Irrational Fear of Falling

During our last trip to the New River Gorge, an irrational but strong fear of falling overcame Gaelyn to the point where she was unwilling to climb further, but also unwilling to take a fall… even a practice fall.  We both thought that she had conquered her fear of falling earlier this year, apparently not.  But first… the background story.

About two years ago, when we first started to lead sport climbs, Gaelyn was leading a climb and fell.  Her foot impacted a small ledge and forcefully bent backwards.  The resulting injury was a sprained foot.  Once recovered, Gaelyn didn’t want to get back on lead.  The foot took a while to recover so she was very hesitant.  I attempted to encourage her to get on something very easy and take a practice fall, but she was not mentally ready.  The fear of falling and causing another injury was the primary focus in her head when leading, and it was no longer fun.

Kaymoor New River Gorge

Gaelyn on The Rico Suave Arete

Fast forward to the middle of this summer.  Gaelyn had only led a handful of easy climbs since the “incident” two years ago.  They were all very easy, bolted routes that were several grades below her ability, and she climbed with a stiff demeanor and didn’t have fun on lead.  She top roped all of the routes that I did, but still wouldn’t go on the sharp end.  A few months ago, we were at the New, and with my and our friends encouragement, Gaelyn gathered the courage (with a healthy dose of peer pressure) to lead a climb that was around the limit of her ability.  I wanted her to climb a couple bolts up and then take a practice fall.  The first several feet of the climb, she was cautious and didn’t climb with a flow.  Once I knew she was safe to fall and the second bolt was at about her thigh, I told her to let go.  “Are you sure?!” her shaky voice asked.  She let go and fell a few feet.  No problem!  She was safe and we could tell she was feeling better already.  Time for some more air.  I told her to fall with the bolt at her foot.  She nervously got up to that point and let go again.  Falling comfortably and like a cat was now in Gaelyn’s repertoire!  It was as if two years of fear were suddenly gone.  She finished the route with style and grace, actually committing to some difficult moves and taking a real fall!  I was so proud of her for overcoming her fear.

The next few trips we took, she led everything.  No fear was apparent and she looked strong and in control.  Gaelyn even led some routes that were several grades above her ability!  Last week we went back to the New after a two week break.  On our first climb, Strike a Scowl, Gaelyn climbed tensely.  She said she was over gripping because of the cold, but I wasn’t convinced that was the problem.  She climbed very slowly and cautiously.  On Glass Onion, she climbed up a little past the half way point and couldn’t continue.  To continue she needed to use some slopers to gain a jug and her leg was at the last bolt.  She wouldn’t commit to the move and froze for a couple of minutes.  I, being the awesome boyfriend that I am, attempted to encourage her to go for it.  I knew she could do it!  My attempt failed so I tried to convince her to just let go and take a practice fall.  That didn’t work either.  The fall was safe but the old Gaelyn had come back!  She called for a “take” and I lowered her to the ground.

Frustration and disappointment overcame her as we continued to Muckraker.  A similar thing happened at the crux of this climb.  She would not press on, instead calling for a take, rather than taking the safe fall.  After I climbed it, and a small pep talk, she gave Muckraker another go.  Determined to not let her irrational fear overcome her and top rope the climb, Gaelyn jumped back on lead.  She made it to the crux and after I assured her she would be safe, she attempted the move and fell.

Similar to a few months ago, the monkey was off her back and she was able to climb fluidly.  “Old Gaelyn” did not come out to play on day two and she climbed smoothly and with confidence.  We even went back to do the same climb she gained her confidence on a few months ago, Low Voltage, at Kaymoor.  Gaelyn wanted the redpoint so bad.  She fell at the same spot as last time, but made a great go of it.

Left Flank Red River Gorge

Gaelyn on To Defy the Laws of Tradition

I am unsure of what to do when the paralyzing fear strikes her.  She knows it is irrational, yet can’t talk herself out of it.  And anything I say does not seem to help, even though we are in a controlled situation and a safe fall is almost a guarantee.  I struggle to relate to the fear because I have not been injured from a fall.

Have any of you ever experienced this fear within yourself or other climbers?  What did they/you do to overcome it?  Did you simply push through the fear, or did taking a practice fall or top roping the route help instead?  Please let me know in the comments!

