Get hands-on learning straight from Arno Ilgner in Climbing’s online video-course series Overcome Your Fear of Falling. Being afraid to fall is hardwired into every climber, but in this comprehensive course Ilgner gives specific drills to push past this evolutionary limitation. Sign up now, learn from home, and climb your level best.
How do you relate to fear? We experience fear in many parts of our lives. We may fear asking someone for a date when we’re an adolescent, or fear a job interview, or fear speaking in front of others. These are all psychological fears, which don’t injure us physically. Falling while climbing is unique in that it combines both physiological and psychological fears. We can be injured physically, so we fear falling. We can also be injured mentally if we equate falling with failure. When fear is out of control, our focus can—unhealthily—turn to “getting rid” of the fear instead of seeing it as an important guide for assessing risk in our climbing.
Fear is natural. We all experience it. I experience it. And why wouldn’t we experience it? We all have comfort zones based on experiences we’ve had. Anything outside our comfort zones—our experiences—is unknown. Fear helps us survive; it holds us back from haphazardly engaging unknown situations outside our experience. So yes, fear is critical for our survival, and therefore we need to honor its guidance. It guides us toward taking appropriate steps into the unknown so we can maximize learning and minimize injury.
Fear will hold you back from taking risks so you can survive, but mere survival doesn’t create a meaningful life. Unless you find ways to engage fear, you’ll probably regret large portions of your life. You can’t conquer your fear in one large step. You need to take small steps, not only to diminish injury, but also, perhaps more importantly, to enjoy the whole process. Ask yourself, “Do I want to enjoy my climbing and life, or do I just want to get it over with?” I would assume you’d choose the former, so approach falling in the same way. Small steps will help you enjoy the process more.
It’s important to also realize that falling isn’t something you can decide not to do. Regardless of whether or not you like falling, it’s one consequence of your choice to climb. Falling is inevitable so instead of avoiding it, find ways to embrace it responsibly. Come to terms with what you want from climbing, the risks you’re willing to take and the ones you aren’t. We all have different mental and physical makeups. We need to know the capacity we have for stretching ourselves. If we stretch too far, then we can break. For example, I’m old now. My 60-plus-year-old bones aren’t as flexible as they were when I was 20. Therefore, they’re likely to break more easily now. I need to consider this fact when I decide what I want climbing to give me now, at this age. Another consideration for younger climbers, who are less experienced, is their feeling of invulnerability. Life hasn’t slapped them around very much yet, so they feel invincible. That mindset can help them achieve a lot, but it’ll eventually catch up with them. They’ll take a reckless fall, and possibly injure or scare themselves, thwarting their learning and enjoyment of climbing. If that’s you, then be wary of feeling invincible, because none of us are.
Finally, after responsible engagement of falling practice, you may realize you don’t like the feeling of falling or the fear associated with it. Falling may not be your “cup of tea,” and so you decide that what you want from your climbing is not to fall. This doesn’t mean you won’t fall. Rather, it means you consciously choose to only lead routes well within your ability and only push yourself on harder routes on toprope or when following another climber. There’s nothing wrong with that choice. We all need to come to terms with what we want from climbing and what we’re willing to do to meet the responsibilities and consequences of that choice.
In the next lesson, we’ll dig into understanding your motivation.
These lessons are taken from the recent online course I did with Climbing Magazine: Overcome Your Fear of Falling Here’s the outline for this series of lessons: