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How to Beat Fear

I learned to climb in the 1970s, before sport climbing. Back then, many climbs were dangerous and falling was taboo. Because of that early experience,...

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I learned to climb in the 1970s, before sport climbing. Back then, many climbs were dangerous and falling was taboo. Because of that early experience, I’m nervous about falling. How can I beat the fear?

—Karl Guthrie, Wimberley, TX

This is the million-dollar question for many and I don’t think it’s just a generation game either. You can tell yourself that falling onto bolts is safe as much as you want, but it doesn’t make you feel any safer. Unfortunately, the only way to become more relaxed about falling is to fall a lot. Fortunately, no matter how deeply ingrained, this is the easiest of all climbing weaknesses to fix.

First, check your belay system and make sure that your belayer understands dynamic belaying. Old-school climbers tend to give hard catches, while the new generation of sport belayers give slack and jump on impact rather than leaning back and resisting the fall. This subtle technique prevents the leader from slamming into the wall. After all, it isn’t falling that’s the problem, but hitting things! Belay gloves and devices with extra holding power are a good idea, especially with thin ropes. The belayer should brace and prepare to be lifted off the ground. Lighter belayers should tie themselves down to a ground anchor with three to six feet of slack in order to keep from being pulled up too high while still absorbing fall energy. It is also vital for the belayer to stand perpendicular to the wall, and directly beneath the first clip to prevent being pulled at an awkward angle and risk losing control of the rope.

Pick a route that is gently overhanging and, preferably, lacks projecting features. Lead up to the last clip and lower down a few meters. Try some toprope falls with slack in the system and then work up to falling from level with the draw and finally from above it. Never take more than six or seven falls in a row or you will generate too much heat in the rope and the quickdraw. Swap ends of the rope when it is your partner’s turn to climb. Above all else, if you chicken out when you are above the draw, never call for your belayer to take you tight. Stick to the plan and drop off with the confidence that your belayer will give you a good, dynamic belay. It is the short falls from close to the draw that have claimed so many ankles. When falling, push yourself out slightly from the wall to clear any obstacles, but don’t overcook it or you will swing in hard. You can put your hands out to the side for balance or on the rope close to the knot. Keep your legs relaxed and slightly bent so you can absorb the energy on impact. Above all else, you must believe in this process. It has worked dramatically for every single person I have used it with. Good luck gaining your wings.