Getting Out of Your Head: How to Conquer Climbing Fears

Rock climbing isn’t exactly the most intuitive sport or hobby that one picks up. That’s probably because there’s a whole host of fears (falling, heights, exposure, and injury) we need to conquer first before most of us can even fathom climbing.


Our onsight of Sixish (5.6) variation in the Gunks yesterday – a short, steep, and sweet climb (with some headiness thrown in for good measure)

Or not.  I’m always inspired and impressed by people who haven’t yet conquered their fears and take up the sport anyway; this is badassery.

Part of what makes climbing so challenging (and addictive!) is how it constantly pushes our physical and psychological limits. In climbing,  we’re confronted with our insecurities,  frustrations, and ego. Up close and personal with the voices inside our head that tell us ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘what the heck are you thinking doing this?’

I call this our climbing head, and getting out of our head is key to conquering our climbing-related fears.

Easier said than done, right? Case in point, I returned to the Gunks (a popular trad climbing destination near NYC) after taking nearly 2 years off of trad climbing due to various injuries.  I hopped on a route well below my climbing ability, and even though I have all the technical skills, eight years’ worth of outdoor climbing experience,  and a full leader’s rack, my climbing head started to kick in, and hard.


Trad is rad.

There I was, leading a route and feeling paralyzed by my fear of falling and exposure.  All I wanted to do was downclimb and bail.

But I didn’t.  Instead, I kept moving, breathing deeply, and telling myself the opposite of the voices in my climbing head: ‘you got this. ‘

And I did have it. All along.  The feeling of conquering my debilitating fear by quieting and contradicting my climbing head was freeing. It was perhaps even more beautiful than the jaw-dropping views I experienced from the top of the first pitch.

Want to get out of your head and conquer your climbing fears?  Try to keep these four things in mind the next time your climbing head tries to interfere with your awesomeness:

  • Just breathe. Lots of deep, long breaths go a long way. Not only is the outside air good for your lungs, but it’ll also help calm your nerves and slow down your heart rate.
  • Focus on the task at hand. Instead of letting the fear take over, concentrate on your next hand, foot, or pro placement. Having a strategy in place helps us feel more confident about the next move.
  • Try not to look down,  but do enjoy the view from above.  Sometimes I’m so amazed by the awesome views up top that I forget how frightening it is to feel so exposed. And I’m reminded of one of the primary reason why I climb.
  • Sing or hum a happy song.  Corny, I know, but this is my go-to calm down method. Two seasons ago, it was ‘Maria’ from West Side Story,  and yesterday it was ‘Merry Christmas’.  It helps to distract my mind from the anxious thoughts swirling around my climbing head. Try it!

Don’t look down. And try to turn that frown upside down 🙂

2 thoughts on “Getting Out of Your Head: How to Conquer Climbing Fears

  1. Wow, excellent description of the feelings I just had one week ago! (but without leading) I will put in practice your advice for next time! Thank you!


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