Risk, fear, and rock climbing
Rock climbing is a fantastic pastime. It can take you to places other people only read about in magazines and show you views that belong to climbers alone. There are plenty of reasons to get involved. Climbing can improve strength and balance, give you something to do on weekends, and create friendships that last for decades, but there is a degree of risk associated with it.
Beginner climbing is very safe. Get a qualified instructor and they’ll handle all the safety concerns- everything from assessing the landscape to rigging the ropes and anchors and making sure that if a novice falls, the distance will be measured in inches rather than feet. They’ll have the right gear and the knowledge.
But none of that is going to make a first-time climber feel completely secure and comfortable. Unless you’re one of the very few people who are naturally inclined towards loving heights you’ll almost certainly get scared. As it becomes obvious that the skinny little rope really will hold the fear might fade, only to return when you progress through to more difficult and dangerous independent climbing. Then, the risks will be quite real and it’ll be up to you to decide how to handle them.
It’s what climbers call ‘the mental game’. Having the strength and physical agility to reach the top of a route is only half the battle. The rest is purely in the mind. Can you trust your own skills and those of your partners? Can you put aside fear and panic and make an objective choice to either go ahead or retreat? Can you commit to a decision and give it your all, knowing that failure is a real possibility?
Watch a highly skilled, experienced climber at work and it would be easy to assume that they don’t get scared. There are a huge variety of Youtube clips, showing situations that range from slightly risky to within a hair’s breadth of lethal, but make no mistake- with one or two notable exceptions climbers are not immune to fear. They’re playing the mental game. In fact, they’re probably fascinated by it.
The ability to assess risks and act decisively can be learned on rock. It starts as soon as a novice climber realises that the point where they think that they’re going to fall is actually a long way from the point where their grip will actually fail. You are stronger than you think you are, and your limitations might be a whole lot less restrictive than your fears suggest.
That powerful idea is a big part of why climbing is so addictive. Getting to the top of a difficult route is a fun physical challenge but it’s the added spice that makes it exhilarating. There is nothing quite so satisfying as silencing the ‘negative self talk’, that little voice in your own brain that tells you that you’re too weak, too scared, or just not good enough.
As a sport, climbing is growing at an incredible rate. Indoor climbing gyms are opening up all over the world. Most major cities have half a dozen at least, and if you’re near any medium-sized town there is probably one not too far away. Almost every indoor center can provide full instruction and gear hire for beginners and if there are cliffs of reasonable height and suitability within an hour’s drive you probably won’t find it difficult to find a outdoor qualified instructor. You don’t have to be super fit to try climbing and you certainly don’t have to be free from fear.
Jess Spate writes for Appalachian Outdoors, an American climbing gear retailer. She is a qualified outdoor instructor and has been climbing for more than 15 years.