Swallow the Fear

I get a lot of people asking me about fear, how to overcome it, how to not let it ruin your life (it ruins most things).  I’m never really sure what to say.  It’s probably like any emotion, the more you experience it, the more you recognise it - know it’s coming - know what it feels like.

I know someone who used to be sick a lot, puking up everyday, their head stuck down the toilet.  They told me that like everyone they hated being sick, but after a week or so they got used to it.  It was still unpleasant, like chocking on acid, but they knew just how it would feel and that when it was done they would be ok.  I think fear can be a bit like this, the more you experience the easy it becomes.

I wrote quite a bit about fear in my book Me, Myself & I, but the most important thing to do is recognise what form of fear it is that you’re experiencing.

For example the most common fear, and the fear that needs to be negated, is the unrational and unhelpful (but understandable) fear of falling.  You feel this when you’re climbing indoors a lot when really you are 100% safe.  To overcome this the only thing to do is fall a lot, and to develop a trust in your rope, your partner and yourself (learning how to fall is a skill in itself).  If you can tackle this in a safe environment you will make huge gains in controlling your fear climbing outdoors, although this fearlessness must be balanced with a clear understanding of the consequences. Taking a huge whipper on a vertical crack is one thing, but on a low angled slab is another.

The second type of fear is more of a stalking fear, where you suddenly become aware that you are in great danger - or injury or worse.  This can be real or imagined, but if you already have a sound grasp of the irrational fear of falling you should be able to filter this out.  An example of this would be climbing through an area of loose rock, fragile flakes, stacked blocks etc.  If you’re aware you’re senses will alert you with a little does of fear that this is a ‘head up’ situation, where you need skill and care to stay safe (you can go into terribly dangerous environments and yet remain very safe if you understand why they are dangerous.  You may get that little tremor of fear at first - say when you pull on a flake and it moves an inch - but this should be like the tremor of a trip wire - you now it’s dangerous and so you switch over to ‘heads up mode’ - giving total focus not to being afraid, but being aware.  Allowing yourself to be blinded by fear is incredibly dangerous as it restricts your ability to deal with the situation.

But how do you do this?  How to you turn down the fear and switch up the focus?  You can do this with rational thought, you can do it by talking yourself through it, by positive action and care - that you have mastery of the situation.  One way I do it is imagine that fear as a solid ball of death and pain, full to bursting with dark energy - sitting right their in the centre of you, like a little dark spirit like you’d get in a Hayao Miyazaki film.  When I feel it I just draw it out and imagine swallowing it, re-absorbing and recapturing all that energy using it to focus on being safe.

Andy Kirkpatrick
Andy Kirkpatrick

Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.

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Books by Andy Kirkpatrick
Unknown Pleasures Higher Education
Me, Myself & I Nutcraft - The Climbing Nut Bible
Aid Basics 1000+ Tips for Climbers
Cold Wars Psychovertical
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