I knew I shouldn’t be scared. I had a rope, five draws, and an experienced belayer to catch me, yet there I was overgripping the red sloper that was supposed to be my clipping jug with my shoulders up by my ears from anxiousness.
“I don’t think I can clip here,” I yelled down to James.
“Want me to take?” He yelled up.
“Nah, I’ll take the fall,” I shouted back, knowing that a little extra slack translates to a softer catch.
I let go.
Falling on an overhang gives one a feeling very similar to dropping from the top of a rollercoaster: mild butterflies, an adrenaline rush, and, if you’re like me and love rollercoasters, giddy child-like excitement. How had I forgotten that falling could be this fun?
Granted, I was training in the gym on a frosty February morning with the guy in charge of the gym’s lead class as my belayer, so a soft catch was pretty much guaranteed. I was also on the overhung lead wall, where after bolt two you’re almost guaranteed to fall comfortably into airy nothingness, and, if by some belaying catastrophe you are dropped, the entire floor is padded. Consequently, there was absolutely no reason to be scared, and I should not have started to get Elvis-leg twice before I finally abandoned ship. Ironically, letting go was the least scary part. This leads me to believe that, at least on safe overhung walls, my biggest fear of falling isn’t the fall–It’s the fact that I’ve failed to hold on.
Dealing with the fear of failure is a whole 24-ounce can of worms on its own, but first it’s important to stop confusing the fear of falling itself with the fear of failing to hold on. That might sound like two ways of saying the same thing, but the fear of falling itself, more accurately the fear of impacting after falling, is different than the fear of no longer being on the wall because you haven’t succeeded in reaching your goal. Sometimes these fears occur simultaneously, but often its the latter masking fears of inadequacy or not living up to the expectations we or others might have set for us that makes us nervous.
And then there is the even stranger fear of success that occasionally overcomes me. What if I do make the deadpoint to the crimp and hold on? Can I make it to the next hold from there? Will I be able to make the next clip if get up there? While this seems even sillier than the last two fears, it has definitely held me back from trying my hardest, especially when attempting routes above my normal sending level.
So how does one overcome these fears? First, recognize when you experience each of them so you know what you have to overcome. Then, start falling. If you’re afraid of falling and impacting, start with some trust falls on overhangs and then move to vertical and even slab routes. Finding a consistent belayer who you’re comfortable with can help ease your mind about getting a soft catch, and having someone who knows your climbing style and where you might struggle can be helpful encouragement-wise too. Resist the urge to grab the magical nylon jug or take whenever you get a little pumped or nervous, you might surprise yourself my getting farther than you thought.
Now if you’re afraid of failing, you need to allow yourself to fail time and time again. Now there’s a healthy level of failure versus throwing yourself at dangerous or demoralizing 5-year projects, but getting out of your comfort zone and projecting routes that you won’t send on your first or second or even fifth burn is important. This “failure” humbles us and shows us what we might eventually achieve. It also makes us better non-senders–no one likes the kid who pouts when (s)he isn’t the first on the send train.
As for the fear of success and the unknowns after that initial success, have confidence in yourself! Don’t stop yourself from making a move simply because you aren’t sure you’re strong enough or good enough to send a certain grade or crush on your anti-style. Give each route your best burn(s), and, if it doesn’t go, then that’s okay, but, if it does, let yourself hold on and keep progressing.
And remember, sometimes falling, like many aspects of climbing, is fun, and having fun, I hope, was the reason you started this sport.