  • Anonymous

    Not being a climber I don’t have a climbing specific tale, however with mountain biking I took a nasty spill off of a 2 foot ramp. I didn’t get my wheel up high enough when executing a “wheelie drop” and smashed my shoulder pretty bad. Later I smashed the same shoulder again on some ice due to not having proper tires.

    Now fast forward a few years, I practice and practice on curb in a parking lot and now feel quite comfortable doing a wheelie drop. I then go out to a smallish drop on trail and when I get to the trail I just ride down the drop and nose dive. I don’t even try to pull up at all, even though every rational thought says “pull up or you will crash” I simply ride off the drop and go over my handlebars into the woods. Luckily this time I don’t hurt myself.

    Now why, knowing I would fall, would I let myself crash off of a simple drop. I realized that I had decided in my mind that this was something I couldn’t do. I was even consciously thinking “You are going to wreck” while going off the ramp.

    As corny as this sounds saying “You can do this” or “I am going to pull up” or other affirming statements out loud and loudly helped me execute successfully on a subsequent try.

    First step is reflect and identify the negative self speak, step 2 is to affirm yourself out loud and LOUDLY. Say exactly what you are going to do and tell yourself that you are going to do it. This works for me!

    Also another tip, if you don’t believe what you are saying “fake it until you make it”. That’s right, just pretending and giving yourself an outward appearance of complete confidence is often enough to convince the mind to persevere.

    Hope this helps someone.

    • Gif

      Thats so true! “Self talk” is so important and will often get you through hard situations, climbing or biking. It can totally turn your mood around and your body will relax. Thanks for the comment!

    • zil

      can’t agree enough. should do it more, and honestly it’s not just about extreme sports. it’s for surmounting any mental challenge/block/habit you’ve got, step by step.

      • Gif

        Very true!

  • JOhn

    The fear of falling returning after a break-through like you described is a very common problem. To me it seems like keeping up the momentum of leading is one of the most useful things. It has to be a full commitment. Are you guys leading at the gym? That can be just enough to keep the lead-head sharp. Practice falls are useful to a degree, but I think it takes more than that to really get beyond the fear. Remember too that it is good to have that fear, it is OK to let the fear wash-over you and evaluate whether there is a reason for it. You just have to get beyond letting it control you. But that does not mean you don’t experience the fear.

    Also, you as a boyfriend offering the encouragement will never really work. You’re too close to the action. At least that’s my experience.

    • Gif

      John, great points! We are mostly bouldering at the gym. I thought this might help since you are rope-less but I don’t think it has. You are right in that it just takes a lot of leading to keep your head in the game.

      I have had the same experience being the boyfriend. When others offer encouragement, it seems to help more.

      Thanks for commenting!

  • Jersteck

    I’ll put my 2 cents in on the boyfreind/girlfriend dynamic as I’ve experienced this with Dana (my wife) and I years ago. Gif, we’ve talked about this a little…but I’ll post my story so others may benefit. Dana’s never been afraid to fall, but she often did not believe in her climbing ability and it was made worse because she always climbed with me while I climbed a few grades harder than her. Dana’s best gains in pushing herself were made by climbing with someone else who was near her same ability level. In this situation, she was able to be the rope gun, mainly because she had to be. This was a great confidence boost and it allowed her to climb for her, not as my partner. I believe that in many cases, and for myself as well, the fear of falling roots from not believing in your own ability. If you feel confident, you’ll climb better, and the falling begins to take care of itself. Climbing with others occasionally might help.

    I’ve also learned from experience that when Dana begins to have a mental block on a route, positive encouragement from me needs to stop after a few initial comments. I try to just shut up and let her work it out however she likes, no matter how much I know that she can do it and no matter how much I want to see her succeed. There’s a strange dynamic between couples when things begin to go wrong. Somehow the problem often begins to get directed toward each other, not sure why? I’ve seen the same thing happen in mountain biking and kayaking with couples as well. Often a third party’s input is well received, but your input is detrimental to the situation.

    • Gif

      Thanks for sharing this! I’ve also found that beyond the first few comments, nothing else seems to help. I think you are spot on with believing in your own ability. If you believe you can do the route, then you aren’t thinking about falling off of it. If you aren’t thinking about falling, then the fear never has the chance to show itself.

