The return of The Fear

I’ve been absolutely awful at updating this blog. Grand plans to write about how anyone can get into sports, even when they have no self-belief, and my aim to inspire like-minded women have all fallen apart. And yet I haven’t deleted it.

Right now I’m preparing for my first big outdoor climbing trip for sport climbing. It makes it sound like I’m doing quite well. I went outdoor climbing in June and am now regularly lead climbing. However, mentally I’m just not there, I’m petrified of falling and I’m beginning to doubt if I even want to do the sport.

(For those who don’t know, sport climbing is climbing up rock faces with a rope, where you attach the rope to bolted points which are permanently attached to the rock. Lead climbing is when you attach the rope to these points as you climb, so if you fall before you’ve attached to the next bolt up, you fall back to the last bolt and the length of rope you had taken to the next bolt. This website has a good diagram to explain what I mean)

I have always struggled with my fears, that much is true. I think I settled on running for so many years because the risks are pretty limited, and you never go faster than you can control.

Climbing however contains so many risks. It’s a constant game of trying to convince yourself that you will make the next move, and that actually if you don’t, it’s also ok to fall. For someone who struggles with self belief in in their ability, and is very risk averse, it’s a difficult game indeed.

This year, I had actually improved a lot. I got a personal trainer for a few sessions at the gym to help me set a better strength program, and felt I was getting stronger both in the gym and also at climbing. I was climbing regularly with bouldering and had started tackling my fear of lead climbing, I was actually beginning to improve!

Leading a route indoors

Then I went outdoors. We wanted to get outside before our big trip, and get an introduction into real rock, cleaning routes (when you’re at the top of a route, you have to tie yourself into the permanent gear there and untie from your gear. It’s safe and not complex when you know what you’re doing, but the thought of untying the rope from yourself 15m above the ground is quite daunting the first time!). My first day went well, we did easy routes and then some slightly harder ones, I think my friend Hannah and I managed a grade 5 at the end of the day. We had some hairy moments, such as when a bird flew into me as I was belaying, and when neither my friend nor I were able to complete a route and we had to get the boys to rescue all the gear we had placed, but I felt like I’d achieved something and was doing well.

The second day was suddenly much harder. I failed to lead the first route I tried, one of the easiest of the day. I freaked out trying to second (when someone has led the route and left the rope attached at the top, so it feels much safer and you just have to collect the gear as you climb) another route, and my self-belief was not helped by learning that someone who was petrified of lead climbing had managed to lead the route. The afternoon provided me with one easy route I scaled, but we then tried another low grade route which everyone else completed without issue and I just couldn’t complete. I kept realising that I had moved above my last clip and that I only had 2 clips in (the general rule is 3 to be in with a chance of not hitting the floor if you fall), but was already quite high, I couldn’t figure out the next move and the ground below for my belayer wasn’t the best should I fall and jerk them off their feet. I climbed up and down to the same point about 4 times, and eventually made another move and another clip, but then I faced the same issue again of having to move above and risk a greater fall. Everyone was cheering encouragement that I could do it, but this just made it worse as I didn’t feel I could and suddenly the encouragement felt more like a taunt. I found myself shaking and crying, which then meant I was not only terrified, but out of control and embarrassed as well. I had to accept defeat.

That was my last climb of the weekend and my last memory of climbing outdoors. Not exactly great for ongoing confidence.

Seconding a route at Winspit

The next few weeks didn’t help much, work got incredibly busy and I climbed perhaps 3 times in 5 weeks. On top of that, I had no time to go to the gym at all. I find I lose strength very quickly, especially as a woman, but even my old PT reckons that less than 2 weeks without working out is enough to lose strength.

The frustration that comes with that is immense. I work so hard to gain strength, it builds my confidence and my ability, but the speed and ease with which it disappears is depressingly fast.

Returning to climbing after this, I found myself struggling with routes I had previously found quite easy, and the more I struggled, the less I trusted or believed I could complete the climb. The belief that I won’t be able to stick a move or complete a climb has led to me simply not trying out of fear of falling off. To those of you who don’t climb, this probably sounds quite logical, but actually the risk from falling is very minimal and a climber never progresses from only climbing routes they know they can achieve. You have to try to do things beyond your comfort zone. Constantly.

