Fear of falling is one of the most common afflictions you can find at any crag in Oz. VL’s regular columnist, Denby Weller, talks to the experts about overcoming it and comes away with some valuable lessons
WORDS: Denby Weller IMAGES: As Credited
I am in the grips of what I can only describe as a cascade of panic. I observe helplessly as my mind is swamped by it, this feeling that began as butterflies, progresses through dread and is now a screaming hail of white noise in my mind. A couple of seconds ago I was able to focus on the sensations of my body, now I am simply a passenger in a world o
f overstimulation. The butterflies have intensified to the point where I can’t actually feel my feet anymore, and I am unable to assess the quality of the hand- and foot-holds that I cling to, except by observing with my mind’s wild eye that the holds must be good, because I’m still hanging on.
I’m making mistakes now, forgetting the sequence I invented and rehearsed for months. Pump spreads like a cancer. I heave through a short roof and arrive at the bolt that stands between me and easy terrain at the top of Split Wave (23), my project on Centennial Glen’s Wave Wall.
I let go with my right hand to clip and, immediately, the fingers of my left hand begin to uncurl. I suddenly see my situation with utter clarity. The last 20 seconds of fumbling the sequence have robbed me of much-needed strength and now I am too pumped to clip. I swear and the sound is someone else’s voice, high and pinched with panic. I begin desperately to reverse the roof moves. It’s futile. My foot cuts loose and I’m off.
I try not to scream.
On the ground, a deep flush of embarrassment pushes up my neck towards my cheeks. This was not a defeat because I didn’t climb the route. It was a defeat because my mind was unable to control my fear. On the ground, I know this fear to be largely irrational. This is a sport climb. The bolts are good, my gear is meticulously cared-for, I trust my belayer implicitly.
But on the wall, panic blots out knowledge like spilled ink spreading across the pages of my mind. In this state I am unwilling to do moves at my limit. There’s a growing disparity between the grades I climb on lead and top-rope. I think of this widening gap as being evidence of a lie. I am a rock climber, but that word implies boldness and fortitude, and today I have shown neither.
Rock climbers have many words to describe fear – “gripped”, “sketched out”, “peaking”, the amusingly apt “pants filling”. But even the most descriptive term falls so far short of actually describing the experience that it’s almost comical. In a macho sport where achievement is synonymous with fearlessness, climbers downplay and understate their experience of fear as a matter of course. In this milieu, I have always assumed that my fear of falling was more pronounced than the average climber’s – whether by nature or nurture, it’s something that set me apart from “real” climbers. My dirty little secret.
In my heart I know I’ve always had this fear. It wasn’t brought on by a bad fall here or a close call there. I can remember as a kid being afraid of roller-coasters, being unwilling to climb as high in the backyard tree as my brother, being cautious where other kids were blasé.
Can I overcome my fear? This question, which hides in plain sight for the climbing community, is at the root of the sport for many climbers. But the rise of climbing journalism in the ‘90s saw a spike in the public’s appraisal of climbers as extreme athletes bound for the ad campaigns of the hottest brands. In this media landscape, the discussion of fear management has been reduced to a few paltry catchphrases: “being bold”, “getting in the zone”, “just focusing on the moves”.
Because it’s uncool to talk frankly about fear in rock climbing, there’s no apprenticeship structure for new climbers in the way that there is for matters of safety. An experienced climber would never dream of telling a novice that they’ll just “get used to” tying their knot correctly; they’d supervise, point out weaknesses in technique and offer advice on improvement. But in the arcane arts of fear management, information is lost from one generation to the next, only to be rediscovered like the wheel, each time a new crop of climbers pushes their way up through the ranks.
On advice from more experienced climbers and authors like Arno Ilgner in his book, The Rock Warrior’s Way, I had embarked on a program of practice falls on a few separate occasions. The goal was to take ten lead falls in each session. I adhered faithfully to the plan but over the weeks my neurosis only deepened. It never got easier to let go, and I never reached the stage where I was willing to do sketchy moves above a bolt. I concluded that falling practice didn’t work on me, and I stopped doing it.