      The dynamic between couples is difficult. You want the other to succeed so much, so we are always positively reinforcing the other. Sometimes, this has a negative effect.

  • About 2.5 years ago, I whipped off of my project and was dropped 35ft to the ground by my former climbing partner at my local gym. His hands had been completely removed from the rope when I fell. Those short couple seconds of air time were the only time in my life that I felt with sure certainty that I was about to die.

    After impact I couldn’t breathe for about 60seconds, because I suffered a compressed spine which temporarily stopped many aspects of my autonomic nervous system. I was lucky… I simply fractured 2 vertebrae (T11 & 12, compression fractures), and am now 3/4″ inches shorter than I used to be. The recovery put me in a back brace for 4 months.

    I am now fully mentally and physically recovered due to a combination of dumb luck, perseverance, and a lot of time spent thinking.

    Upon returning to the wall, I was afraid to fall even below my bolt on the lead and I had to make regaining my mental state a specific training goal. I wrote a blog post about the training method I used for myself, in the hopes that it would be able to help those with similar misfortune. The link is below:
    http://dreamingofgnar.blogspot.com/2010/01/falling-without-fear.html

    • Gif

      Whoa… that’s crazy! Good to hear you came out of that just slightly shorter with no severe injury. I don’t think my article was aimed at your type of experience. Your fear is definitely rational fear! I think anyone would have problems coming back to the sport after that type of fall. Thanks so much for sharing your experience! I’m sure we can all take some tips from you on how to conquer fear, whether it be irrational or due to a serious injury, like your case. Awesome comment!

      • Granted, the fear came from a strong source, but I never viewed it as a rational fear… I’ve always viewed myself as thoroughly logical, and the logic stated that there was nothing truly different or more dangerous about climbing given the fact that I fell, but rather it was a strong lesson to scrutinize my partners better before taking off on the sharp end. In a sense, it was irrational fear because I was afraid in situations where I intellectually KNEW I was safe, with belayers I KNEW were solid.

        Using those two points of rationality is what eventually got me over it =) Good luck! and thanks for the good words!

        • Gif

          I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen many climbers welcome a belay from a stranger without ever seeing them belay someone else. I try to avoid this because I know that I’m literally putting my life into their hands. It’s a tough balance because you don’t want to look like a jerk and “test” their belay skills somehow, but you will also hesitate if you don’t know them.

          One thing I do avoid is climbing on other climber’s ropes. Most people will happily offer a belay on their toprope that’s set up on the route you want to do. That requires trust in their gear quality, anchor setup, and belaying skills. A little too much for my taste!

          Thanks again for the awesome contribution!

          • zil

            climbing in Colombia (I am living here at the moment), there is a *lot* of sharing rope, between acquaintances and good friends. there are individuals who I specifically know and trust, and their friends. on top of that, a very large percentage of people are smoking pot from wake up to sun down….it’s not considered risky by anyone involved. those that choose not to smoke while climbing, do it for mental/goal-achieving reasons, not for safety. I have no official climbing partner here, so when I leave the boulder gym to climb outdoors (Suesca), I have to take what I can get and/or hope one of my strong climbing friends will be OK with spending a day on some easier routes. It actually is alarming reading this last post, to see how much my standard for this (sharing ropes, sharing belays, etc.) has deteriorated while I’ve been here. In Canada, I have a reliable partner I trust, and don’t have to worry about this. I don’t think sharing is as customary in North America though, upon comparison.

            On the ‘falling’ note, though, I am a relatively new climber (off and on for about two years); I know how to belay but am not second nature with it yet. I was belaying a strong climber friend on a 5.12c with potential for a messy-ish fall – no one else to belay, but he wants to train – and at a small exposed roof with a fairly big drop out, he stops for like 15 minutes before trying it, telling me later that my belaying skills had been on his mind.

          • Gif

            Zil, thank you so much for commenting on this post! You have some great points, and things I never really considered. It’s is definitely a balance between convenience and safety when choosing a climbing partner you don’t know very well. I rarely let people I don’t know at all belay me. It sounds like the climbers belaying you aren’t complete strangers, just not consistent partners.

