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I used to really enjoy climbing (almost all indoors). I was bouldering around V2-3 and leading at 5+. The mismatch was all down to fear of falling - I would repeatedly bail or fall from routes that I felt were well within my ability because of it. It quickly got to the point where it started interfering with my enjoyment of leading.

I'm a cautious kind of person and am happy being limited by my lowish tolerance for risk (that's a decision I take), but the fear is not rational - e.g. I have no fear while clipping the 2nd bolt although a fall here is probably the worst place on an indoor wall to fall. I get to a point where I'm scared and just freeze - I know the next move but my arms and legs just will not obey so I hang there, get tired and panicked and then either downclimb to the previous bolt or fall off. What makes it worse:

  • being above a bolt
  • body weight not above feet (side pull, overhangs)
  • empty space below me (overhangs, stepping across onto the other side of a dihedral)
  • dynamic moves

I have taken a few falls, but I don't seem to get used to it. The irony is that I quite enjoy a big fall as soon as I have left the wall. Up to that point it's all panic and terror and climbing badly.

Any tips on how to overcome this? Or should I just give in and stick to bouldering and slabs! This question looks similar but covers the techniques for falling safely. My problem is all in my head.

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Pushing yourself through fear is a skill. If you can learn to push yourself through the fear of something else (possibly unrelated to climbing) you will have increased "mental strength" to do this for climbing. – maxywb Oct 23 '14 at 16:38
I don't think that there is a mismatch between your bouldering grade and your route climbing grade (assuming the 5+ is UIAA). I think it is curious that you mention sticking to slabs while falling on slabs is the probably one of the easier ways to actually get hurt while climbing. – pmr Jan 4 at 21:10
Most of the question sounds like it's about gym climbing, but at the end it mentions slabs. I think the context matters here. Indoor sport climbing is extremely safe, and you really have to do something stupid in order to get hurt. But in various forms of outdoor climbing, falling can be much less of a safe, controlled thing. – Ben Crowell Apr 1 at 19:28

7 Answers 7

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Everyone who climbs suffers from this to some degree, so you need to accept that doing this will make you scared.

I've had very similar issues to the one's your describe over the years. I've tried several techniques to help with this with mixed result. From my personal experience the below didn't work for me (they may for you)

  • Fall training, i.e. taking a fall deliberately to get used to it.

This helps with your fall technique but for me it failed to address the issue. I wasn't scared of taking a controlled fall I was scared that I couldn't hold on while clipping, etc.

  • People shouting encouragement/telling me to get one with it

This just annoyed me/made me more frustrated than anything, which made me not want to get into that situation even less, which made me more annoyed at them and me, repeat until I end up shouting at them to simply p**s off and storming away from the crag in a terible mood.. :)

  • Putting pressure on myself to succeed

Partly as a result of the above I ended up getting into a mindset that I was just being silly and I should just man up and get on with it. again, for me this simply made the matter worse, to the point where the grade I could lead gradually got worse.

  • Visualisation

This is where you visualise the moves and convince yourself you can do it, etc. Bit too hippy for my liking, I just couldn't do it. :)

Ok so what did work for me:

  • Coming to terms with it

You will get scared, that's fine don't fight it just accept it. "Ok I'm scared, now what". This helps you think thought he panic.

  • Turn your brain on to fight your chemical response

Panic/fear is a chemical response to being in a dangerous situation. Your body is flooded with Adrenaline and you go into fight or flight mode. So do you fight or flight? Well neither your 10 meters off the ground attached to a rope, neither option is helpful.

You have two options, fall (fine your not bothered by this but ultimately this just releases more adrenaline and makes matters worse) or engage your brain and out think your chemical response. Start concentrating on what's around you, focus on your breathing, get this under control, your safe remember that, where's the next really good hold, I need 5 mins to just get myself in order, try not to down climb but if you do, do it slowly and controlled.

  • Stay put/stay calm

Try and wait it out. Don't simply let go and don't down climb. Wait, close your eyes, concentrate on your breating, wait for the adrenaline to die down to an acceptable level, then continue. Try and hold on at this point (as opposed to letting your belayer "take"), realise you can probably hold at this point longer than you realise. Rationalise the situation

  • Try to turn the negative into a positive

So you get scared when you climb and get swamped with Adrenaline?! Isn't this why your doing this? for the buzz? The Adrenaline! Turn the negative into a positive. Next time you get scared, try and enjoy it! I know this can be hard but adrenaline can be pretty enjoyable if you learn to deal with the fight or flight response.

