I made my first climbing trip to the New River Gorge in October of 2009, and it was a great trip. I had been lead climbing in the gym for about 5 months prior, and this was my first opportunity to do some lead climbing outside. On that trip I led a 5.10a clean, and put up another 5.10c. I remember feeling really great about that.
This past September, over Labor Day weekend, I finally got back to the New River Gorge for a 3-day climbing trip. I was excited to get together with friends and do a lot of climbing!
Unfortunately, the weekend was a complete disaster for me. I hadn’t been leading much in the gym, and I couldn’t get past the head game of taking falls. I was hesitant to get on 5.8s, and only put up one 5.9 the entire weekend. Everything else that weekend I did on top rope, and didn’t climb anything harder than a 5.10 (and those I felt nervous on). But I climb 5.12s in the gym, so what gives?
Climbing at the gym had become boring. I showed up more to support others than to focus on my own climbing. I wasn’t enthusiastic about route climbing, and I had all but stopped lead climbing. While I wasn’t getting any stronger or weaker physically, I was suffering mentally. I didn’t realize how poor my mental game had gotten until that weekend at the New River Gorge.
The experience was a bit of an eye opener for me, and I knew I had to do something about it. Not only was it embarrassing to be afraid to climb routes that were well within my capabilities, it was frustrating to know that I could do it but give up before even trying.
I was determined to make an immediate change, knowing I would be back at the New River Gorge 3 weeks later. My plan for the gym was simple:
- 5.10 and below would be climbed on lead, period.
- 5.11 and above would be done on top rope, but if I climbed the route clean than from then on I had to climb it on lead.
So for 3 weeks I focused almost entirely on lead climbing. Lead, lead, lead. I focused on pushing past the mental barriers that had stopped me in my tracks over Labor Day weekend. And when I returned to the New River Gorge at the end of September, things looked a lot better. I was still a little nervous while climbing, but I put up multiple 5.10s that weekend.
I knew I wasn’t done though. If I’m putting up 5.10s without falling, than I should be climbing harder difficulties. I should be climbing routes with moves that I might not be able to make, or at least not onsight.
I had another New River Gorge climbing trip planned in two weeks. Once again in the gym I focused on leading. I started leading harder routes out of the cave, knowing those would really challenge my strength.
5.10+ out of the cave? Check.
Oh what’s that, a 5.11+ out of the cave? Sure, I’ll give it a go. One take and one fall later, I’m at the top. I successfully climbed a few other 5.11s on lead – now I’m feeling a lot more confident leading 5.11s in the gym.
So the third weekend climbing trip at the New River Gorge arrives and it is a blast. Against better judgement, I skip warming up on the easier routes and get right to it. First day I put up a 5.11d. It wasn’t pretty, but I set it up for everyone else to try.
The second day I start out putting up a 5.10c and 5.10d, and got two 5.11a routes later in the day (although one of those was on top rope). On the third day I climbed another 5.11d (on top rope). That route is now at the top of my “projects” list: “Mensa” at Brain Wall, in the Beauty Mountain crag.
So I’m happy to say that I’m both quickly and successfully working through the fears I was having a little over a month ago. I’m starting to ignore the little voice in my head – the little voice that used to boom, “NO!” but now only squeeks, “no?”.
In fact, I’m ignoring it so much now that last night at the gym I got on my first 5.12 lead, out of the cave. It wasn’t what you would call “pretty”, but I’m looking forward to working it some more and locking down the sequencing.
So if you’ve read this far, I wouldn’t mind hearing about the climbing fears you’ve encountered and what you’ve done, or been trying to do, to overcome them.
Here are some other posts about dealing with fear that you might be interested in reading:0