I spent the majority of August trying to rebuild some strength and feel more confident. Thankfully some of the strength returned relatively fast with consistent gym sessions and climbing but the self-belief did not.

September proved to be another disjointed month with a family holiday thrown in the middle. I was committed to climbing, but my gym work was minimal. Knowing that my “big climbing trip” was only weeks away was stressing me out, and I couldn’t see or sense any improvements.

A few weeks ago though I had a bit of a pep-talk from the manager of my favourite climbing centres and also read this article about fear. I’m not going to say it’s done anything too revolutionary, but it has made me more…god I hate to say this…mindful on the wall.

I’m still scared and I still am not taking all the risks but I’m trying to focus on a few things:

  • Finding the right position to clip in. Bolts (especially indoors) are at points where there will be an optimal position to clip in. If it’s super awkward to clip, perhaps climbing just a bit higher will make it easier and less scary.
  • The moment – trying to focus on where to place my feet and hands, and not anything else. Focusing on how I’m gripping the rock, my breathing and my body position.
  • If I’m getting scared trying to think about what I’m actually scared of and talking myself out of it.
  • Remembering to enjoy it. If I’m not enjoying it, I’m trying not to sweat about doing the climb. I’ll second it, or try something easier.

It’s so easy to think that because your friends are able to climb a certain route or grade that you should too, and if you can’t you’re a failure. But I’m finally getting a better understanding for how this isn’t just about physical ability. This is such a big mental game and no matter how well you can climb indoors or on boulders, it won’t necessarily translate to ability on a big wall.

I am on my own journey of climbing, and it is going to take me longer than many to sport climb well. I am no longer going to pressurise myself and call myself a failure.

I’m currently sat on the plane to Mallorca, and my only goal now is to make sure that over the next few days I have as much fun as possible. This isn’t my only climbing trip, in fact this is just the beginning.

One thought on “The return of The Fear

  1. When I go climbing I have no problem with admitting defeat if I am too afraid to complete a move. It’s about pushing just a little further each time. You will find some routes easy and you will find some routes harder. Go to the limit of your comfort and when you reach it admit that you will stop the climb when you are in doubt.

    In scuba diving and in extreme sports there is a rule. If in doubt abort the dive. It sounds counter-intuitive but it can mean the difference between life and death. It can also keep you from getting injured. I have driven two hours to go diving and we have aborted the dive either because we forgot a piece of equipment or for other reasons. I was not comfortable diving one person so for fourty minutes I stood my ground saying that I was not comfortable diving.

    When hiking a year or two ago we got to within 200 metres from the summit when we were hit by a severe hailstorm with lightning and high winds. We returned to the cars, giving up on the summit. There is no shame in this.

    Returning to the climbing gym I don’t climb as often as some people so it sometimes takes me more time to complete some routes and I often give up a route. It’s not because of my fear of falling but rather to be safe. I’d rather return and try the route a week later than push too far and regret it.

    When I belayed at an IFSC World cup event I was trained to belay more effectively and part of that training was to practice both falling and arresting a fall. During the world cup event, I belayed quite a few competitors and I grew used to arresting their falls.

    I was climbing on a wall yesterday and I managed to lead climb a few routes before I tried the last climb. I couldn’t see how to resolve the problem so eventually, I told the person belaying me to lower me. There was no emotional upheaval because climbing is a challenge. With time we progress. Some days are good and some days are bad.

    For two or three years I was climbing on rented or second-hand shoes and recently I finally bought my own pair and I have seen a big leap in my climbing ability and confidence. There is nothing wrong with humility and fear. They keep you alive and they keep you from injury.

    I would recommend climbing up easy self-belayed routes at a climbing gym and playing. Practice your technique where you are comfortable and as your strength builds up you can go and play on harder routes. That’s what I do. You don’t build strength on hard routes. You develop it on easy routes where you can perfect your technique and improve endurance.

    I’ll stop rambling.

    Good luck.


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