Overcoming the Fear of Falling

As a child I didn’t have any fear, like most of us when were young.
Testing my brand new inline skates on the slide at the children’s playground nearby was not the smartest way to figure out how well they were. Biking off the railway station stairs with my BMX after some alcoholic consumption’s was also downright stupid. Miraculously, all those impulsive daring stunts that I performed always ended well.

This childish impulsiveness was still present when I did my first lead climb. I was twenty-three years, had been climbing for three months and was motivated to climb my hardest route so far on lead. I had been projecting that route from the first day I came in the gym and finally finished it on top-rope.
           I watched an instructive video about how to lead climb, practiced it on an easy route and then went for it. It felt like I had lead climbed before. I recognized the retroactive power of the rope and clipping the rope into the quickdraws felt familiar.
I flowed my way up, determined to climb the whole route. I turned my body into the wall, made a big, dynamic reach to the next hold and fell…
          During my fall I threw my arms up, above my head. The gravity made my upper body clap backwards, forcing me into hyper-extension  It was like an extreme bridge movement, like they do in gymnastics, whereby my body felt three times as heavy than normal. As if it was not painful enough, I was climbing with a static rope! To cut a long story short, that was a horrible experience and I still struggle with the physical impact in the form of a back injury today.
          Since that fall, I had an enormous fear of falling. I did some lead climbing in the two years that followed, but always many grades lower than I was able to.
Yet, I have overcome this fear one and a half year ago!

The reason why I started pushing myself, was an unexpected lead fall that I had to take in Tenerife. I was leading a route in order to hang the quickdraws for an attempt that Pascal wanted to do. It was a long, overhanging wall with big holds. I had top-roped the route the day before and thought I was able to climb my way up without falling, using several blocks.
            At one point, I made a mistake in the sequence, got extremely pumped, could hang in the quickdraw but was not able to inhale the rope.
I shouted to Pascal that I was going to take the fall. Positioned myself and there I went.
A great, long, dynamic fall! Wow, this felt AMAZING. I felt high for at least two hours. No need for drugs! Adrenalin!
            The lead fall was way nicer than the top-rope fall the day before at the same route. Instead of spinning around in the air before dropping down into the thorny bushes, I was getting a soft landing!

This experience has swept away my irrational fear that I would always hyper-extend during a fall and gave me two motivations for starting leading. The adrenalin of a good, soft fall is awesome and the practical aspect gave me the insight that top-roping is not always the smartest thing to do.
        So I’ve started with telling myself over and over again how great falling was. I’ve told everybody how much I liked falling. With conviction I stood three weeks later in front of the climbing walls at Klimax, a large gym in Belgium. I was going to take falls, over and over again. That was what I told myself. I was less tough than I had expected, but didn’t let my fear take over. I took small steps. Every time before I went climbing a route, I gave myself a goal.
        Step by step I worked further. Month after month. I started to climb harder routes outdoors. I even choose a specific route in Berdorf of which I was sure I would take a fall. Totally unexpected I topped the route and you know what? I was bummed that I didn’t fell!!! Crazy? Maybe. But that’s exactly how you should start thinking about falling. Falling is fun!  

“The ultimate goal is to turn your fear into pleasure and fun”

Before you read further

Take a moment to consider your motivation. Answer the following question.
“Do you want to overcome your fear of falling, or do you rather want to make peace with the fact that you will not lead in your climbing life?”It is not a problem at all if you prefer not to lead climb. Than your goal is to accept it and keep satisfied with that choice. Sometimes you’ll feel the pressure from others around you that you should lead climb. You’ll need the confidence and conviction to stay happy with your own decision regardless the opinion of others. Maybe, one day, you’ll feel the desire to start lead climbing and then it is still possible.
You have to consider this question, because I believe that your inner motivation has to be big enough to be able to achieve your goal. Maybe you are really motivated to climb a lead route outdoors or you want to participate in climbing competitions or you just want to prove yourself that you can master your feelings.

Steps to take

1. Write down your personal motive. Why do you want to be able to lead climb without fear?

2. Identify your obstructive thoughts. What do you tell yourself over and over again that makes you anxious? Try to finish this sentence: If I lead climb, then …. scares me and … will happen.

3. From now on you’ll block these obstructive thoughts every time they come to mind. You have to be very consequent. Don’t tell others how scared you are of falling. Don’t think about how scared you are of falling. Block the nervous feelings that you will experience when you go practice lead falling.

4. For blocking the obstructive thoughts, you need a set of constructive thoughts instead.
This is one of the most important steps of the process, so take time to prepare this set of thoughts carefully. For every obstructive thought you need to find a constructive thought.

5. From now on you’ll repeat your constructive thoughts over and over to yourself. At first you’ll not really believe and/or experience it. You have to fake it. Lie to yourself and other that you are excited to take a lead fall. That you enjoy the feeling of a soft, free fall. That you get a very nice adrenalin kick of it.

6. If you are psyched and confident enough, you’ll start lead climbing. I recommend to start on (slightly) overhanging walls. Choose an experienced lead-belayer who you trust and communicate what you are going to do.

7. Choose a route that is easy for you. You’ll climb the route until the second to last bolt. Clip that bolt, climb one move further (or more if you want) and take the fall. Remember your constructive thoughts and block your nerves.

8. Repeat this a couple of times. Make sure that you look up the limit of your comfort zone, but don’t go too far over. It needs to be a bit exiting, but it’s not good if your anxiety get worse.

9. Keep telling yourself how much fun it was afterwards. If it wasn’t, just pretend it was.

10. Make it part of your climbing routine. Every time you go climbing, you also climb one or more lead routes.

11. Increase the length of the fall or increase the difficulty of your climbing route. Don’t allow yourself to act like an anxious person. That means: don’t talk about fear, don’t think about fear, don’t take while climbing. Instead: talk about how psyched you are to lead the route, think about your self-assurance and control, enjoy the whipper.

Most important lessons 

– Enjoy a little bit of fear.
– Don’t ever talk or think about fear.
– Take little steps, but keep pushing your limits.

Some other beneficial constructive thoughts

– If you are climbing in an overhanging wall, lead climbing is most of the times more pleasant than top-roping, because you can easily continue climbing where you had got to before your fall. 
– Lead climbing (without fear) might increase your focus and awareness, which will make you climb even better.
– Clipping the quickdraw close to your hips is:
1) easier, and
2) it reduces the length of your fall . 

Having fun in the gym. Goal: taking a whipper at every climb. 

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