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Defeating Fear Is All In Your Head … But It Helps To Practice

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I was climbing a traddy route, a 5.10 in the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma. I’d previously led a few 5.10s without issue, but this time I got runout above a wired nut. I stopped on good holds, but when I thought about where I was and the doozy of a fall I could take, my legs started to tremble and I froze even though the climbing was well within my limit. I was too gripped to downclimb and going up also seemed risky, but I had no choice. I sketched through, slapping at holds, and was lucky to top out. Were my nervousness and hesitation normal, and how can I fix this so I don’t scare myself again?

—Tim O’Connelly, Apache, Oklahoma


Having your nervous system switch into fight-or-flight mode is a normal reaction when your spidey sense tingles. The irony in your case is that instead of getting you out of danger, your response to perceived danger actually put you in greater peril—you nearly fell precisely because you feared falling.

The trick to climbing safely is to “inoculate” yourself against fear.

I can empathize. I nearly lost it free-soloing a 5.10 back in 1980. The crux was a greasy highstep over a roof 100 feet above razor talus. I’d climbed the route a dozen times and had even free-soloed it, but that day when I smeared a foot over the roof I suddenly thought: What if my foot slips?

I reversed the move, regrouped, and then tried the highstep again—and again and again. But each time, I balked. After a half hour of putzing around, I told myself that the move was easy: You’ve done this before, you’ve never fallen—and it was true. I’d never blown the move. I highstepped over the roof and finished the route—and then never soloed it again.

“I don’t train to do the moves,” Bachar said. “I train so I know I can do the moves.” In video-game terminology, this is known as being “OP.”

What happened? Breaking down how your brain reacts to danger, real or imagined, is the work of psychologists—which I am not. I’m Gear Guru. However, based on experience, I can relay a few tips for increasing confidence, the cornerstone of all climbing performance: Have you noticed that when you fall it’s not always because you pumped out, weren’t strong enough, or couldn’t figure out the move, but because doubt had crept in?

Doubt dies at the hand of confidence, confidence comes from experience, and experience comes from doing. These connections are obvious, yet usually go overlooked because we like to take shortcuts. The path to success and enlightenment is this: Toprope or follow routes at or above your lead level. If you lead 5.10, then follow or TR a slew of hard 5.10s and 5.11s. Each “dose” will help you build confidence on ever-more-difficult terrain, strengthening you physically while simultaneously inoculating you against fear.

John Bachar trained famously hard. I don’t remember the precise number, but he could crank at least 50 fingertip pull-ups in a row. That sort of strength was unnecessary back then (this was the early 1980s), when climbs were mostly cracks and slabs. I asked Bachar why he punished himself like that on the fingerboard when 15, 20 pullups tops were more than enough to bust any move. “I don’t train to do the moves,” he said. “I train so I know I can do the moves.” In video-game terminology, this is known as being “OP”—“overpowered.”

“JB” famously climbed without a rope, so to him confidence was almost everything, but his words of wisdom translate to climbing with a rope as well. Believing that you can do a move or a route is just as important as having the strength to do it; you want to be so mentally OP that you are sure you can do the move under any circumstances, even while facing a monster fall.

So begin with stacks of toproping to boost your immunity to fear, then do stacks of leading. Lead all the 5.8 then 5.9 trad routes you can, and then move on to more difficult climbs … you get the idea. Even go back to that 5.10 that spooked you and toprope the bejeezus out of it. Work it until you can fire the route on muscle memory. Then lead it again. Sure, this is the kind of rehearsal that purists might frown upon, but it’s more prudent than getting yourself into a dangerous situation again. If this all sounds too unscientific, you can always fall back on the proven way to mitigate your fear of death: Find religion. Gear Guru has spoken!