Rock Climbing: Identity and Fear of Fa(i)lling

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Comfortable on toprope, but comfortable isn't always a good thing!
I had the brilliant idea to resurrect an old blog several weeks ago, but never acted on it. I have two accounts from days past and began one as a mostly blank, slightly dusty canvas to record happenings and musing I didn't necessarily intend to share with the general public. But what good is that, really? Painting pictures no one else will see? 

I started this blog in 2006 while living in Alaska to keep track of things I did there and to help my family and friends keep up with me. I gleaned great enjoyment from reading the previous three post, but they've little to do with what I hope this blog becomes.

After a number of successful V2s at the rock gym, enough to convince me the first one wasn't a fluke, I took advice from several twitter climbers and ordered literature on training and technique. I figure with my relative lack of climbing experience, which is limited to indoor gyms and one day outdoors, I can use all the help I can get. I am a few chapters into Conditioning for Climbing, despite initial frustration with the self-assessment tests. How dare a pile of inky paper label me "average?!" The blow to my ego was not entirely surprising - I can only do 6 or 7 pullups at a time. For a climber, that is definitely average; a fact I realized fully after listening to one of Eric Horst's training podcasts en route home tonight.

I am not sure I can call myself a climber yet, nor am I certain why I feel the need to label myself as anything at all. I used to be a swimmer, and struggled for a bit trying to form an athletic identity after college ended. My first climbs were on the Lindseth Climbing Wall at Cornell in 2006. The learning curve was initially steep, but I never took it very seriously. I was, and still am, focused on trying everything I'd forfeited by spending 25 hours per week doused in chlorinated water. But now, all of a sudden, I have an insatiable desire to be proficient in this sport. I'm competitive by nature, and my ego has trouble dealing with being "average." The problem is, I have a paralyzing fear of falling. (I can't wait until Girl on the Rocks arrives).

That fear of falling stems from a number of things, including the fact that I will hesitate to intentionally put myself in a situation with even a remote possibility of feeling the roller-coaster-stomach-drop sensation. I do not consider myself afraid of heights, but had a belayer lower me 35 feet extremely, extremely quickly at the rock gym this past autumn and I've been scared ever since.

I took up bouldering a few months ago; I wanted to keep climbing, I love it, but needed to be closer to the ground for a little while. It was a way to postpone dealing with the fear, or perhaps just a climbing discipline I like more. But in a sport with so many variables and so many disciplines, one can't stay afraid forever. It's limiting. It is extremely difficult to take big risks on routes when I'm afraid to fall, and it's holding me back.

So, I decided I should go to a lead clinic. This is the climbing discipline that seems the scariest to me - the distance I could fall before the rope catches me is significant. The only problem is, all the lead routes at my rock gym are 5.9 or above. I can climb 5.9s, but would prefer to learn a new discipline on routes I can do. So instead, a friend from the gym offered to take me to Birdsboro this weekend and teach me a bit on his own. This is a significant favor, both because I'll be a big chicken the first half of the day, if not all day, and because I don't have enough gear to climb outdoors. I appreciate his willingness, and thanked him profusely in advance for his patience. Wish me luck!

Do you remember your first outdoor climbing experience? If you've never been climbing outdoors, do you think it's something you'd try? Leave a comment!

6 comments :

Tali said...

So happy you joined the bloglands again. I am really excited to read your about your experiences.

I know that most organizations/gym in Colorado have a prerequisite for their lead climbing class that you should be climbing a 5.9 TR comfortably before taking the class. I have had some great 5.11 days in the gym yet still struggle on some 5.8+ so I think a lot of it is the desire and serious understanding of how lead climbing risks vary from bouldering and TR that are important.

Good luck!

~Tali (aka CupcakeMafia)

m1nd7r1p said...

"but had a belayer lower me 35 feet extremely, extremely quickly at the rock gym this past autumn and I've been scared ever since. Lame, right?"

Not one bit lame. That was a shitty thing for them to do. I ride motorcycles very aggressively, but when I'm giving someone a ride who's never been before, I ask them how scared do they want to get and then ride accordingly. Everybody has a different comfort level for 'adrenaline-producing moments' and a good partner respects your limit. That's not to say I won't sometimes give one of my climbing partners a little scare like that for fun--but we've been climbing together for quite some time, they're reasonably good climbers, we all lead climb and are (getting) used to falling, etc.

Besides, you can always point out to them that they're being a douche--that kind of rapid dropping generates a fair amount of heat and is hard on the ropes. Make sure when you start leading that they never belay for you on your own rope, or make it clear you'll make them buy you a new one.

As far as the head game goes; welcome to the club. :) You should be able to do a 5.9 easily before you start the lead class--there are other things to be thinking about when leading and you shouldn't also be panicking about where your next hand or foot is. You want to be thinking carefully about clipping stances, avoiding z-clipping/backclipping, etc, and you need to be able to focus on THAT stuff.