I began to wonder whether my mind was just broken. Whether there was a genetic or neurological difference between those who were able to yo-yo nonchalantly at the pointy end, and those who, like me, found lead falls completely terrifying even on well-bolted sport routes. I’d have dismissed this question as that of a rookie if not for Ross Taylor’s editorial in VL12, where he confessed that despite his dedication to a life of climbing and his success at grades that are out of reach to most climbers, he had always suffered from a fear of falling.
There were other clues that this experience might be more widespread than I initially imagined. An offhand comment from crusher and co-author of The Rock Climber’s Training Manual, Mark Anderson, who made the passing comment that he’d been ‘sketched and scared all the time’ for the first ten years of his climbing career. Neely Quinn, grade-30 climber and creator of TrainingBeta.com, described herself as a ‘scared leader’ when I caught up with her last year in Colorado.
Maybe the fear could be overcome, after all? I decided the only way to find out would be to ask.
‘Can anyone do what you do?’ I ask Jason “Singer” Smith in a Skype call in April 2015. ‘No,’ he says emphatically. ‘Some people just simply don’t have it.’ Singer, who is known for bold big-wall solos in Yosemite and on Baffin Island, was telling me moments ago of his preference for climbing with a swami belt and hip belay. ‘Have you ever taken or caught any big falls with that rig?’ I ask incredulously.
There’s a slight pause. ‘I don’t fall,’ he says simply. ‘I’ve never trusted climbing gear. I’ll down-climb for miles before I’ll fall on a piece of gear.’ He confirms that this has been his preference since he began climbing. ‘I have, like, two memories of ever having fallen when free-climbing. Both were pretty traumatic, actually.’
Did he injure himself?
‘No – just falling is scary,’ he says with such emphasis that I laugh.
‘I’ve always said that when you’re free soloing, climbing is the last thing that you’re thinking about. At least it is for me. People often assume that free soloists are crazy – kind of “death-wish people”, but it’s actually exactly the opposite. It’s completely serene. When you’re free soloing – I know how good this hold is when I’m five feet off the ground, and it shouldn’t be any different when I’m 500 feet off the ground. If you’re able to not be freaked out just because it’s 500 feet off the ground – which most people are – it’s not the same move to them.’
Singer’s words are ringing in my ears two weeks later when I’m back at Wave Wall, warming up on Jaws (21) for another day of projecting on Split Wave. Saxon Johns, belaying me with his usual laser-focus, once free soloed Ain’t No Sunshine (28) in Nowra. As I do the moves on Jaws for perhaps the hundredth time, I just can’t ever imagine free soloing this route. How a mind could travel the distance from my current level of control to Singer’s or Saxon’s is just beyond me.
Arno Ilgner, perhaps the world’s leading expert on the subject of fear in climbing, couldn’t be more different than Singer. Where Singer’s reputation as a Yosemite wild-child precedes him, Arno’s manner is thoughtful, almost to the point of being grave. But for all their differences, Arno’s work with climbers around the world taps into a similar approach to Singer’s. ‘We like to look at what is a “yes” fall zone compared to what’s a “no” fall zone,’ he says, echoing his words in The Rock Warrior’s Way. ‘In “no” fall zones we stay on grades that are below our climbing difficulty limit so that we still have options. We can maybe down-climb out of those situations and get off the climb if we don’t feel that we can climb it without falling.’ While I comprehend this rationale, there’s a problem – I can’t ever remember being in a “yes” fall zone on lead.
It’s Hazel Findlay, the first woman to climb the hallowed British trad grade of E9, who sheds some light. ‘The real challenge with this sort of climbing is knowing when you are in real danger versus perceived danger. Often your body and mind don’t want to be in the situation you’rein, so you will perceive the danger to be worse than it actually is as an excuse to get out of that situation.’
You can read the rest of this article in Vertical Life no 15, downloadable for free here.