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I started climbing as a kid because I was afraid of heights. I was one of those kids who always conveniently “had to go to the bathroom” at Six Flags when everyone else went on the roller coasters. Whenever my family stayed in hotel rooms, I stood back from the window, too queasy to look down. It was a phobia that just got more and more embarrassing as I got older. So when my dad gave me a book of John Long’s Yosemite stories to take with me to summer camp when I was 11, I devoured it. Guys who lived on the wall, climbing thousands of feet with only ropes holding them up? I couldn’t imagine anything more badass. So I started climbing, and heights started bothering me less and less.
Fear is something worth talking about, whether you’re “afraid” of heights or not. “Aren’t you afraid of falling?” is probably one of the main questions climbers get asked (right after “Have you heard of Alex Honnold?” and “Do you ever want to climb Mount Everest?”).
In gyms, we don’t often find ourselves in objectively dangerous situations, and consequently aren’t often afraid (though that doesn’t mean accidents don’t happen). Still, whether we’re climbing indoors or outside, if we spend enough time on the wall we’re all going to find ourselves in unsafe, sketchy spots eventually, situations that should make us afraid.
When climbing indoors, there often aren’t obvious reasons to be afraid. There might not be howling winds or avalanche danger, loose rock or bad placements, but there are still plenty of dangerous situations. Inattentive, reckless belayers, crowded walls and mats, poor bolt placement or route design, this stuff is all waiting for you at your local gym every evening.
In my opinion, fear gets a bad rap. No one wants to be afraid, obviously, but fear is a useful survival technique that’s kept humans alive for thousands of years. As climbers, we often are just told to “conquer” our fears, to push them down, to cast them aside. It’s the wrong idea. A little bit of the right kind of fear is an important component in every climber’s psyche.
There are exceptions, of course, including one notable free soloist (Alex Honnold) who seems not to feel fear, but for 99.9% of us, fear is what keeps us in check. It’s the voice in our heads that makes us speak up when our belayer is constantly leaving massive slack in the line, when our buddy is letting a novice friend belay them on lead without any training, when you’re watching someone take their brake hand off their ATC every five minutes, and so on.
A dose of fear also brings myriad legitimate health benefits. When you’re afraid, your body produces a hormone called oxytocin, which is associated with increased social behavior. Dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin are also released, hence the enjoyment people get when they go to a haunted house or watch a scary movie.
More to the point, as climbers being completely “fearless” is often just a skip and a hop from being “reckless” or “irresponsible.”
In the last edition of “The Gumby Guru,” we talked about climbing gym accidents, and how a large percentage are due to complacency. Fear plays a big component in mitigating complacency, if you manifest it right.
Now, having the “right kind of fear” doesn’t mean not to push your limits, of course. If I had been satisfied with being afraid of heights all my life, I never would’ve started climbing in the first place. It goes without saying that many climbers who tackle noteworthy objectives, particularly in the realm of mountaineering or big wall climbing, have to push the edge a little bit. They sometimes have to venture into unsafe terrain and situations where fear is rational, and they have to learn to control that fear. In those situations, fear guides our fight or flight responses, helping to keep us safe and alive, heightening our senses and awareness.
The trick is learning to cultivate a healthy fear response. Learning to evaluate our fears. Being able to tell when they’re logical and when they aren’t. If we learn to do that, then our fear can become a vital red flag when we’re climbing. If we develop a healthy fear response, then when we’re afraid, it’s almost always a sign that we’re in a bad situation.
My college girlfriend took a fall near the top of our gym’s boulder wall, after dynoing on a poorly set route, and dislocated her elbow fairly badly. It was a fluke accident, mostly chalked up to her relative inexperience climbing and a funky fall precipitated by the route design, but I know for a fact she never would’ve dynoed like that outside. Maybe if she’d been a bit more apprehensive, she would’ve seen that the route was designed in an unsafe manner.
There’s no proven method to cultivate a healthy fear response, of course, and the process is different for everyone. At the basic level though, it simply involves thinking logically about your situations. One of the benefits of climbing is that it’s a calculated, controlled sport. It’s mathematical. Our systems are rated, walls are static and can be graded. The point is that the common idea of being “fearless” or “conquering your fears” is missing something. We could all benefit from taking a step back and thinking about our fears in a logical, rational way every now and then, and learning to use them to our advantage.
Work on your fear response. Banish the illogical fears, and the next time you see a route that looks like it’s gonna make you take a gnarly fall, or you see your buddy constantly taking his hand off the brake line, listen to your gut and take action.
Owen Clarke is a writer currently based in Tennessee. He is a Contributing Digital Editor at Rock and Ice and Gym Climber. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights.
Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.