As far as the fear factor goes, as an ex-motorcycle racer once said in a precision cornering class I took: "Think about the worst thing that could happen. Now tell yourself 'I can handle ___ ." He's right; in a gym, what's the worst thing that could happen in a lead climb or a fall. You deck on the rubber floor? You hit your head? I've never heard of anyone dying in a climbing gym. Injuries, yes, though then the worst I've heard about are ankle sprains from a bad fall. Can you handle that? Will it kill you? Then as the fear rises tell yourself, "I can handle ___ " and keep moving. Even outside, I don't think I've ever heard of someone dying from decking on a single pitch climb. It's possible, and I'm sure it's happened somewhere, but the worst single-pitch accident I've heard about was a 60-foot fall from an anchor to the rocks below, and while that person was seriously injured and had surgery, they survived. The only deaths I've heard or read about happened during multi-pitch climbing, and you're a long way from going there. I'm certainly no expert at the head game but I'm learning to get over it, and this is helping.

Good luck, and happy #climbing!

Katie said...

Thanks so much for the encouragement! I really, really appreciate it, it makes me feel significantly better when others tell me the fear isn't unreasonable!

I'm barely a 5.9 climber, more like a 5.8, but I'd probably be at least a 5.9 climber if I learned how to manage my fear. That's next on my agenda.

The advice about thinking of the worst thing that could happen, that's great advice. Thank you!!

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the sport, for sure! One the the best things about climbing is pushing your edges, falling being one of them. It's extremely important to learn to trust your gear and have faith in it. Also, learn what a safe fall is and how you should handle it prior, during, and after the fall. Make sure your lead teacher instructs about correct clipping, how to step with the rope, and how to properly fall. Mainly, 5.9 lead climbing is a lot more difficult than a top rope. When you first start you'll be unsure of the clip mechanics and spend a lot of time trying to get the rope in there correctly. A lead fall is quite a bit different from a top rope fall too, it being more of a fall and bounce than just a tug and hold. It's a bit intimidating at first, knowing you'll fall down, but remembering to push out with your feet, and landing against the wall with your feet is so helpful; overhanging routes are also useful.

There's a lot more, but yes.

Lastly, please never climb with a partner you don't feel comfortable with or one that pushes you in ways you don't want to go. If you don't understand an anchor, a technique, or why something is happening make sure you ask -- this could save your or both of your lives.

@selves

Katie said...

Great advice, it really is. I've never climbed with someone significantly better than I am, just with average climbers like myself. But heading outdoors this weekend with a few seasoned "pros" should really help. I think I need a real climbing partner, I don't have one at the moment. I just climb with a group and we rotate around. But I'd feel much more secure with someone who knows me and my strengths/weaknesses. Any takers? :)

m1nd7r1p said...

"but had a belayer lower me 35 feet extremely, extremely quickly at the rock gym this past autumn and I've been scared ever since. Lame, right?"

Not one bit lame. That was a shitty thing for them to do. I ride motorcycles very aggressively, but when I'm giving someone a ride who's never been before, I ask them how scared do they want to get and then ride accordingly. Everybody has a different comfort level for 'adrenaline-producing moments' and a good partner respects your limit. That's not to say I won't sometimes give one of my climbing partners a little scare like that for fun--but we've been climbing together for quite some time, they're reasonably good climbers, we all lead climb and are (getting) used to falling, etc.

Besides, you can always point out to them that they're being a douche--that kind of rapid dropping generates a fair amount of heat and is hard on the ropes. Make sure when you start leading that they never belay for you on your own rope, or make it clear you'll make them buy you a new one.

As far as the head game goes; welcome to the club. :) You should be able to do a 5.9 easily before you start the lead class--there are other things to be thinking about when leading and you shouldn't also be panicking about where your next hand or foot is. You want to be thinking carefully about clipping stances, avoiding z-clipping/backclipping, etc, and you need to be able to focus on THAT stuff.

As far as the fear factor goes, as an ex-motorcycle racer once said in a precision cornering class I took: "Think about the worst thing that could happen. Now tell yourself 'I can handle ___ ." He's right; in a gym, what's the worst thing that could happen in a lead climb or a fall. You deck on the rubber floor? You hit your head? I've never heard of anyone dying in a climbing gym. Injuries, yes, though then the worst I've heard about are ankle sprains from a bad fall. Can you handle that? Will it kill you? Then as the fear rises tell yourself, "I can handle ___ " and keep moving. Even outside, I don't think I've ever heard of someone dying from decking on a single pitch climb. It's possible, and I'm sure it's happened somewhere, but the worst single-pitch accident I've heard about was a 60-foot fall from an anchor to the rocks below, and while that person was seriously injured and had surgery, they survived. The only deaths I've heard or read about happened during multi-pitch climbing, and you're a long way from going there. I'm certainly no expert at the head game but I'm learning to get over it, and this is helping.

Good luck, and happy #climbing!