The Fear of Falling

We arrived in Moab and I had one thing on my mind: climbing. As soon as we got here, I booked a guide to take me out, show me the ropes, and teach me how to safely lead climb. I was so nervous on our drive out to the crag, my palms were dripping wet and I had no idea what to expect. It had been so long since I had last top-roped, I wasn’t even 100% certain I could still climb, much less outside, much less leading. But I was intent on learning, growing, and conquering that fear that sat heavy in my stomach.

As we hiked up the slope to the base of the wall, I saw the car we arrived in get smaller and smaller, tapping into height awareness before I was even tied in. I was thrilled to top rope some easy routes before having to attempt to lead, and I was happily surprised by my muscles memory to get my body up the low angled wall. All that stood between me and my first lead was an unsurmounted fear that laid inside of me, but I knew that my stubbornness would never let fear be the one to stop me, especially not with people around watching and doubting me. My first lead wasn’t memorable, tbh, I don’t even remember the route name or grade, or completing it, but I know that I did it and I know that I was probably paralyzed by fear the entire time.

The first time Sean and I went to Wall Street with the intent of me leading, things did not go according to plan. We were both nervous; I was scared to death to be leading without a guide behind me saying “that’s perfect, Ashley!” and Sean was terrified to drop and kill me. I think we spent more time fighting with each other than actually tied in, and that day ended up souring us on climbing for a month or so. After the time off, the nagging inside of me got louder and louder: I needed to climb. To help with the fear, we watched a million YouTube videos to refresh the information the guide spent so much time going over, we did ground training with each other, we practice building anchors on the van, rappelling in the park, and just going through the motions in low risk scenarios. Basically, we spent the time building up each others confidence which in my opinion, is what it’s all about.

When we finally started lead climbing consistently, even the easiest of easy routes were terrifying and anxiety inducing. Routes that I would fly up on, on top rope, without ever thinking about the holds or moves, suddenly made me stop and evaluate every move I made and think very astutely before I made my next step. Leaving me to draw the conclusion that it was all in my head. “You can climb this route easy, Ashley!” I’d tell myself as I death gripped the wall and holds with all my might, ” OK you can lower me, Sean!” I’d yell down when I was certain my body wouldn’t move another inch upwards. Once I got to two feet on solid ground, I would stare at the route and climb it in my head before saying “alright, let me try it again” and then I’d repeat this process until I was past the crux and confident that I could get to the anchor. Overcoming my fear of falling is something I’m still working on. When I start to pass a bolt and start working towards to the next one, I have persistent thoughts about falling in the space between and become filled with fear and anxiety. Some days I can easily quiet these voices with affirmations I say out loud to myself on the wall, “you are strong enough to do this”…”you have the skill to climb this route”…”anxiety just wants you to quit, don’t let it win”…and usually after I have gone through these mantras a handful of times I am able to keep moving forward. But there are still many times when I can’t push pass the fear, and I’m learning that’s okay too. Just know that if you are beginner or even an intermediate climber and you still have fear and anxiety sandbagging you, you are not alone- it IS scary and those are totally valid feelings to have. It can be hard to admit to those feelings especially when we are around skilled climbers who seem to have their mental game on lock- but we aren’t those people, we are us, and we are scared, LOL.

What I love about climbing, is that my physical abilities don’t hold me back (yet), my mental strength does, and that gives me something I can work on and work to push past. Lately, this is exactly what I have been doing. I have found that running laps on a slightly challenging route has been super beneficial, places where I find the fear rising in my stomach, I concentrate on and do over and over and over again. Once I pass it, I lower down to do it again until the fear is gone and I am reminded my ability to conquer the route. Another way I have found to help to overcome the fear is building my confidence on easy-peasy routes. I see a noticeable difference in my climbing on days that I start on an easy route and those days that I start on a more challenging route. I now know the importance for myself to build the confidence right out of the gate- send an easy route, remind my mind + body that I got this, and then move on to the actual routes that I want to work on. Lastly, and this one took me longer to realize the problem, but learning to trust my gear has been paramount. I found that halfway up a route, I would start to second guess the anchor and actually picture in my head the draws unclipping, freeing the rope, and dropping me to the ground in the process, or the rope just snapping, or a bolt ripping out of the wall, or, or, or…you get the point. For me, all this is, is anxiety and my brain trying to keep me alive. My anxiety thinks that if it alarms my brain of all these very possible, very real scenarios (they aren’t very possible or very real), that I will lower my body back down to solid ground and be safe again. And it works- like a fucking charm! I do lower. I do give up. I do hear a sound in the rope and am certain it’s about to snap and scream to be lowered. But, I am working on it, and how I’m working on it is by telling myself in the moment that anxiety wants me to quit- that this is the same voice that convinces me that van will be towed from the perfectly legal spot I parked in at the trailhead. Anxiety wants me to live quietly and safely and not put myself in any scenarios where I could be hurt- or worst- fail. But that isn’t the type of life I want to live, I want to grow and get better and do things that scare me so that one day maybe they won’t scare me so bad- or maybe they still will and I’ll do them despite it.

My climbing journey definitely mimics that of a mountain range, with peaks and valleys, it has been anything but linear, and that’s okay with me. Sports have always came to me easy since I was kid, naturally athletic, my body is solid and strong. But climbing? That uses a whole new muscle that I spent most of my life ignoring: my brain (okay that sounds hilariously bad but you know what I mean). The brain needs strengthening and conditioning, just like the rest of the body and it would behoove (parks +rec 4 lyfe) you to start adding it in to your weekly routines.

I guess what I’m saying is that I like lead climbing because I suck at it big time and I don’t like sucking at things, so lead climbing gives me something tangible to work on and towards. I’m also a very goal-oriented person, so having a goal to work towards like leading 5.10a’s seems doable but also really fucking hard and I’m just so stoked to have found something just so slightly out of my reach that it keeps me interested and going for it.

My only advice to you is this: find something that challenges you and demands peak performance and then work really really hard towards it. Having goals and something to work towards can help unlock what’s holding us back, for me, it’s fear and anxiety. I don’t want fear and anxiety to dictate what I do in life so I’m not going to let it, will you?

5 Comments on “The Fear of Falling

  1. A couple things:
    1 – YAY! Love all of this.
    2- I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but harder routes are less scary to lead. (Really!!) They are steep, which means a better fall, and they are usually bolted more closely, so that you aren’t having to venture so high above a bolt. So get on some harder routes!
    3- Sport routes on wall street are gross — they are greasy and over-climbed, and usually low-angle, thus they are insecure to climb with bad falls. Leading them is just genuinely scary. I think you’ll be less scared to lead in a more-friendly sport climbing area. Moab is a climbing mecca for splitter cracks and towers, and the rest of it is pretty low-quality (exceptions being scar wall and Mill Creek for cragging)
    4- It looks like you’re trying to figure out a lot on your own — find some experienced partners and ideally a mentor to help build that confidence!

    Keep crushing it!! You had such an awesome first season in Moab! Can’t want to see what you learn/accomplish this winter and next year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks pal!!! These are great tips!! Low angle is so scary to fall on because it seems like I could really get hurt on the way down, now that makes more sense! I will definitely take you up on your mentor offer hahaha! Thanks for the encouragement Britt, I’m going to keep at it and come back in the spring ready to crush it!


  2. “My only advice to you is this: find something that challenges you and demands peak performance and then work really really hard towards it.”

    Love it! I love fear as a navigational tool, discerns gigs in my environment I would be best to notice, though I don’t allow anxiety to kidnap my fear and distort and torture my “informing fear” into being afraid.

    You led the way through excellent storytelling. Excellent. Wonderfully expressed!


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