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!

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