One of the biggest fears that I encounter is the fear of falling. If you are anything but a masochist, this seems like a reasonable fear. No one wants to take a huge whipper, slam into the wall, scrape up their knees and forearms, or hit the deck. So, they stick with top roping to get the enjoyment of climbing without the risks. There’s nothing wrong with that, unless fear is the one factor that controls their choice to lead or not.
Think about fear as an emotion caused by a belief that you are in danger or will get hurt. Blowing things out of proportion can highly contribute to one’s fear of lead climbing. For example, if we believe that we will be severely hurt or killed by falling; chances are, our fear is going to take over can cause us to yell “take”, bail off the route, hesitate, down climb, freeze or avoid climbing the route. To handle fear is to understand how the stop the emotion before it consumes you.
One way to handle fear is to dismiss irrational thoughts. It makes perfect sense to be scared if you know you are going to smack into a ledge or fall at the first or second bolt. This is real danger and fear may be helpful at this point! What may be damaging is when fear is irrational and blown out of proportion. When our minds run wild with thoughts that are irrational, practice positive self-talk and let yourself know that you are okay. Although this sounds like a cop-out answer for handing irrational fears, it really does work. Our self-talk can be soothing as well as destructive.
Mentally rehearsing the route could also reduce your fear in falling. Look for holds where you can safely make the clip so you are not desperately trying to clip in off a tiny crimp. Find rests where you can shake out and reduce your pump so you’re not rushing through the climb. Read “the language of the chalk” as Adam Ondra said during a video capturing his onsight of Masters of the Universe (8c+).
Pro climber, Alex Honnald, said, “Particularly if it’s a free solo, I’m climbing rope less, then I’ll think through what it’ll feel like to be in certain positions, because some kinds of movements are insecure and so they’re kind of scarier than other types of moves, and so it’s important to me think through how that’ll feel when I’m up there, so that when I’m doing it I don’t suddenly be like ‘Oh my God, this is really scary!’”
Mentally rehearsing the route may help you become more prepared to crush the crux and be ready for exposure between clips. Knowing that a section is going to feel difficult, scary, or insecure beforehand can help you remain calm instead of hesitating on a sloper before a huge deadpoint.
Pushing yourself to lead climb is a great way to desensitize yourself from the fear of falling. If you are pushing grades in a gym or outdoors, sooner or later you will fall—it’s all part of the game. But the more you fall, the more you trust the gear and understand the sensations of falling. The difficult part to gaining exposure is getting on the rock in the first place. However, practicing positive self-talk and mentally rehearsing the route could get you going. It is also recommended that you understand the basic techniques of clipping a draw to help you quickly and effectively clip in. Practice clipping the carabiner when it is facing towards and away from you with both hands. One of the worst feelings is fiddling with a quickdraw when you are massively pumped.
Although I never took practice falls when I started lead climbing, some people find it very helpful to fall in a controlled environment. I prefer pushing myself up a difficult route and falling unexpectedly rather than climbing a couple feet above a bolt and letting go; I find this anxiety provoking.
Put falling on the back of your mind by thinking about the beta. Think about the sequence of moves, where you place your feet and how to move your body. Your mind will be too preoccupied to focus on irrational thoughts and the fear of falling.
And, of course, grab your best belay partner. Trust makes roping up that much more satisfying!