikipedia, this is a natural fear typical of most humans and mammals.[1] I guess most humans, because they didn't include those solo climbers we see from time to time who are fearless. Or maybe they aren't?

Jokes aside, we all fear falling. One way or the other, as climbers we are often experiencing this fear. Usually when we get to that crux part of the route and see that the last quickdraw we clipped is below our knee, or god forbid, below our feet! This fear can be really damaging, not just to our climbing, but to the whole psyche. For example - you couldn't do some easy move that you can achieve without a problem in "normal circumstances" and you yell "Take!" to your belayer, or maybe even grab a quickdraw in order to save yourself from the complete fall and whatnot. Then, when you get down, you feel bad, and weak, start comparing yourself with others who you thought were weaker than you, but did that move, then you think of the new training exercises you need to add so you can become stronger, and spiraling continues on. All that in less than 5 seconds! Our mind is awesome, isn't it?

Feeling this way is something that is totally normal. You shouldn't be bummed about that. Everyone fears falling, everyone. The only thing that differentiates us from those fearless creatures is that they practice it! I fear falling, but I also like it, in some weird sense. When I'm in a pickle, if my mind goes spiraling about the possible outcomes I often fall and experience that rush of adrenaline, and I want to do it again, and again, and again. Then, when I try it again and don't let my mind slip, I usually succeed. Usually.

There are numerous examples of climbers talking about their fear of falling and how to overcome it. My favorite ones were from Hazel Findley in a podcast episode, and from Arno Ilgner's book The Rock Warrior's Way. Both of them are professionals, trad climbers with years, decades of experience, and the fear they (still) feel is more realistic than a fear of a sport climber gumby like me - fear of falling on a trad equipment is numerous ways greater than fear of falling on sport climbing equipment. But nevertheless, the thing that is common to all of them in their conquering of that fear is practice!

So, how to practice it?

It can be as simple as going to the climbing wall and falling. There are several things to have in mind though:

  • You need to have a belayer you can trust, you can have a hard time falling when you are belayed by somebody you don't trust.
  • You need to communicate your objective (falling practice) to the belayer, and make sure the belayer knows the art of soft catching (will discuss in some future blog post).
  • Make sure proper safety measures are in place - you are properly tied, with required equipment (yes, that means helmet as well).
  • Start small - try falling when you are a few centimeters above the quickdraw, then go bigger.
  • Try and practice this once or more times per week, ideally during your warm-up period.

After you've done several sessions of practice falls, you can go even bigger and change a belayer. That usually can become really essential to your fear of falling and completely another dimension. When I started climbing, I never thought that having any impact until I went climbing with people other than my regular climbing partner(s).

We all have some fears, some are rational, some completely irrational. It is only us who decide how those fears will affect us.

See you in the next post!


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