This article was kindly written by one of my role models in climbing, Whitney Boland. She’s a petite female who has shown me that it’s possible to make reachy, powerful moves, even when you’re short. And to do it (seemingly) fearlessly. (Photo of Whitney above in Sicily by Andrew Burr for Rock & Ice Magazine)
I once had someone ask me how I was so fearless when I climb. I thought this was a bit comical, because I don’t find myself to be fearless. Maybe I’m my own worst critic, but looking back on my climbing, I’ve had moments of irrational fear just as much as anyone else.
For example, my trad climbing head used to be troubling. Following friend and New River Gorge hardman Pat Goodman, I body-humped through the crux of a North Carolina classic 5.9 known as Tits and Beer, scared on top-rope. Or how about the time in Sicily I had to lower back to the belay on the fourth pitch because I broke a tufa, took a huge fall and couldn’t well up the nerve to climb back up and past that section before clipping something, despite the fact that it was totally safe.
Or all those countless, painfully long times that I up-climbed and down-climbed the beginning sequence of a crux unable to commit to the big crux move in the middle that entered the “not down-climbable zone”. Thank god for endurance and patient (albeit heckling) belayers and spotters.
I am convinced that there is no such thing as a fearless climber.
They just don’t exist. The climber that appears to be fearless is only managing it well and climbing within his/her personal boundaries of what they know is possible. It’s not how to not be scared but, rather, how to deal with it.
Fear is rooted in the mind and perception; it is helpful and sometimes necessary in climbing. It triggers certain psychological reactions that are good. But just because fear can be good doesn’t mean that it won’t backfire against performance.
Fear can be rational—like, I’m scared this bear charging me is going to rip my arm off—or irrational—I am scared to climb one foot above my bolt just…well…because I’m above the bolt. There’s also different types of fear: like fear of falling or fear of failure.
Rational fear is fine; it’s actually a fantastic built-in survival mechanism (thanks biology and evolution), and you should listen to that. Irrational fear is, well, irrational and it will always hold us back in climbing. To decide if what you’re dealing with is irrational, the first thing you should do, always, is to assess the manageable risk. This can be different for every person depending on skill level.
I’m not going to suggest every fearful climber go out and jump on an R-rated climb, or attempts to onsight that awe-inspiring 35-foot highball over a nasty talus landing. But I do think it’s good to push your personal boundaries.
A few steps that have helped me deal with fear and confidence in climbing:
Here are a few things I’ve done myself that hopefully will help you, too…
1. Pretend You’re Confident
When you’re confident, it feels like you’re climbing stronger, precise, focused. But when fear takes over, every foot placement, every way your grab a hold suddenly becomes something you second-guess. The good thing is that confidence is something you train like a muscle.
The first thing I have done in the past is pretend to have confidence. Start with a warm-up, or a route you know well, and move fluidly, dynamically and snappy, concentrating on your foot placements and sequences. Execute each move like you are a total boss. It’s almost a 100 percent mental switch in approach for me.
Then try this on a route you’re less familiar with or that is new. Climbing as if you know you’re going to stick every move. Climb precisely and try not to overthink. Now assess what the difference is in climbing that way versus an apprehensive, unsure way.
2. Make The Decision
Sometimes, I get scared before certain moves. If you’re short (like me at a daunting 5’ ½”) big moves do this all the time. It might be a fear of falling (as big moves are dynamic, can’t be reversed and thus, are committing and out of our control) or a fear of failure (same reasons).
When you get to a move like this, decide if you want to stick it and go for it. More often than not, you’ll surprise yourself. Even if you don’t hit the move and take a fall you can feel proud of the fact that you really went for it and know how to adjust for the next attempt.
3. Breathe and Re-Center Yourself
When you get scared, you can always come back down to a rest or the best restful-like stance you can find, and take deep breaths. Then give yourself a pep talk. Say positive things and try avoiding negatives (like don’t or can’t or I’ll never do it). Think of good things (I’m at a restful stance) – not bad things (I’m pumped). And never, ever say “scared” to yourself.
