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Gear Guy

Overcoming the Fear of Falling

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Is there a trick to getting over the fear of falling on lead?

T.S. Eliot wrote , “All our ignorance brings us closer to death.” In your case, your ignorance about fear could kill you because when your head is not right, you make jackass mistakes. A little fear, however, is healthy and keeps you vigilant — the aim isn’t to overcome fear, but to tame it.

Fear is a natural, chemical process stemming from hormonal and neuro-chemical responses in the brain to tangible and realistic dangers. It is a survival, flight-or-fight response. But are you afraid of falling, or afraid of failing? If the latter, you probably think that if you fail, your peers will think you are a wussy or make fun of you when you aren’t around. This is true, but you can bolster your self-esteem and subdue fear by realizing that failing does not mean you are a loser, and that to succeed you also have to fail sometimes: G.W. Bush lost the popular election but still became president. It helps to share your fear with a close friend — but not so close he actually knows who you are.

Usually, you are afraid when you try something for the first time, or do it infrequently, like dating or gift giving. I am guessing that you are either a newbie and have yet to fall, or climb often, but so conservatively you don’t fall. Either way, you can control fear through what I call systematic desensitization. Remember Pavlov, the Russian physician who got the dogs to slobber when a bell was rung? The process I am about to lay out works similarly and will have you slobbering all over the Bachar/Yerian with nary a lip quiver. Here’s how:

1. Relax. Take deep breaths and imagine yourself in your most peaceful situation; say, at home, being bounced on Papa’s knee.

2. Introduce the threat. Imagine yourself falling, but imagine that you are safely boinging onto the rope. If this is too scary for you, imagine that you are Chris Sharma, casually taking 100-foot whippers at Clark Mountain and getting all the ladies. Once your alter ego has crushed your fear, switch back to yourself.
OK, that probably won’t work for you unless you spend at least five grand spewing to a shrink, and even then you’ll never make good with the ladies. What will work is acclimating yourself to the fear.  I was terrified of bees until one day I was stung a bunch of times all over my body. Now I am so unafraid I can catch bees in my mouth. To replicate my success, go to a gym, tie in, and take short falls of say three feet. When you are comfortable with that, fall six feet. Then 10. You’ll find that while letting go is tough, once you do, a calm will wash over you like an azure Caribbean wave. If in real life out at the crag you are still scared, climb up, clip a few bolts (or set good pro) and jump off. Soothing, isn’t it? Next!

This Gear Guy question appeared in Rock and Ice issue 167 (April 2008).

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