  • Break the vicious cycle

You get frustrated because your not climbing at your ability which make your more anxious which makes you push yourself, which makes matters worse, repeat. STOP, go for a boulder, relax, enjoy yourself, the wall's not going anywhere and you can come back whenever you want. Your supposed to be enjoying this!

The above is based on my personal experiences. Different people will react differently to this. You need to find a solution that fits you.

A nice story

For me the turning point was when I was trad climbing, outdoors. I was leading an easy(ish) pitch but it was harder/more exposed than I'd expected. I found myself balanced on an arete 3-4m above my next placement which (in my head at least) would never hold a fall. I couldn't take a fall here, I had to get my sh*t together or I could hurt myself (in reality I was probably perfectly safe but I'd worked myself into such a state that I felt in real danger). I sat there slowly praying looking for a placement and not finding one, gradually I started to feel better,

"hold on this hold is solid, I could hang here one handed for about a minute easy"

"Now my legs stopped shaking that foot placement is about the size of my living room"

"There's a crack there, why the hell couldn't I see that before?, what's that? a number 10"

"Bloody hell I could hang a mini off of that placement"

It suddenly occurred to me that indoors I would of just let go and become annoyed at myself. But by sticking it out I'd overcome it. I felt awesome at the top and jumped about like an idiot. My girlfriend didn't understand what the fuss was all about, "That was easy?!"

Whenever I feel like I'm loosing it I try and remember this situation and how focused I felt once I'd gotten control of my emotions.

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This is great advice. I'm finding that just hanging and waiting for the fear to subside (as opposed to hanging there stressing about the fact I'm hanging there) really helps. Not when I am already pumped and time is of the essence, but hey, it's a step forward. – aucuparia Oct 22 at 14:23

As you say, it's only in your head. Here are some things that may work (worked for me with various degrees of success):

  1. Just do it more. You say that you climb "almost all indoors" and "have taken a few falls" - I sense a contradiction there. Make a rule that for every route you climb, you fall off at the end. This way you will be doing 10 scary falls every day, and maybe after some time you will get used to them.
  2. Hum some slow soothing music in your head (e.g. the Moonlight Sonata) while you are climbing. It may be difficult in gyms, where someone else chooses songs for you. It's good outdoors though.
  3. Have your partner shout encouraging stuff for you, like "Climb on!" or "Go with your left hand!" or "I am catching you!" or just a bunch of swearwords...
  4. Make a video of yourself falling. Maybe the different viewpoint will help you rationalize your fear. In addition, when the camera is looking at you, you might be more willing to push yourself, even just to make some cool shots (this one depends a lot on your personality).
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good answer. I'll give these a try next time i'm out. – aucuparia Oct 24 '14 at 7:15
the video is an ace idea – Liam Oct 24 '14 at 10:06

I've found a great way to work through this is doing intentional fall progressions. Since you are climbing mostly indoors this is easy to do frequently. Make sure you have a solid and patient belayer while doing this.

Start with leading up to a bolt (4th or higher is best) and take a short lead fall from there. Since being at the bolt doesn't make you as uncomfortable this shouldn't be too hard.

Next, climb just a foot or two above the bolt and take another fall. After the catch spend some time bouncing lightly against the wall by pushing away with your hands and feet (arms & legs always slightly bent).

Then climb almost to the next unclipped bolt and take a bigger fall (this is where being at least 4 bolts high is very important). Here's the key. Fall with intention. Before you start have it in your head that you are going to reach some specific hold (big red jug with your right hand) and then IMMEDIATELY fall. No taking a big breath, or looking at your fall. Just cast off.

You definitely have the intellectual understanding of climbing safety, so it's just about teaching your gut what is okay and what is not. Practice on what you are uncomfortable with (overhangs and dynamic moves) which are really clean/safe falls anyway. I wouldn't recommend doing this exercise where there is any risk of taking a pendulum fall.

And repeat.

Do this a lot, until it become easier. Having a strong mental leading game isn't like riding a bike. You could feel very comfortable and then come back a little later and be gripped again. So you have to work it into your practice routine.

I think it's also important to remember that if fall potentials are taking the fun out of climbing, that it's okay to not lead (or not lead routes like that). I have a number of climbing partners who are quite good, but don't ever lead. Don't get overcome by other climbers "lead ego", climb how you like too (which it sounds like you already have a good mind for).

