Climbers are no strangers to fear. Whether it’s a fear of falling or a fear of failure, we all experience this primal instinct at some point. Some climbers are naturally gifted with a reduced inclination towards fear, others are so afraid of falling that they refuse to boulder. I’ve met climbers on both ends of this spectrum, from a friend of mine that sport climbs well into the 5.14 range, but hates falling so much that he doesn’t deliver sincere onsight attempts and will only consider bouldering in a gym if he absolutely has to in order to stay fit. Then you have me, who likes to highball boulder without pads (kinda free solo?).
In recent years, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by fear. I’m not convinced that fear is a zero sum game; that is to say that you are either afraid or you are unafraid. I think the reality, for most of us, is that we need to learn to coexist with fear rather than try to conquer it. Fear is good, it keeps you safe. Someone who’s deathly allergic to bees should probably be afraid of bees, and there’s not much reason for them to become unafraid of bees unless they want to be a beekeeper. Climbers, however, stand to benefit a great deal by being less afraid of things like falling or heights or failure. Sometimes your natural instincts make you think you’re less safe than you actually are, so fear sets in and you shut down. Ever tried highball bouldering or runout sport climbing? Unless you’re used to it, it can be quite terrifying. But provided you have ample pads and spotters, or your belayer is competent, you’re not really less safe than you normally are–a fall is just likely to be less pleasant.
I’ve been coming around to the idea that true fearlessness–unless born with it–is unattainable. True fearlessness means your brain simply doesn’t register fear normally. While I believe true fearlessness to be predetermined, I also believe that it is entirely possible to replicate it.
You can build up other facets of your mental fitness so that fear is forced into the background.
It’ll still be there, but it won’t shut you down quite so easily.
I’m not going to pretend that there’s some workout you can do, pill you can take, or ancient ritual you can invoke that will make you less afraid. What I am going to do is talk about some of the other aspects of mental fitness that can–and should–be developed that are likely to reduce your inclination to fear. The short version is this: being less afraid comes naturally with experience, but that alone isn’t very helpful and there are a few more interesting layers that are worth exploring. You won’t finish this article and be immediately relieved of your fear, nor will you have a particular system to follow or chant to repeat, or anything like that. What you will have is–hopefully–an evolved understanding of where your fear stems from, what exacerbates it, and what soothes it. What I want from you, and what you owe to yourself, is to make peace with your fears so you don’t have to fight them all the time.
For me, fearlessness is achieved through confidence. If I know I possess the physical abilities required to send a climb, I can convince myself to not be afraid. I can do it, therefore I will do it. Consider this highball bouldering example: if I can climb any conceivable Vx sequence when 3 feet from the ground, I can also do it 20 feet off the deck or 50 feet off the deck. The ability to actually do the moves isn’t the concern. What is of concern is what my level of fatigue is likely to be like at that point. So if I know that that Vx sequence 20 feet up is preceded by 10 feet of Vx-1 and another 10 feet Vx+1, all I really need to determine is whether or not the accumulated fatigue from the first 20 feet of climbing will be great enough to prevent me from being able to climb the final Vx sequence. If that confuses you, you’re overthinking it.
If I’m confident that I can do all the moves and that mid-climb fatigue won’t be an issue, my confidence will override my fear.
It’s not a flawless system, I admit. It just works for me. The reason that it works is because I understand the composition of climbs, how difficulty is formulated, and I am acutely aware of my own physical and technical abilities. This isn’t the case for everyone, or even most people. Unearned confidence is called overconfidence, and it’s what’ll get you messed up. I’ve put in a lot of work and time to earn my confidence, so perhaps there are better methods for less experienced climbers to reconcile with their fear.
One of my proudest moments of confidence: topping the coveted Squamish highball Resurrection over just two crash pads and having only tried the opening move once before sending.
I’m going to come right out and say it: I may not be the best person to talk about trust, because I despise trust in all forms. Throughout my life, my trust has never been rewarded. Trusting people doesn’t work for me, nor does trusting myself. You know the phrase “trust your feet?” I loathe that phrase. What have my feet ever done for me that I haven’t made them do?! I stop thinking about my foot for a second and it slips, I stab it recklessly at a faraway hold and I miss completely, and so on. My personal ideology when it comes to trust is to simply not do it. Instead, I choose to take full responsibility for my safety, my movements, and everything else. Hell, the one time I decided to fully trust my spotter, I went for a wild dyno 18 feet off the deck, hit the target hold just wrong, fell, and completely missed all six of my pads because my “spotter” recoiled in fear instead of spotting. So yes, I have trust issues. But no, I’m not going to project those issues onto anyone else. I won’t tell you that trust is bad or that you should never trust anyone or anything, I’m just saying that trust doesn’t end well for me, so I avoid it.
