I’ve been climbing for over ten years, and this is the first time I have been completely out of climbing or training due to an injury. It just so happened this was a pretty bad injury. On October 1, 2020, I was climbing at Castle Rock in Boulder Canyon, trying to send my project, Crank It. This 5.13+ climb is composed of two flaring cracks and you need to make a powerful move to get from the first crack to the second. Though the route is bolted, I was attempting an all-gear ascent. After getting through the crux on my redpoint attempt, I fell from about 30 feet, ripped four pieces of gear, and hit the ground. I got lucky in that I landed on a crash pad, which was laid out for an earlier part of the route.
I fractured two vertebrae in my lower back, but I didn’t need surgery. After nine weeks in a back brace and not being able to exercise at all, I was finally able to start getting back to normal life. I started toproping again in December. Over the last month, I have been able to get back to lead climbing and even trad climbing again.
What followed suit, and what I did not expect, was the extreme aversion to falling, lack of trust for myself, and anxiety attacks that set in even when I knew I was logically “safe.” It may seem odd that I wouldn’t expect that to happen, but I had figured out soon after my accident what happened during the fall and why the pieces ripped. It wasn’t that climbing could never be trusted again, there were several factors with the rock, the placements, etc., that were dangerous for that particular situation. It was a series of unfortunate events. In the days just after the fall I had some night terrors, but as time went on I just wanted to get back to climbing again.
So if that situation was different, and I knew it wasn’t going to happen on safer routes with good gear and rock quality, why am I still so scared? It’s a question I still ask myself. But anxiety and fear, unfortunately, can be irrational. They can be completely and obviously wrong, yet still hold so much weight and power.
The first stage of fixing my head game has been accepting that this is where I am. Although it hasn’t felt super empowering to be crying on routes that “should be easy,” it also isn’t super productive to beat myself up about it for hours afterward.
One of the first few days back leading, I cried on a 5.9. I didn’t fall, but I didn’t trust the gear or myself. I was so gripped—crying and shaking my way up it. I got embarrassed and overly apologized for being a nuisance, but my partners reminded me that I am being hardest on myself. Good friends and good partners don’t expect me to be 100% after something traumatic, and it’s important to not expect that of myself as well. Sometimes everyone’s just gotta cry it out.
After experiencing anxiety several times on different routes and not knowing how to overcome it, I spoke with my therapist about it. She recommended going back to the routes that gave me these intense feelings, and climbing them again: so I’d know that I could physically do them, and, more important, aim to have a more positive experience overall. Basically, she told me that if I keep just putting myself in unknown, fearful situations it’s hard to grow confidence. Going back to these climbs and replacing the memory with even a slight amount of redemption allowed me to feel more empowered for the next situation.
This process is something everyone can benefit from: be it coming back from an injury or getting over fear in general. I think it’s healthy to revisit your triggers and carefully work through them. You don’t have to jump into it, but you can come back with the goal to just gain a little more confidence. When I went back to that 5.9 and climbed it again, I still felt a little scared, but I climbed much smoother and was better able to keep the fear from overwhelming me. It made me feel like I accomplished something vital internally. And to be honest, these self-revelations are a huge reason why I love climbing so much.
My next step will be taking gear falls. I learned from The Rock Warrior’s Way a really good way to do this: by placing three cams near each other (or however many you want!) and taking progressively bigger falls. You can start from below the gear even. Then at your waist. Then keep going a little higher each time, maybe even trying a fall from the side of your gear as well. This is useful as well for sport climbing or introducing yourself to the bouldering wall at the gym. It’s taking steps to overcome the fear of the unknown. I really loved this process because I have never been a big fan of just taking a massive whip to get over the fear of falling, i.e. whip therapy. I remember as a teenager when my coach used to make me skip the last bolt in the gym and fall. Every single time I was just so uncomfortable. I think it’s important to recognize where your comfort zone is, and not ignore it. Then push it little by little instead of going way outside of it right away, because if you go too fast, you’ll do more harm than good.
I still have a lot of work to do. I still cry, I don’t trust gear, and I let fear take over. I can still feel the gear ripping out of the wall during my accident, and that memory is front and center for me when leading. I think the biggest realization I have had, however, is that it’s absolutely OK to take baby steps, to have days where it feels like I have regressed, to feel out of control. There’s no perfect way to get back in the game. But learning to have self compassion, while pushing myself in a patient, understanding way, has been crucial to my progress. I may not be the same person as I was before my accident, but I plan to be even better than she ever thought she could be.
Molly Mitchell is a 27-year-old professional rock climber based out of Boulder, CO. In 2019, she became the 7th woman in the world to climb a 5.14 rated trad route with her send of China Doll (5.14a) R in Boulder Canyon. She is open about her having an anxiety disorder, and advocates for mental health. In 2020, she broke her back in an accident falling 30 feet and ripping gear.