Experiencing Fear, But Safely…
In 2012, my younger daughter expressed the desire to learn to lead climb (trad). She was always a very cautious child, so of course, it surprised and thrilled me. First step was to get her used to following multi-pitch and seeing how to use trad lead climbing gear and how to build safe climbing anchors. She had already lead sport a handful of times, but it was easy stuff, nothing harder than 5.7. She has always been a natural climber with excellent technique and was following 5.10 at the age of 10, eventually getting up a 5.11 when she was 12. So learning to lead climb should be easy, right?
One of our favorite climbs is in the Gunks is at the Peter’s Kill crag – part of Lake Minnewaska State Park. There is a perfect corner with a finger crack in it with thin barely-there footholds to stem on – called “Golden Dream”. It goes at 5.9+ and gets steeper near the top. A short but stunning line to climb! My kids and I have climbed it many times. It’s easy to walk around to get to the top and use the bolts at the top to set up a top-rope. We’ve even run there after school to do a lap on it before dark during the week. I have led it a couple of times and my daughter had cruised it (on top rope) on her first try when she was only 9 years old. So she’s good at this climb and knows it well.
I decided one day to let her try a mock-lead with trad gear. She didn’t have much experience placing trad gear so I wasn’t ready to let her try leading a trad climb on her own. Mock lead seemed like a good way to let her experience leading and having to place gear on a tricky climb with the safety of a top rope. She hadn’t really experienced the fear of being on the sharp end on a tricky climb when you’re barely standing on anything and your arms are getting pumped out – playing with gear to find the right size, dealing with rope drag, having to pull up the rope to clip – all new to her. The top rope was already set up and I gave her the rack and let her go. Usually a confident climber, she discovered that even with the top rope to protect her, doing this mock lead was terrifying.
So when she needed a subject to write about in her 10th grade English class, she wrote about her experience doing this mock lead. This is only her first draft. Her teacher made her rewrite parts of it to dumb it down for non-climbers. I wanted to post the more climber-friendly version so I promised her I would put this disclaimer in that it was an early draft in case someone thought her essay wasn’t very good. But it was an interesting insight into what she was feeling and her first experience with fear while climbing.
(Note from mom: My daughter complains that she sucks at writing essays. If you liked her essay, please comment on the blog so she can see it).
My Daughter’s Essay on Lead Climbing and Fear
4 November 2012
Before I pushed my limits as a rock climber I never appreciated the mental strength needed to lead climb. Being a climber for most of my life, I was never put on “the sharp end” as climbers call it. When you lead climb you climb above the rope placing gear into the cliff as you go up. This means you are responsible for your own safety compared to top rope climbing where there is an anchor already set and the rope is above you. My mother was a climber even before I was born, growing up she shared her passion with me and my older sister. I grew up with little fear of heights or with my safety while climbing, due to what felt secure in my mind. The experience was always fun without a shred of fear of climbing over a hundred feet off the ground with only gear, a rope, and maybe bolts keeping me from making ground fall. When I did a mock lead of a crack climb Golden Dream in Peter’s Kill did I truly feel the fear of falling. A mock lead is done when learning to lead climb. It involves the gear placement and rope dragging of lead climbing but also has the safety of being on a top rope. When mock leading you pretend that you are leading, as such I set within my mind the notion that if I don’t have good gear or any gear in that I am not safe and have the risk of falling and getting hurt, even killed, for me this was very scary. This was my first feeling of being on the sharp end.
Fear is a weird thing, even if I was not really in danger. I convinced my mind that I was and as a result I felt fear. Climbing is a dangerous sport, I have known that since I was 5 years old, but the fear factor felt when your life depends on your actions I never had felt or thought about what people meant by the term “lead head.” The lead head refers to a climber’s ability to push back the fear and maintain a clear head to push through difficult routes. When I felt the fear course through me for the first time I was scared. My legs were tired and they spasmed from stemming the corner. My arms screamed at me to let them rest. My head kept yelling at me that I was going to fall or die. My fingers cramped from the small holds and threatened to slip out of the finger sized crack. My mom coached me up from her position below me, her hands occupied with the other end of the rope. I trusted her with my life as I forced my limbs to do my will and control my fear of falling. When compared to top rope climbing, if you used the Yosemite Decimal System, which consists of the classes 1 to 5 and the grades 1 to 15, it feels 2 grades harder due to fear and exhaustion of having to stop to place gear. Golden Dream was rated 5.9+ and I can climb 5.10s comfortably on top rope so Golden Dream felt more like a 5.11 when I was mock leading it. Being in a similar position to other lead climbers made me appreciate them more knowing that the difference between leading and top rope was very large.
My mother always told me that climbing is dangerous, that you never will be completely safe, but I should always do all I can to make myself safe. When top roping the anchor and your belayer is what keeps you safe, for lead climbing it is your belayer and the gear you place on the way up. Gear is the hard part, you can place gear but that doesn’t mean that it is good gear. Cams, nuts, etc., they all have the chance of popping out. Climbing is never 100% safe but you can make it as secure as possible. I knew I would be as safe as I could with my mom on the other end of the rope, but with the mindset I gave myself I did not feel safe or secure at all. I conquered my fear and kept going. I forged the path for myself. If I was really leading by giving into the fear I had a larger risk of falling, but by pushing it to the side I was able to move up to where I could place protection. Never stopping, with climbing, you can either push ahead or down climb to your last piece and take a rest before trying again. This is an important fact that, by going back you are not a coward but a person able to keep themselves safe and make decisions under the stress and danger of climbing.
When climbing is concerned fear, safety and being scared are natural occurrences. Fear is there to tell us that it is time to get some protection to keep ourselves from harm. Safety is never a hundred percent but a climber must do their best to be as safe as possible. Being scared is OK but to overcome the feeling is what makes a good lead climber. A climber cannot be too careful or too bold. To find the balance of the two is the challenge that all climbers must face and overcome.