To lead…. or not ?

Went to the climbing gym today “sans partner”.  Not that I have a lack of partners to go climbing with, I just wanted to see who else was out there in the climbing world.  Unfortunately my little foray led me into a head on collision with my climbing nemesis: leading.

I’m not going to lie (this is where someone should say – please don’t!), lead climbing is the most rewarding and f-ing terrifying part of climbing for me.  The terrifying part usually comes first.  And it comes from a fear of falling which (according to me) is not entirely irrational.

When I look at potential lead climbs,  I can picture in my mind what a fall from any clip would entail – and usually it is not pretty when you’re:

a) at the first/second clip
b) climbing on ledgy rock
c) on slab
d) at the first/second/any clip on ledgy rock

So to start off, I haven’t even tied myself in and I’ve already scared the sh*t out of myself.  The end result of this visualization is that I either back out of the climb or whimper my way up and finish the climb feeling like a the world’s biggest wimp.

BUT, there are times when I find leading super rewarding.  The rewarding part usually comes from conquering my mental demons more than challenging myself physically.  I’ll eye a certain climb down. I know in my head that I can climb it – but I can also picture my whimpering self slowly making my way up (or falling).  And I’ll want to push past that and confidently climb it.  And when I do it’s seriously the most amazing feeling in the world.  To push yourself mentally to a point where you don’t think you can make it – but then you do.  That’s seriously kick-ass.

Unfortunately those awesome moments are few and far between for me.  Especially when I climb outdoors.

So therein lies my dilemma.  I love leading when it goes well, but when I climb outdoors I probably have a better chance dying at russian roulette than I do of actually completing and enjoying a lead climb (this may be a slight exaggeration).   Where does that leave me?  I’m not too sure to be honest.  I’ve had a lot of suggestions: “You need to fall more often”, “Just climb stuff you won’t fall off of”, “Maybe leading is just not for you”, “You know, unless you’re leading you’re not really climbing so stop being a wuss and just do if you actually want to be a climber”

Right – I’ll just get over myself, take a mega fall and be good to go! Haha

In the end I think I have to remind myself why I go climbing – to enjoy the challenge.  And when it’s not enjoyable – perhaps that’s where I draw the line for myself.  Maybe that means I won’t ever be leading difficult routes.  Maybe it means I just need more time to work my way there.  But in the end if I’m having a great time does it really matter what I’m climbing?

Side note: according to the book “Where the Mountain Casts It’s Shadow” by Maria Coffey, the probability of dying descending K2 after summitting is close to that of dying at russian roulette.

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  1. I can SO identify with all of this! Being a part of the twitter climbing community has shown me I shouldn’t be ashamed of my fears; they’re real, and a lot of other #kickassgirls deal with them too! Thanks for sharing this, and I know someday, we’ll all overcome all of them :)

  2. Thanks for reading! I’m new to the whole “social media” thing but really happy that I joined. It does feel good to know that I’m not the only one working through these kinds of things :)

  3. Thanks for the follow! It’s great to see more women climbers interacting online!

    I think you nailed it. Climbing is ultimately about having fun. No pressure. Leading is as much of a mental disciple as it is the technical skill.

    I also get nervous when I know I need to lead. To some degree, I think a certain level of fear is healthy and natural. I would be concerned if my climbing partners weren’t a little scared sometimes. Being fearless is really about facing fears, not about being without them. :)

    I took my time to get into leading. Sometimes I think that’s better than rushing in. More time will only give a broader base of experience to pull from. It’s great to have friends who will push you. Listen to your inner voice too. If you don’t feel it, wait for the next one. You will know when you’re ready, no need to force it.

    If you want to breakdown the fear, go for easier routes. Lead climbs you’ve followed many times. Take a lead class with a trained professional who can support you and provide guidance. Sharpen your technical skills (and confidence with them), as well as your mental toughness. I have found (hot) yoga and rigorous workouts significantly help training the mind to push through what the body may not want to do.

    In the end, I think the rewards of climbing come from the process. If you don’t top out first, who cares?

  4. So true! It’s taken me a while to make peace with my relationship with climbing but I think I’m getting there. Hearing from others who have gone through the same thing has really helped.

    Thanks for the yoga suggestion. I’ve tried hot yoga before and been thinking of going back. Might make for some good winter training :)

  5. Just because someone bolted a sport climb and decided it was “safe enough” for them, doesn’t mean it’s safe enough for anyone else. If you are accurately evaluating the fall consequences and deciding that you’re not sure you can take on the no-fall zones, that’s a valid decision and a valuable ability.

    It sounds like maybe instead of leading easier stuff it might make more sense for you to lead better protected stuff. Do you lead on gear at all? That way you’re not at the mercy of whoever bolted it.

    Do you always always “don’t think you can make it” when you lead? Do you ever repeat routes you’ve succeeded on before (whether re-leading or leading a route you’ve just TR’d)?

  6. So far the routes I’ve been leading are bolted & have been recently retrofitted so bolt quality is pretty good – although it doesn’t hurt to double check! I would love to try trad but I can’t afford more lessons & a rack. None of my girlfriends trad climb.

    Great suggestion though about trying routes that are better protected. I hadn’t really thought of that but it does make sense. Outside I lead quite a few grades lower than I gym climb so I do think I have the physical ability to lead harder stuff it’s more mental for me right now. I usually only lead things that I’m 100% sure I won’t fall on.

    Haven’t really gotten around to repeating many of my leads or TR’s for that matter. I haven’t been climbing outside for very long so I’ve been trying to check out all the crags nearby – usually a different one each time. Once I did lead something I had TR’d first and it did make things way easier knowing what was coming. Problem with a small climbing circle is that I’m often the only one who can lead.

    It’s all work in progress … :)

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