My most frightening incident occurred at 5,000 m in Spain, at the seven-hour mark of an exhausting flight, when I was in danger of being sucked up into clouds. I was on a new wing, and when it went into a parachutal stall after an incorrectly exited B-line, it didn’t respond in the same way as my previous wing. The result was a long cascade of G-force and terror-inducing events and thoughts about promises made about coming home safely.
These are not my words. They are the words of Heike Hamann, a paraglider, a student of psychology, and from what I can gather, a pretty awesome human being.
To be honest, I didn’t exactly understand all those words when I first heard them.
I was thinking, wow, 7 hours is long time to be in the air. 5,000m is pretty damn high. What is cloud suck anyway? Or parachutal stall? Or an incorrectly exited B-line? G-force. Terror.
These new words were coming out of the car stereo. The car was pointed towards the Blue Mountains, ready for another weekend of rock climbing at the Bell SuperCrag. I was listening to an awesome paragliding podcast by Judith Mole, another person I’d never heard of before.
During the podcast, Heike explained what she called ‘The seven steps to dealing with fear in paragliding’. She’d had a few scary paragliding experiences and looked quite deeply into how to overcome her own fears and enjoy flying again.
I’ve never been paragliding. But a lot of the things that Heike said about flying, really struck a chord with me. A lot of the things she said seemed to apply to rock climbing pretty well. She said a lot of sensible things about overcoming fear, that applied just as sensibly to fear that you might feel when you’re thousands of feet in the air, halfway up a cliff or just sitting at your desk at work stressing yourself out.
So… here they are, the seven steps… slightly modified for fear at much lower altitudes.
Step 1: Notice you are afraid
Your leg starts shaking. Your breathing gets fast and shallow. Then you forget to breathe. Your knuckles are white because you’re gripping the rock so tightly. You haven’t moved in a while. You’re frozen.
You might have done something like this:
It’s probably pretty obvious to anyone around you that you’re freaking out. But sometimes its hard to notice it in the moment.
Heike’s first step is simply to be aware of those things, and notice that you’re afraid.
Step 2: Breathe deeply
A big deep breath tells your body that you’re ok. Even if that feels like a big fat lie. You immediately feel a little better.
Step 3: Ask yourself what you are afraid of
If I’m climbing, my first answer to this question is that I’m afraid of falling. It’s the obvious answer. Evolution has bred into us a healthy fear of heights and failing down from high places.
If I think about it for a bit longer, if I actually have to name what I’m afraid of, I realise that “falling” is not quite the right answer. I’ve taken some big falls climbing before, and my trusty old rope has caught me every time.
Sometimes I’ve got more of a fear of failing than a fear of falling. Or fear that I’m holding up the party behind me. Or that the weather will turn bad while I’m still on the rock.
Other times, the thing that actually scares me is the risk that my rope might get cut, or that I might smack into a ledge and break an ankle, or that my last piece of gear might pop out of the rock and clock me in the forehead.
Actually naming the thing that scares you can help you with step 4.
Step 4: Are you in danger?
I admit that I have been in a few sketchy situations when climbing, but not as often as non-climbers seem to think.
Once you have named the terrifying-scary thing, you can ask whether that’s a rational fear. Could that thing actually hurt you?
Failure to reach the top of a particular climb might hurt my ego, but failure of that kind is not actually dangerous.
Falling off a steep overhanging climb is actually quite safe. You just peel off the wall and swing around on the end of your rope for a little while. It’s actually kind of fun.
Something that has really helped my climbing is to actually practice falling when it is safe to do so. I’ll try to climb above my bolt and let my belayer know that I’m going to jump off. It’s really hard to just let go, but if you do it over and over, your body learns that the world is not going to end, your belayer will catch you, and you get to climb up and do it all over again.
In some cases, recognising that I’m not actually in danger is enough to get me moving again.
Sometimes, your answer to ‘are you in danger’ will be ‘I don’t know’.
I did a mountaineering course in New Zealand a few years ago. In the first few days everything was so new. I didn’t know how to read the weather. I didn’t know how to navigate crevasses. I didn’t know if I could trust my crampons. I didn’t have the skills to keep myself safe in that kind of terrain, so I found some mountain guides who helped me develop those skills. They kept me in the situations that were scary and new to me, but were actually quite safe.
