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Fear of Falling

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
3 min read

The crew is gearing up for a trip to Smith this weekend (I can’t wait, I can’t wait, I can’t wait)… the weather looks good, we’ve got a perfect group of friends to climb with, and three whole days of climbing thanks to taking Friday off. We happen to be there at the same time as the Alpinist Film Festival, so hopefully Friday everybody will be watching movies about climbing while we’re climbing. Tempting to go watch movies, but it’s been so long since I’ve been outside (weeks!) that all I can think about is getting to some real rock.

The last time we were at Smith, I had a great time leading … did a lot of easy leads (1) because it was fun; and (2) to try to build my confidence a bit. I got a little overly confident and got on a 10a (Irreverence, New Testament Slab, Christian Brothers Area) and scared myself silly. I was on lead placing draws with the first bolt stick clipped. I moved above the first bolt and almost reached the second, but got stuck about a foot shy of the second bolt. Several times, I climbed up to try to make a move and got stuck; then I’d downclimb to a rest and try to pull myself together and come up with a plan or a different approach. After several attempts, I returned to my high point and had nothing left. I was too afraid to make a move, and too afraid to fall. I did an inelegant, tiring, and sketchy downclimb as low as I could get before taking about a foot and a half fall onto my bolt, at which point I had a mini panic attack and decided to call it a day on that particular route.

Gear retrieval capable friends to the rescue!

What happened? I was so afraid of falling that I couldn’t even get myself to try a move that I probably could have done… I’ve been spending so much time outside on easy stuff on lead, and toproping hard stuff (outside of my lead ability) that I’m not putting many vertical feet in on stuff that’s at my lead level. I’d like to change that this weekend, and try to put in as much time as possible on 5.9s and 10as.

To get ready, I spent a day taking practice falls at the gym… it didn’t get easy but it was good practice. I’ve also been working a variety of routes on lead and toprope, at and near my maximum difficulty, so that on occasion I surprise myself with a fall (so far, only on toprope — I have only taken planned falls on lead… guess I should have done some practice unplanned falls on lead, but I’ll make that a note to self to do some more of after this trip). Breathing makes a huge difference for me when I’m afraid… I always emphasize breathing while climbing, but I’m placing special emphasis on using my breath to calm myself when I get sketched or scared. Perhaps getting some oxygen to my brain during those times of stress will help with my decisionmaking.

Being afraid of falling is a self-preservation instinct… with a fall, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I always fear the worst, and I have a hard time, even after taking some practice falls, trusting that the worst may not happen. My bolt or gear should hold. I should fall away from the wall and not scrape myself up too badly. My rope is good condition. My belayer is trustworthy and will do his or her best to keep us both safe. I know all of these things.

Above all that, making the move is worth it. Nine times out of ten (or more – maybe more like 19 times out of 20), if I just suck it up and make the move, I’ll make the move and not fall. And then I feel amazing, and strong, and fantastic, and like it’s the best day and the best route ever. Worst case scenario, I fall. Big deal. Either way, it’s better than working myself into a hyperventilating panic.

So, my goal for the weekend is to make the move. To trust myself, and take the risk. I’m going to breathe through my anxiety. When I reach the point where my brain says “I’m scared, ‘Take,'” or “I need to downclimb” I’m going to make a commitment to make the move instead. I’ll let you know how it turns out…

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Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.