When I was in college, I went on a spring break road trip from Duluth, Minnesota (about 1800 miles) to Red Rock Canyon outside of Las Vegas with my college rock climbing club. There were maybe 10 of us who spent 4 days climbing. I was not a very good climber, but definitely gained skills during those days. On the last day, I built up my confidence to try my first lead climb. It was a 5.8 but the first climb on that trip that I hadn’t fallen or felt like I might.
The president of the club, who I had a major crush on, volunteered to belay me. My close friend sat on a rock behind the route to take photos and cheer me on. I don’t remember worrying at all about falling or getting hurt, I just felt certain I could do it. I clipped the first bolt and moved up towards the 2nd. Right before I clipped, I slipped unexpectedly, falling very close to the ground before my belayer (and crush) caught me on rope. I felt really embarrassed and everyone joked about how not only was I doing my first lead climb, but also got my first lead fall out of the way. I shook it off, laughed, and went back up and completed the climb.
I didn’t climb much after graduation, and didn’t do a lead climb for about 18 years which was 2 years ago. For some reason, as you get older, at least in my case, I find that I have more fears. Leading is terrifying to me. Falling on lead is even more terrifying. But if you want to progress as a climber, there’s only one way and that is to do it. Climb. Push yourself. Face or overcome fear. Trust yourself. Trust your experience and gear. And practice.
My goal for summer was to do a lot of rock climbing, practice ‘easy’ sport leads of 5.6 or 5.7’s and try to get over my fear of leading and falling. So far, this hasn’t happened and summer is about half over. However, I am proud to say I have done two lead climbs in the past month, both very easy climbs on slabs that are less than vertical, but this has definitely helped me to rebuild some confidence and skills including practicing cleaning routes and rappelling, which are the other two things that always scare me, since that is where the most accidents and mistakes happen.
Fear is amplified when you see your fears play out in front of you. And I think that is the reason why I haven’t pushed myself to try to lead much. I’ve seen, as well as read and heard about, enough accidents to know what happens when things don’t go right. Last October, as I was belaying my friend on lead she fell after the first bolt and shattered her ankle. In May, while our group was climbing at Smith Rock, we witnessed a fall from the top of the route by a guy who had been on top cleaning his route and getting ready to rappel down. I’m not quite clear on what exactly went wrong, but he ended up falling about 30-40 feet onto a picnic table and had to be taken out by helicopter. Amazingly, he only had some broken bones and was able to still be at his wedding this summer. But the sound of a human body hitting a picnic table and echoing through the canyon from that fall will never be erased from my memory. Seeing what I thought at the time, was someone die from the same thing I love doing, is a scary scary thing. And I recognize that is the reality of climbing, mountaineering, and also though…just life. Car accidents happen every day, people break bones by slipping on a sidewalk, and there’s only so much control you actually have.
What does help with fear? Practice, familiarity, establishing a safe system, and being around others who are mentors. When nerves mix with excitement, this is where growth happens. Climb on!