Thursday, 9 April 2015

Fear of falling: Dare I admit it?

It's been the source of much confusion to me that, after breaking my leg bouldering indoors, I'm having so much trouble leading outdoors. I've been terrified climbing routes I should be warming up on. Routes that if I fell off, I should be laughing at the mistake rather than being frustrated that I fell off.

But I can't fall off.

As someone who never really felt fear, I've never really confronted this issue and perhaps this is where I went so wrong. For the first three years of my climbing I used to climb in the summer, ditch climbing in the winter and then start again in the summer. Each year, leading outdoors would feel a bit nerve-wracking at first but then it would be fine. Then almost exactly four years after I started climbing, I had a bouldering accident and my outlook on risk taking changed. Probably irreversibly. I think that most of us become naturally more scared as we grow up, but after an injury-free childhood this was my first (brutal) introduction to the idea that I didn't bounce as well as I thought.

If you're wondering, I'm talking about sport climbing here. Not trad, sport climbing. As in, climbing clipping bolts. Bolts which are 2 metres apart, on overhangs.

Worse still, I'm getting to the point where I'm starting to boulder more normally (OK, not at the top, but then you'd understand my reservations there). And until now, I'd not realised how much being scared could hold me back. Because I can't try moves: in fact I can't even move, I'm terrified.

Often this even happens on a top-rope. But until recently, I've always been able to use the injury as an excuse. Perhaps that's why bouldering is going better for me? I'm allowed to down climb. And outdoors, I'm very tactical about the problems I choose! But sport climbing, that's different. And here I have a confession to make: regarding being scared of falling off routes, I've always been well and truly cocky. Sure, I'd never say it out loud. But I've often thought "why don't you just try?". People who top-rope for convenience, that I understood. But I could never understand why people would try to lead and say "take" as soon as the probability of catching the next hold wasn't 1.

And now I'm sorry for thinking that way: I never realised how hard it could be to be genuinely, paralytically scared of falling off. Nor did I realise that to overcome that, you have to admit it in the first place. And that to admit it, you have to deal with people like me!

Imagine my consternation: my fear was taking six grades off my climbing, I was so scared of falling off sport climbing that I couldn't even look at a route without worrying about the places that I couldn't see clearly exactly how I was going to do the move in advance. Bearing in mind that I'm currently climbing in Kalymnos (where the bolts are excellently situated and all the routes that I am climbing have been climbed many, many times) that is simply not rational. When scoping out a trad route (or a slate sport route!) maybe. But not here.

Not only that, but in judging myself, I'd had to admit that my previous opinion on fear of falling was based on a complete lack of empathy and that I'd had no idea what I was talking about and was just lucky that I'd never been scared. Since I started climbing again I've experienced varying levels of fear while leading (and indeed top-roping). It became clear last week that was no point having goals for a climbing trip when I couldn't even try moves on a top-rope without being turned into a gibbering wreck: how was I ever going to enjoy climbing again? I needed to drop the grade, but not so far that I wouldn't fall off. I needed to start again.

I realised also that to truly beat the fear of falling off forever, you might well have to climb for all eternity. That sometimes it will be easy and sometimes it will be impossibly hard. I've started to work out the fine line between making progress, and pushing yourself so hard that you're traumatised. But it's worth it I think. Because the thing about fear is that it rarely goes away by itself. It feeds on insecurities and it takes away the joy of the activity and usually, it only grows as time goes on.

I think that trying to lead at my on-sight limit this trip has produced mixed results: at times, I've felt better than I felt before I broke my leg. At other times, I've had to take my quickdraws out and back off a route, unable to bring myself to complete it. But if I'm being completely honest with myself, I was starting to doubt whether I really enjoyed climbing at all. The fear totally eclipsed the love of the movement. By letting go of the idea of what I should be achieving and facing the battle head on I've had fleeting moments of feeling the way I used to feel when completely consumed by a route. I have started to believe that there's good in climbing, after all.

I could never have imagined how extensive the emotional and psychological effects of a bouldering accident could be. But I'm tired of being ashamed of my fear. Lots of people are scared sport climbing for lots of different reasons. Lots of people aren't: maybe they're lucky, maybe they worked through it.

It doesn't matter if the danger isn't real, the fear is and it can be hugely debilitating. It can also be humiliating, and sometimes I'll find myself crying on a warm up route and I'll be absolutely mortified. Working through it will involve lots of leading, and lots of safe falls. I'm sure I'll doubt that there's any point and at times I'll go backwards but I hope that I'll reap the rewards in my climbing.

Although it takes motivation, in some ways, it's not hard to train. I'm motivated and young. I've always been in control of exactly how much and when I train. This is different: this is a part of me that I don't understand. But I've finally understood that it won't be any less of an achievement than getting stronger.

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