            Stay safe out there man! Practice your belaying skills and make them second nature. Thanks so much for reading and enjoy Colombia!

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  • Kimi

    I wish I could say I have no more fear but unfortunately am unable to; I have days similar to Gaelyns. ( Also with the history of a bad lead fall) Some days are good and I am able to overcome it, and some days not.  No matter how many times I did a practice fall, read about how to over come fear, it seem to return. I wish her good luck!

    • Gif

      I have noticed significant improvement with Gaelyn’s fear management since I wrote this last fall.  What seems to do the trick is constant leading and taking safe falls.  It seems the more good falls she takes, and the more often she leads, she climbs better and without hesitation.  If we take time off, the hesitation and fear is apparent.  

      Thanks for the comment Kimi.  Keep working on it.  Hopefully these tips will help you overcome your fear too!  

  • anonymous

    I used to pride myself on taking good falls (pride comes before a fall!). I took a fall from the top of the wall while bouldering and sprained my ankle quite badly when I landed between the mattress and the wall. Its been about a year now and after PT my ankle is strong and feels quite normal. BUT I’ve been afraid to get back to bouldering so I’ve only been doing routes – but even on these, I no longer feel as fluid as I used to. As a result I also climb a couple of levels lower than I used to when I felt comfortable pushing myself to the limit :(. I am thinking that the only way I am going to overcome this is to get back to bouldering slowly.

    • Gif

      Thanks for sharing your experience.  I’ve found that with many, getting injured really messes with your head.  It seems the best way to get back into it and overcome the fear of injury is to just keep climbing.  

  • Christian

    If you fall in a super tense state, fighting the fall the whole way, even a very short fall can cause injury..You’re far more likely to flip and/or fall in other weird dangerous ways

    ..I’ve seen it happen and glad the girl had a helmet on cause she scraped the rock repeatedly with that helmet.

    So in that sense the fear of falling while super anxious is not really irrational.

    • Gif

      Christian, my point was what caused that fear?  I agree that falling while anxious is dangerous and can cause injury.  But why was the climber anxious?  Was there a ledge below them that could cause injury?  If the fall was safe, then the fear is irrational.  That’s my point.  If the climber could be relaxed and know that if they took the fall, the likelihood of injury is very low, then there is no reason to have fear.  Thanks for the comment.  

  • Sveta B

    Hi,

    What a great article, thanks for sharing your experience! It’s still good several years on 🙂
    I have only recently started lead climbing after getting experience with top rope. I have an irrational fear of falling even if i know that i would be safe, taking a practice fall in my course involved me being at the top of a route for a good 5-10 min holding on not wanting to let go.
    With leading, before i even reach the first hold my adrenaline is pumping and straight away my heart rate goes up and i start to sweat.

    What I am working on is positive affermations which help steady my mind, since the fear is such a mental block. When i am scared or starting a climb i have to keep thinking that i am safe, i trust my belayer and the gear, i can do this climb, i am strong enough. I also commit to leading every climbing day even if I don’t want to.
    Something i do need to work on is some more practice falls!
    Sveta

    • Gif

      Fear of falling is definitely common with new climbers/leaders. I think for you, practice falls sound like they would be extremely valuable. Start by falling with the bolt clipped above you, similar to a top rope. Then gradually move up towards the bolt, even with the bolt, and past the bolt, falling at many different levels. Just push yourself a few more inches each time and you will become more confident falling at or above the bolt. I hope this helps! Thanks so much for reading and for the great comment, Sveta!!

  • Xzavier Thompson

    My story is almost identical. I was a very confident lead climber when I fell and shattered my ankle. for whatever reason I get very intimidated before and during climbs of my redpoint grade. It’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one out there with the same prob.

    • Gif

      Xzavier, you are definitely not the only one! I have heard many people who suffer injury and then are hesitant when getting back on the sharp end. Gaelyn recently completed a Rock Warriors Way Falling/Commit camp and it changed her! She climbs fluid and with much less fear than before. This fear of falling had plagued her for years. Perhaps Warriors way offers a course in your area. I highly suggest it if you still suffer from fear.

  • zil

    deep breath, full exhale, let go.

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