Every climber has to deal with fear on some level. For people like Alex Honnold, getting scared doesn’t happen until they’re hundreds of feet in the air. Others are terrified of the first step up a ladder. No matter where you lie on this spectrum, you’re bound to get scared on a route at some point. So here are a few pointers to help you build the confidence you need to have a good time on the wall, whether it’s your first time on top rope or you’re heading up your first multipitch.
The first thing you need for a happy, healthy ego at any climbing wall is a partner you trust. This person can be your best friend, your significant other, or someone you met in a climbing class. As long as you know that their belay abilities are solid, you’ll climb much harder on the wall. And the more experienced they are—like an instructor, a pro, or some old geezer with years of experience—the more confidence you’ll have in both their abilities and your climbing potential.
A top rope course at a gym is great for anyone who wants to start his or her climbing adventure. It’s the first step to a whole new way of looking at the vertical life. You’ll be introduced to your rope, harness, and shoes, and you’ll be more comfortable with heights as soon as you trust that gear. A great way to trust your rope and harness is to tie in and sit down at the bottom of the route with your belay buddy holding you up. Hanging from the rope is a great confidence booster because it helps you realize that you’ll be fine when you fall. Once you trust your rope and harness, you need to learn how to trust your shoes. Climbing shoes are designed to step on edges smaller than your toes. So try to use those tiny footholds in the gym. Most beginners use big sloping jugs for their feet because they’re scared to trust those tiny jibs. You won’t regret stepping up on small features. And if you slip, you already know your belay partner will catch you and you’ll just sit back in your harness instead of plummeting to the ground.
Moving from the top rope area of a gym to the leading section is exciting for some and horrific for others. You’re no longer sitting in your harness from the top rope you’re so fond of. You’ll get some air time when you fall now, and the best thing you can do is take that first fall sooner rather than later. I’d recommend falling somewhere high up on a steep wall. That way you minimize the chances of decking (which are already minimal, so calm down) or slamming into a vertical wall. The earlier you do it, the quicker you’ll realize that those few milliseconds of air are painless with a dynamic belayer catching you. It seems like it’s harder for those who wait to take that first fall; it builds up in their minds until lead climbing is no longer an option. So go ahead and take a few falls before you overthink it.
Transitioning from the gym to the good ol’ outdoors can feel like going from swimming in a pool to swimming in a pool with sharks. The key to beating this fear-driven idea is to be realistic: sharks don’t live in pools. And the biggest difference between climbing inside and climbing outside is that it’s a lot more beautiful out in the mountains than in a stinky gym. Depending on the area, crags have the same amount of bolts and protection that the gym has. Granted, some areas have bolts that are farther apart than what you’re used to. And some areas have rusted, spinning, and downright terrible bolts that nobody wants to fall on. So research the area you’re climbing at before you go. Mountainproject.com offers current information to let people know when bolts get replaced, and other climbers give information on how scary each route is. But when you get those terrifying images of bolts ripping out of walls like some awful Hollywood movie, remind yourself that you’re most likely going to fall in the same way that you fell in the gym—with the bolt holding.
Trusting your gear takes a huge turn when you start to trad climb. You no longer get those fantastic bolts to save you if you let go. Now you have to rely on your own expertise to save you, and learning how to place bomber protection is a lot harder than clipping a bolt. A good way to gain confidence in your trad climbing ability is similar to the top rope. Place some pieces at ground-level and just hang from them. Keep placing gear until you fall off a piece. This will give you an idea of what a terrible placement looks like versus a fantastic one. And when you’re shaking on a wall, it’s always nice to know you have a bomber cam below you to catch you if you don’t make your send.
By the time you enter the multipitch realm, you should have a good head on your shoulders to send without fear. But sometimes being up there can remind you of that time you took your first step off the ground and on the wall. When this happens to me, I like to remind myself that I’m here to have a good time. If you get Elvis-legs (they’re all shook-up), sing something to make yourself laugh. Seriously, I sing Free Falling by Tom Petty all the time, and it makes me laugh my ass off. This brings me back to why I started climbing in the first place: to have fun.
Sure, climbing is an excellent way to lose your fear of heights. It makes you stronger and healthier, and it gives you an excellent relationship with your partners and the outdoors. But nobody really starts climbing because of those things. We start because it looks like fun. It’s an escape from our daily lives, and what a wonderful one at that. So when you’re terrified on the wall from either some silly thought or a serious moment that could result in a bad fall, remind yourself that you’re here for the good times. Being frightened for any reason, whether serious or not, decreases your technique and doesn’t help you send successfully. Let the fear go, stay positive, have fun, and climb with confidence.