Scared to death!

‘Don, I think you killed him!!’

I still remember the panicked sound of my mom’s voice. I was probably four or five years old and like most boys that age, days were filled with running through our small ranch-style home at full speed. This particular evening, my dad, who was always a bit of a prankster, hid behind a wall as I rounded the corner in high gear. He jumped out and screamed ‘boo!’. I promptly passed out! As two young parents were scooping my limp body up to rush to the emergency room, I woke to hear those words from my mother’s lips: ‘Don, I think you killed him!!’

To this day, I hate being scared! Sneak up behind me when I’m not aware and you will likely hear a high pitched squeal and witness some very unique ninja retreat moves. It’s not pretty. And it’s NOT funny! (OK, enough of my issues).

Fear is a very real thing. Fear is a natural response that we all have ingrained in our psyche, and with good reason: it can keep us alive. If you are hiking in the woods and come upon a group of grizzlies, fear can give you the wisdom to turn around.

Most of us also have a healthy fear or heights, or more specifically, falling from heights. Again, that is not really a bad thing. Falling to my death is certainly not one of the things that I aspire too. Of course, that can cause some real challenges in our world of climbing though. After all, falling happens on a daily basis. And for many of us, it can significantly inhibit our climbing experience. So how do we balance that healthy fear to stay alive and still push ourselves to our limits when living the vertical life?

The first step is to assess what the real risk is and how much risk you are willing to take.

Let’s look at a roped climb. The first thing we would want to do is assess our belayer and safety systems. Do we trust the rope, the knot, the harness and the belayer (sure, any one of those could fail, but is it likely?). Depending on how we answer that, determines our next step. If we feel the risk there is acceptable, then we proceed. If we are unwilling to accept that risk, but want to learn to, there are some steps we can take. We might start by nerding out on the forces (kn) needed for the system to fail. We could watch others and see what happens (I for one am always in favor of letting others take the first risks 😀 ). Then maybe we could tie in and just hang on the system. After that perhaps go up a bit higher and again ‘test’ it. As we work our way up, we take bigger and bigger falls and then start going for moves that produce ‘surprise’ falls.

Of course we all know falling doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s the hitting of something that can ruin an entire day. So a second part of assessing risk is asking ourselves, ‘if we do fall, what are we going to hit?’ Is the ‘fall-zone’ clear? If not, can we mitigate it? Once we have assessed that the likelihood of getting hurt is low enough that we feel we could assume that risk, we then make a decision to go for it.

One word of caution here. Take baby steps and make sure you are adequately experienced to asses that risk (or ask someone who is). (OK, that was two words, but who’s counting?) My point is that we can’t will something to be safer than it is. If you aren’t sure, don’t try it, or get some help understanding the risks. Then, don’t make the mistake my dad did of scaring the bajesus out of yourself by taking some monster whipper.

Lastly, as you do gain confidence, keep the momentum going forward by regularly trying moves that you are likely to fall on. Early in my gym life, I developed a terrible habit of grabbing holds not on a route in order to prevent falls. It seriously inhibited my ability to get better. I eventually taught myself (with the help of a belayer who was also my son and seriously chastised me each time I ‘cheated’) to force myself to ‘go for the hold’ and take the fall. The fun part was that besides getting more comfortable falling, I also frequently found that I could actually stick those moves.

If you need a much more thorough and extensive review of this entire subject, I would very highly recommend the book ‘The Rock Warrior’s Way, Mental Training for Climbers’ by Arno Ilgner.

Have fun, climb hard and climb smart, and PLEASE, quit sneaking up behind me! (Seriously, it’s NOT FUNNY!)

Follow Your Bliss,


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