As my climbing abilities, rescue skills and route finding skills have developed, I’ve been able to expand the list of scenarios where I feel safe and reduce the times where I have to answer ‘I don’t know’ and mitigate or avoid situations that are actually dangerous.
Falling all the way to the ground, or onto a ledge is not so safe. Climbing a long way through crappy rock without any protection is not ideal. Climbing underneath falling rocks is not particularly safe either. Getting stuck in a thunderstorm halfway up a long climb is going to be pretty dangerous too.
If you find yourself in these situations, it’s useful to recognise that you’re in some kind of danger. Fear can be a good indicator that something is not quite right. It is not useful to become paralysed and freak out.
Once you’ve decided whether you’re actually in danger, you’ve got to decide what to do next.
Step 5: What are you going to do now?
At this point, Heike introduced a kind of 7-steps-inception. She offered 7 more steps to use in those scary moments.
(1) Look around
When I’m scared, my field of vision narrows massively. I assume that whatever holds I’m touching are the best ones available. I grip onto them for dear life and waste all my energy. My eyelashes are almost touching the wall. I can’t see my feet. I don’t look for a better place to rest.
If I stop and look around, I generally find better holds and see more options.
Because you’ve got to do it in order to live.
There’s also a bunch of awesome physiological benefits you get from taking a deep breath. It helps get you out of panic mode and into a more rational place where you can start solving problems.
(3) Set yourself a mini-goal
I find that just challenging myself to find one new hold, make one more move, place once more piece of gear or reach the next ledge can help to get me out of that frozen state that fear can put you in.
If you achieve your mini-goal, you gain a sense of accomplishment and control over the situation.
(4) Use your anchors
Heike describes anchors as ‘words, sounds, songs, movements or specific physical touch that are associated to a certain, positive state in your body.’
I played a lot of field hockey when I was growing up. If there was something in particular I wanted to concentrate on during a game, I would write a word on a piece of tape and wrap it around my hockey stick. It would serve as a reminder each time I saw it.
Heike’s anchors are kind of similar. The aim is not to remind you of you’re one specific goal during the hockey game, but rather to remind you what it feels like to be climbing confidently and enjoying yourself. The next time I go out I’m going to try to use the image of a little bell. I might even draw a bell on my wrist before I start climbing. It will remind me how I felt when I was in the zone, climbing a route called Jingle Bells, at the Bell supercrag in the Blue Mountains.
The next step is to visualise yourself getting out of the situation safely.
You might picture yourself clipping the anchors at the top of the climb, or calmly and efficiently setting up bomber anchor to abseil down from.
(6) Talk to people
Talk to your belayer, or climbers around you. If you’re on a long multipitch climb in the middle of nowhere, make a mental note to talk to someone about it later. Talk out loud if it helps get you through what you need to do.
Try to soak up other people’s skills and experience around a campfire somewhere. Ask for other people’s ideas about how they would deal with similar scary scenarios.
(7) Be kind to yourself
Remind yourself that climbing well will often require you to get outside your comfort zone. Instead of beating yourself up for being scared, recognise that you’re challenging yourself and learning or achieving something new.
Step 6: Back on the ground
Once you’re back on the ground, take some time to run through the scenario again in your head. Acknowledge that you were scared and do another assessment of whether you were actually in danger. Tell someone you trust about it. Take a moment to think about whether fear stopped you from having a more enjoyable climbing experience. If so, decide whether there is anything you can do to help make sure that fear does not play as big a role in your next climbing adventure.
Step 7: Other strategies
Read a book on self-rescue. Do a training course on multi-pitch climbing. Learn how to prussik. Practice tying knots. Now practice with your eyes closed. Practice clipping draws over and over so you get it right every time. Train hard so you’re stronger and those scary climbs get easier. Use better or more comfortable equipment.
Find something that helps you feel more in control and work at it when you’re off the rock.
And… that’s it!
Have fun. Stay safe. Be brave!