Base Camp Blog

Semi-Rad: The Fear Factor

Smith Rock, Oregon. A source of terror.
Photo: dberry/Flickr;

I can’t remember the holds at the beginning of Barbecue the Pope (5.10b) at Smith Rock, just the indecision: I definitely had one more heady move to do before I could clip the first bolt, 20 feet off the deck. I looked down to my right, then to my left, and thought, Wow, that’s actually a really good landing, all things considered. I looked up at the bolt and tried to figure out the move, and then I imagined the results of a fall if my foot slipped. It wasn’t pretty.

I did all of those things you do before a committing move to collect your head: several deep breaths, a few false starts, chalked up each hand 12 times, had a little Elvis leg, and examined every possible handhold within my reach. Then I downclimbed because I was scared of blowing the move and slamming into the packed dirt at the base of the route. A few minutes later, after borrowing a stick-clip and clipping the first bolt, then climbing past and clipping the second, I did the same thing for a few minutes below the third bolt. I false-started several times, got scared, decided I couldn’t commit to the sequence to clip the bolt, downclimbed a little bit, and eventually whipped off. Then I climbed up to the same spot and lobbed off again, and again, before I finally lowered and watched my friend Rick lead the route. I wasn’t pumped or flailing, just scared I couldn’t do the move without taking a 25-foot fall.

There are plenty of reasons to climb. Lots of people will tell you they like the movement, or the combination of mental and physical stimulation, or just being outside with their friends. Sometimes I wonder what the draw is for me, and the more I reflect on the emotions I’ve had while climbing, the more I think I am doing it to develop a relationship with my fear. I do lots of things that basically make getting scared a priority: I climb old-school routes. I have onsighted 95 percent of the climbing terrain I’ve ever covered. I force myself to eschew topropes at crags and lead everything. I prefer easy highballs to lower, more technical bouldering (although being somewhat out of shape may also contribute to that preference).

I have had adrenaline surges on alpine routes in several states and on multi-pitch climbs all over the West. I have freaked out in private with 100 feet of rope between myself and my partner after getting off route. I have accidentally climbed X-rated terrain and sworn that if I lived through it I would never climb again, only to climb again and get the shakes on a sport climb, after convincing myself I’m just a little too far above a bolt.

Does this sound familiar? If it does, you, like me, have probably had people tell you to read Arno Ilgner’s book about mental training for climbers, The Rock Warrior’s Way, and to get your shit together. I have. I’m working on it. But clearly (to me) it’s a deeper problem. If I climbed because I loved the movement, I would do nothing but toprope at the gym. I must love something else about it. And I’m pretty sure it’s the visceral fear, which makes everything else in life better.

Did you notice that after you became a climber, many other things became less scary? I definitely did. Long runouts make stuff like job interviews and blind dates seem like nothing. I think the repeated exposure to abject fear and the obligation to deal with it and move on make us mentally tougher. Maybe not in those moments when we’re out on the rock shaking and thinking we’re going to die, but after we make it down safely. Then, all those other things seem less scary—rejection, failure, long weekends with the in-laws. And, of course, heights in general.

Before I became a climber, fear was something I had little experience with. Now, in an odd way, it’s like a stuffed animal. I pick it up every now and then to remind myself that everything else isn’t so scary.

A few months ago, I gave a presentation at Second Ascent, a gear shop in Seattle. I had jitters as the doors opened and 20, 50, then 100 people showed up to listen to me do what Americans universally fear most: public speaking. Before I grabbed the microphone, I thought, Well, at least I don’t have to lead the completely unprotected first 25 feet of Pear Buttress tonight.


Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor for Climbing. His first book, The New American Road Trip Mixtape, is available at



Previous Comments

Thanks for a very honest blog post. When I tell people that I rock climb their initial reaction is "oh my god that's so scary!" I can't help but to agree with them to an extent. It truly is one of the most exhilarating activities I have ever participated in and addicting because there is that element of fear. I agree that the place to feel at ease with climbing and "get a work out" is in the gym. Just recently I learned how to lead climb which is truly a whole 'nother ball game. There are so many other factors involved in lead climbing which makes the experience of climbing more of a mental challenge than physical. I actually couldn't complete a lead climb because I had psyched myself out from the start - I was truly afraid of falling and my adrenaline made my muscles tense and weak. I know that all of us who climb are in some shape of another a bit afraid of what we do. The beauty of climbing is being able to conquer that fear and anxiety and successfully ascend a route. Trusting in yourself AND the "system" (harness, rope, belay partner etc.) is also another large aspect of climbing that we tend to forget about. Thank you for your insight and telling all that yes it is ok to be a scared every now and then.

Alessia - 08/22/2014 12:43:07

Nice article and I can relate to Brendan's feelings. Climbing is quite often an exercise in fear management for me, and that is kind of cool and addictive. On the down side it can make regular life feel slightly soft and woolly. The majority of people do not experience fear on a regular basis and definitely don't seek it out. This makes fear difficult to deal with when it does happen. As a climber you learn how to deal with fear. You have to embrace it or else you won't climb at all. You can become so familiar with the feeling, you can observe it (almost) objectively and deal with it in an appropriate way. For some reason, for me, this experience extrapolates to all kinds of fears. It is a bit like being pumped. If you have experienced pump so many times, you can keep moving despite the pain in your forearms. Of course, as with fear, up to a point.....

Martijn - 08/22/2014 1:59:22

Im a beginner but have had intense moments of fear when bouldering very high up, getting stuck, and not being able to climb down. I can feel the adrelnaline surge as I make it over the top and then I am so happy and I dont know if its the accomplishemnt or if its just the surge of adrenaline. I must say that accomplishing a hard safe (top-rope) climb is also makes me very happy without the rush!

Alice - 08/21/2014 6:17:27

You can go around to the left and avoid that scary, slippery start to Pear Buttress. I do.

Ryan - 08/19/2014 12:04:05

I never thought of the climbing fear like that. But I definitely agree. I think (lead)-climbing gives you more self confidence and one also learns to handle stress better, which makes other situations in which you are confronted with stress or fear easier to handle.

Thomas - 08/17/2014 2:11:22