I was once climbing a route in the Red River Gorge that has a funky slab bulge section in the beginning. This section launched directly into a slightly overhanging, crimpy, run-out crux. The first couple of moves on the crux weren’t necessarily heinous, but the holds were small, the moves big and you were over your bolt with a threatening slab-whipper looming before you clipped the next. When I was working the route, I had done that section clean a bazillion times and was nervous about the following section where the actual crux moves kicked on.
This particular time I had suggested vigilance to my belayer before I got on (as a warning to “stay with me in that section”). I shook out on the slab and then launched in moving quickly and confidently. Right before I got to the clip before the real crux, my belayer said, “You’re good, don’t be scared.” And then, as if that were a magic password, my elbows shot to the sky and all I could hear in my mind was the word scared. Naturally, I got scared, got pumped, fumbled my feet and took the slab whipper.
4. Think of Confidence and Fear As Something You Can Control
Probably the most enlightening piece of material that worked for me is this: Think of fear and confidence as something you can control.
The best method for me to do it is imagine that my fear and confidence is a switch: up is confident and down is fearful. Mentally (I actually picture myself doing it), I flip the switch up to turn the confidence on. Once I mentally flip the switch, I won’t allow the irrational thoughts of fear back in. It sounds so stupid, but I promise it works.
5. Believe and Visualize
Seeing (in your mind) yourself doing a particular move confidently and perfectly over and over again is very powerful, even if you’ve never done the move. Similar to the idea of visualizing yourself “flipping the switch” for confidence, if you visualized yourself executing a move enough times, then the next time you get to the crux, your second-nature, go-to mental picture as you reel up for the move will be of yourself sticking it.
6. Baby Steps and Reassurance
Prove to yourself your fear is irrational and take baby steps. Perhaps you are scared of falling. Next time you go climbing, then, climb up and take at the bolt before the crux. Then climb a move and let go, taking a fall. Then, climb to the next hold and fall. Do this a few times, so you can experience that fall and can mentally reassure yourself that it’s not so bad.
Also, get external reassurance. Just a week ago, I went climbing at the Near Trapps. My climbing partner suggested a route and when I looked it up in the guidebook it was a 5.12R. Normally, I would look at this, nix it and go on to peruse other routes; however, my belayer had climbed it and said that the protection was very good, despite the R rating. So I went for it. The first half of the climb I proceeded cautiously, perhaps too cautiously, taking much too long fiddling with my gear and sewing up every little wonky pocket and horizontal. I thought only of the crux: two crimps and a “big” move to a jug. When I got to the crux, I clipped a fix pin and backed it up with two small cams—basically, I built an anchor. I procrastinated for a while by checking and re-checking my placements. Then, finally, decided to go. I grabbed the two crimps, committed to the move and launched. Unfortunately, I came up shy of the hold and took the winger. I screamed a horrific, high-pitched scream. But, the fall was fine. When I got on the route a second time, I was no longer thinking about the crux and falling.
Mental training often gets overlooked for things like campus boards, fingerboards or doing four by fours. There is a place for that, of course. But you can have the strength of an ox and still not send because your fear and confidence in climbing are holding you back. So add a few mental training exercises and remember the old saying, “The best climber is the one having the most fun.”
Here’s a little bio about Whitney and a taste of her badassery on rock and in life.
Whitney Boland is freelance writer and copywriter that currently lives outside of New Paltz, New York. Whitney has been climbing for over 13 years; though she might not be the boldest climber around, she has broken through barriers in her personal climbing that have helped her become a more rounded climber. She has redpointed up to 5.14a (sport), V10, and 5.13 (trad). She is on the Black Diamond, Sterling and La Sportiva ambassador teams.
To learn more about Whitney, check out her website at whitneyboland.com.