Hope that helps!

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+1, progression is key. Don't be afraid to start by taking many "almost-lead" falls where the rope is clipped above you. – Felix Oct 25 '14 at 22:41

This is a very, very common problem, perhaps the most common limiting factor among all climbers. It may be worse for you than for most climbers, but at least you realize it and wish to adress it, so you have a better chance of overcoming it than someone who pretends there is no problem!

First of all, to really get used to falling, you need to take far more than "a few" falls. We're talking about dozens, even hundreds.

But if the act of falling itself is not scary to you, maybe what will work best is what I've been doing recently: specifically train making moves that I'm not sure I can do without falling. To do that, I climb overhanging routes, where falls are least dangerous, yet you get pumped quickly and at the right grade you're almost guaranteed to reach a point where you're not sure you can stick the next move.

For me, the combination of the factors "Falling here is not problematic", "Trying this risky move is what I'm here for!" and "Each second I spend worrying reduces my chances of succeeding", and having these mentally addressed in advance, is enough so I can push myself to actually try the move with minimal hesitation.

The biggest advantage of this approach is that half the time, I actually don't fall and instead (barely) succeed with the move. And that is, after all, the thing you actually want to achieve and therefore need to train!

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Good answer - I think you've hit the nail on the head with what I am really afraid of (making moves I'm not sure I can do without falling) – aucuparia Apr 28 at 9:12

I'm getting back into leading indoors and going through similar things with the 'head-game' part of climbing. Agree with Brian and the others. Practising indoor falls, and talking to myself are helpful strategies for me. Although I'm doing more of the talking myself over stuff ("You'll be OK, you can do this!" or through moves "right hand, twist-lock then foot up there...") than falling right now!

Also mentioned, and crucial for me, is the communication and relationship with my belayer. I find when moving to lead and harder stuff, it's so much better for me if I have climbed with my belayer lots before. They know me, and I know them. I know they will watch me, listen, and look out for me, and that helps with my confidence to crank through harder stuff and try getting to the edge of my physical strength before my mental-power gives way.

Good luck!

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I'd focus less on the falling part and more on the climbing part. Get some miles under your belt by leading climbs that you feel comfortable on. Leading is a separate skill from the purely physical act of climbing, you need to train your mental control as well as your physical. It's unreasonable to expect that you'll be leading at the same technical level as you toprope until you have many climbs under your belt.

Climbing gyms have drastically accelerated the rate at which people gain physical competency in climbing, but there has been no comparable advance in training the mental aspect. Getting a "climbing head" takes time and everybody does it at a different rate. Having a lot of positive experiences at a lower technical level is much more beneficial than forcing a bad experience at a higher one.

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Having a lot of positive experiences at a lower technical level is much more beneficial than forcing a bad experience at a higher one. Great point – Liam Jan 2 at 11:05
@Liam: Hm, I recently read Dave MacLeod's "9 Out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes", which argues that exactly the opposite is the case. Namely, that the most beneficial improvements are always in the areas where you are weakest, and that you can only truly improve by going outside of your comfort zone while looking for "positive experiences" is a trap that prevents you from working on your weaknesses. – Michael Borgwardt Jan 2 at 14:09
Wouldn't that be more about technical mistakes? It's hard to work on a "mental" weakness without making it worse. – Liam Jan 2 at 14:23
@Liam: the idea is to A) desensitize yourself to the negative experience so that it becomes less scary and B) change failing from something negative to something positive (because it helps you get better so that you end up failing less often). Specifically, for optimal progress MacLeod suggests spending the majority (maybe two thirds) of your time doing things at least slightly outside of your comfort zone. – Michael Borgwardt Jan 2 at 14:47
Macleod may be right, if you're focusing on only getting better. But that's also the attitude that drives most people out of climbing eventually. It is very easy to overdose on the progression aspect and lose track of the fact that climbing should be fun for the most part. Part of the fun is challenging your limits, but if that's all you're doing you won't last long. – Fred the Magic Wonder Dog Jan 2 at 18:41

There is no secret to beat Fear. Fear is part of our inner core.

Observe it widely, try small, under controlled conditions, learn when it leads the body, act big with this knowledge.

Just dive!

Beat Kammerlander said once:

When I rest, fear can come. When I climb, concentration has to be there.

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Dear downvoter, please leave a comment. – Nikos Alexandris May 3 at 11:25

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