A fear of heights or a fear of falling can be debilitating for both new and experienced climbers. This fear might stem from a lifelong fear of heights, or it could be the result of previous climbing falls or injuries that have created a mental block. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to overcome this fear and either get started climbing or get back on the wall after a scary fall.
In this article, we’ll cover several different ways to overcome your fear of heights while climbing. Let’s get started.
Climb at a Gym
Climbing outdoors is inherently more dangerous and therefore scarier, so if you are nervous about heights or trying to get your mojo back after a bad fall, head to the gym to get your confidence back. Climbing regularly will help you get in (or stay in) good climbing shape, which is essential for safe climbing. Plus, the more you climb, the easier and quicker you can work through your fears.
Stick to Top Rope For a Bit
If you are a new climber, you should absolutely start by top roping rather than lead climbing, until you can develop your technique and master all of the basics. Top roping can also help you build confidence since you are protected from serious falls. This physical and mental reassurance can be enormously helpful for retraining your brain to be okay with heights.
If you are a more experienced climber dealing with the aftermath of a fall and/or injury, going back to basics is a great way to ease back into climbing in a low-risk way. It’s never a good idea to attempt to lead a route if you aren’t in the right space mentally and physically, and there’s no shame in top roping until you know you are ready to lead again.
Understand Your Fears
Many people actually mistakenly say that they are afraid of heights, when really they are probably just afraid of falling, which is completely different. Fear of falling is normal – it’s a healthy self-preservation mechanism.
Once you can internalize that heights aren’t the true problem, you can begin to separate fear of heights from fear of falling, and realize that you can indeed climb safely.
Of course, understanding and assessing risk is a key skill when it comes to rock climbing safely, so this isn’t to say that you should hop on a 5.10c with no experience. The goal is to be able to realistically assess your skill and ability in relation to the climb at hand, and make appropriate choices about whether you should lead the route, top rope it, or whether you should even climb it at all.
Take Low-Stakes Practice Falls
Another way to build confidence in the safety mechanisms of rock climbing (ie the rope and your belayer) is to take a series of low-risk falls. If you are a beginner who is feeling fearful as soon as you leave the ground, climb up a few feet (so you won’t risk hitting the ground), ask your belayer to ‘take,’ and simply sit back in your harness. Then repeat this process several times until you begin to trust the process and feel more relaxed on the wall.
For more advanced climbers, you can ease back into lead climbing by taking smaller falls (falling when you are even with or just above the bolt), and then slowly increasing the length of the falls until you regain confidence in your ability to fall safely. Falling is a skill, and like with any other skill, practice and repetition are key.
Build Your Confidence by Climbing in Corners
The ‘fear of heights’ feeling can be triggered by extreme exposure in addition to heights – the feeling of open air all around you. Climbing on dihedrals (in a corner, essentially) can help reduce this feeling of exposure and boost your confidence. Once you feel good about dihedral climbs, move on to vertical faces, and then progress to the most exposed type of climbs if you feel confident about it: overhangs and aretes (outside corners). Many gyms will have all of these types of terrain available to practice on.
Be Open With Your Climbing Partner or Group
If you are working through fear of heights/falling, it can be helpful to share this fact with your climbing partner or group. That way, they know to be patient with you and won’t push you to do anything that’s outside your comfort zone. Plus, they may be able to support you with methods that have helped them overcome similar fears in the past.
Work On Strength and Conditioning
Building your strength and conditioning off the wall can help boost your confidence on the wall. Doing cardio and weightlifting in the gym will help you feel stronger physically, which can translate to better climbing ability. This in turn will help you work through your fears more quickly as your body proves what it can do.
Build Mental Stamina
Finally, this type of fear is mental more than anything else, so building your mental fortitude and stamina can help you trust your body’s ability and accurately assess your skills and the risks of climbing. Arno Ilgner’s The Rock Warrior’s Way is a great resource with a step-by-step guide specifically for climbers who are trying to overcome fears.