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Climbing and the Fear of Heights

M.D., Infectious diseases specialist, travel junkie, chocolate/coffee addict and amateur climber.

Can you be a climber if you have a fear of heights?

Can you be a climber if you have a fear of heights?

Climbing With a Fear of Heights

I have had a fear of heights since I was a child. I don't remember when or how it began. It was just always there, a part of me somehow. A couple of years ago my friends started bouldering and asked me to join them. But with a paralyzing fear of heights and absolutely no upper body strength (at the time, I did not know that the latter is irrelevant), I did not think I fulfilled the requirements to become a climber. Six months went by and I still hadn't joined them once. I was curious, though. In theory, I had always fantasized about climbing mountains. The idea of being able to go rock climbing fascinated me. And I very much enjoy hiking (when I cannot see the abyss) and spending time outdoors. I wished I could turn my fear off and join my friends. Also, I imagined it could be a therapeutic experience and allow me to improve my hiking.

One day, I let my friends drag me to the nearest bouldering gym. I was terrible and really scared. But what really shocked me was that I immediately loved it. I became obsessed and wanted to return as soon as possible. Slowly my fear, as well as my climbing, improved. As soon as you learn to trust your big toe, trust that you will not slip on tiny footholds, you begin to feel more comfortable. Also, you gain muscle strength surprisingly fast. This is very important, because the stronger you feel, the more confident you become. However, even now, after almost two years of regular climbing, I still feel afraid when I am tired and feel weak.

To be honest, climbing is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. It taught me a lot of things about myself. Now I feel like I can do anything if I give it enough time and training.

The Fear of Heights Comes in Many Forms

Once you start climbing and talking to people about your fear, you begin to realize that every climber experiences some kind of fear at some point in their climbing career. Watch people climb around you and you will quickly notice that you are not alone.

First of all, it is important to differentiate between justified and unfounded fear. One example of an unfounded, irrational fear is that of the actual height/altitude. And this is very relative of course. In most bouldering gyms, the walls are approximately 4 meters high. Although that is not high, and a thick mat is there to catch you if you fall, many climbers are afraid.

Then there is the fear of material defects. When you start sport climbing especially, there is a lot you must learn. You have to get acquainted with all systems and mechanisms and learn to rely on them. You must learn to trust the rope, the knots, the harness, the holds and the bolts. The more you will climb, the more you get to know your material, and the more comfortable you will feel.

A lack of trust in your belayer in the beginning, or a belayer you have never climbed with, can also make one nervous. This gets better with time as you learn to trust your belayer. Communication is the key. Sometimes climbers are stressed when their belayer is not watching them or talking to someone else. If this makes you nervous, you must say something. Ask your belayer to stop talking or to watch you. If you are afraid of falling on a difficult route, then ask your belayer to give you less slack until you feel more confident.

There is also the fear of getting hurt. Naturally, there is always a risk of injury, but if you check the material when you are sport climbing, and do a partner check before each climb, you will not hit the ground if you fall (you have to be careful the first 5-6 meters of course). If you take these precautions, there is very little risk of injury.

Rock climbing doesn't have to be terrifying!

Rock climbing doesn't have to be terrifying!

Fear Shouldn’t Keep You From Enjoying Climbing

With experience comes the realization that most climbing happens in controlled situations in which injuring yourself is very unlikely. In order to prevent repetitive strain injuries, always start by warming up. Also, find friends who will go climbing with you. You will learn a lot from watching other people climb and the emotional support is very helpful.

Bouldering is a good introduction to climbing. Concentrate on your technique and improve your footwork. The better you will get, the more comfortable you will feel on the wall. This will also help build some muscle and finger strength, which will come in handy when you start sport climbing.

For me, the ultimate goal was to be able to go rock climbing. After about a year of bouldering, I started sport climbing indoors. I took a private class to cultivate good habits from the beginning. Learn your knots and don't rely on anyone else to do anything for you. In the beginning, I was afraid, because I didn't trust the gear. What helped me was climbing a couple of meters, looking around and then asking myself whether I felt at ease. When I was high up enough that I wouldn't touch the ground if I fell, I would take a break and sit into my harness. This way I could feel the support of the rope and convince my brain that I was safe. The trick is forcing your brain to understand that the height doesn't make any difference. The higher you are when you fall, the safer it is (since you are far from the ground). When you are done, you just let everything go and let your belayer bring you down.

Of course, everybody is different. Some people get over their fear as soon as they start trusting the gear and understanding that climbing is safe. Others get rid of their fear temporarily through frequent climbing but re-experience the same fear after a long pause.

It also helps to know that feeling this way is normal. Even professional climbers feel fear. They have just better ways of dealing with it. This is nicely summarized in Roanne van Voorst's book "fear". I really recommend reading it. And don't forget, the most important thing is to have fun. As long as you are, it is worth it.

Some Tips

Despite your fear of heights, you can find a way to feel more comfortable.

  • Always be aware of your surroundings
  • Always warm up - traversing is great
  • Start with easy routes
  • Start slowly and take breaks every few meters to look around you and ask yourself if you feel comfortable enough to continue
  • Respect your limits - if you don't feel comfortable doing something, then don't
  • Start with bouldering - this way you learn to trust your strength
  • Include fall training as soon as and as often as possible into your climbing routine
  • Use a semi-automatic belaying device (I use a grigri)
  • Only buy new material you feel comfortable using
  • Take a course to learn the basics and become more confident
  • Climb regularly
  • Learn to trust your belayer
  • Always do a partner check before climbing
  • Meditation techniques can help

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Rotsucht