If you trust your feet and it works for you, great. If you have spotters/belayers you trust, fantastic. You’re probably in a position to cultivate an environment of trust that can alleviate fear. I can’t really speak from personal experience, but being able to climb and focus solely on the climbing because you trust the people on the ground to keep you safe, no matter what, is a means of not being afraid. The closest example that I can offer is gym climbing. I have zero issues committing to the wildest, zaniest moves in a gym because I know that the flooring is designed to keep a damn elephant from feeling the floor. I haven’t found the secret to replicating that brazenness outside, so I’ve had to rely on other methods besides trust to make peace with my fear. But if you can trust your partner(s) to keep you safe, there’s no reason not to.
A rare instance where I trusted my spotter enough to work this highball with a notoriously hard topout, Saigon Super Direct.
This is the classic tried and true method for alleviating fear. Simply do something scary enough times and it will stop being scary. It works for running out sport climbs, whipping on small nuts and cams, blowing top outs, and if you want to get really crazy, it also works on a neurological level for gains in recruitment and contact strength. My first campus session after some time away from the board is always bad because my body has essentially forgotten that it can do it. After just a few sessions of exposing my body to that type of demand, I bounce right back to top form.
Do anything enough and you will adapt, including falling.
I’m generally not a huge fan of trying to force exposure, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful for some people in some situations. I happen to think that taking practice falls in a gym isn’t very good preparation for anyone that fears falling outside. Practice falls tend to be too controlled to really be useful. What you really need is to be exposed to natural, unintentional falls, and to be exposed to how safe those kinds of falls really are.
That said, I absolutely think that there’s a place for practicing specific falls and dropping off boulders. If you’re going for a hard redpoint outside, it can be extremely valuable to identify all of your potential falls and practice them in a controlled way. Take a purposeful whip at the crux move or during a pumpy runout section to get yourself some exposure to the falls that may occur on a redpoint attempt. By experiencing those falls on purpose, you’re less likely to feel the same fear you may have felt while redpointing had you not already taken the falls.
The caveat to this is specificity. Getting comfortable with the potential falls on one route isn’t guaranteed to transfer to a general level comfort with falling. All routes are different and lend themselves to different types of falls. Bolt spacing, crux location, runout sections, pumpy sections, the formation of the wall, type of rock, etc. all play a huge role in the nature of the falls that may occur and the type of fear the idea of those falls can inspire. Getting comfortable falling in the gym is really only going to get you comfortable with the pure sensation of falling and being caught, which really ought to be a given for any sport climber already. But if you’re not already comfortable with simply falling and being caught, you should definitely practice taking some nice gym falls.
The bouldering equivalent would be to practice dropping/falling from certain heights onto certain pads just to see what it’s like. In fact, part of my outdoor boulder warmup is to drop from a tall boulder onto my pads in order to get used to the sensation of falling and the impact from landing. If I intend to climb something tall and hard, I damn sure want to get myself prepared for the experience of falling from a similar height first, especially if I’m using a different pad setup than normal. The idea is that by getting acclimated to the being at that height, the act of falling, and the feeling of impact, I’m priming my mind to not fear any of those things when I can’t afford the distraction. I don’t recommend doing a ton of this because your knees are liable to hate you, but preparing the mind for climbing is just as important as preparing the body.
While working on Direction, I would make sure to top out the Grandma Peabody boulder at least once during my warmup to give myself exposure to the massive height.
You may have noticed that I didn’t talk about the fear of failure at all. That’s because I think it’s ultimately a different kind of fear than the more basic fears of heights and falling. Fear of failure deserves to be talked about in its own space at its own time.
In an ideal situation, the progression to fearlessness would be somewhat linear. You’d begin by trusting yourself and your climbing partner, which would allow you to get exposure, exposure becomes experience, and experience becomes confidence. The result would be achieving a balance of all of those things that allows you to expand the boundaries of your comfort zone, making for an exceptionally mentally fit climber. For me, that process never gets off the ground (pun welcomed, but not intended) because of my trust issues and lack of exposure to falling. That’s not a boast about “never falling because I’m so amazing,” it’s a sobering rumination about how my lack of trust and my need to always be in control don’t allow me to truly experience falling.
Of course, things rarely happen in an ideal way and we’re forced to figure out how to make it work, regardless. The best laid plans and all. I’ve had to compensate for my lack of trust with a surplus of ability and confidence. I force myself to be better than I need to be so I don’t have to rely on trust. Maybe someday I’ll have a regular spotter that I can trust, but for now I’ve got to work with what I have. Someone else may not have any problems with trust, but simply don’t even have a regular spotter. The solo boulderer needs to make up for that by choosing the right problems for themselves. Another person may lack confidence in their own abilities, which doesn’t just open the door for fear, it rips it off the hinges. The climber lacking confidence in themselves likely just needs more exposure to that type of climbing to cement their understanding of it.
I refuse to believe that fear is binary. I think if you dig deep enough into your own psyche, you can discover what you’re really afraid of and make whatever adjustments are necessary to your life and your climbing in order to balance out that fear. Being fearless isn’t about fighting, controlling, or conquering fear. It’s about accepting it and learning how to coexist with it.