Zen and the art of trad leading

by admin on October 4, 2010

I was surprised by the reaction that some folks had to the recent Huffington Post article that mentioned my development as a climber… titled “Risk vs. Fear” by Joe Robinson.  I received a number of comments from folks who were surprised to learn that fear has been such a part of my development as a climber.  Obviously, these are not people who’ve climbed with me regularly… the patient few who see me through my ridiculous episodes of lack of confidence and continue climbing with me anyway.

While I have made great strides when it comes to management of fear in sport climbing, and even, to some degree, in bouldering — the Zen of trad climbing eludes me.

I’ve had some stellar experiences in my three-ish years of trad climbing.  Leading a headwall 5.7 pitch on Outer Space in Leavenworth, and leading a friend up Johnny Vegas and Solar Slab in Red Rock are just two.  But aside from those great days, I’ve had a whole lot of trad climbing failure.  I’ve topped out a number of pitches, but can’t seem to find that natural flow for trad climbing as often as I’d like.  This weekend in Squamish — an unexpected October weather window — proved more of the same.

Yesterday — I’ll give myself a pass.  Friends and I assembled at the Smoke Bluffs and hiked as far as Octopus’s Garden before actually harnessing up.  Shawn put up a fun (on toprope, I can’t speak for the lead) offwidth, and as our group took our turns on it, I took a break to sit back and have a snack.  I heard a loud:


from off to climber’s left, and turned toward what sounded like a groundfall, in time to see the belayer moving toward the fallen climber — hands off belay, which confirmed my fear that it was a groundfall.  (If the belayer had caught a fall, he wouldn’t be running… he’d be holding the fall).

A member of our group was a Wilderness First Responder, and others hurried over to help.  The climber was awake and alert, and injured.  His belayer and others called 911 and tended to his care while most of the folks at the crag kept climbing.  Everyone remained calm.  After a time (I lost track, actually) SAR arrived, and arranged an airlift out.

One of our party retrieved the injured climber’s gear.  The climber had placed pieces on the route, and fell.  His high piece popped, and enough rope was out to allow a ground fall when that piece popped.

The rest of the crag, ultimately, was cleared for the airlift out.  We headed to another crag and Shawn and Randy hopped right back on lead and we got in a few fun pitches.

This morning, I drew first lead on a mellow 5.7, low angle, beautiful crack.  Despite the low angle, and despite my enthusiasm and light heart as I racked up, about fifteen feet off the deck, the fear kicked in.  I tried to breathe through it.  I reminded myself that my gear was good, that I’ve safely taken falls on gear before, and that I had a competent belayer.  I also reminded myself that odds are, I’m not going to fall on a bomber crack with perfect jams and solid feet.

Despite that, I couldn’t get myself to climb higher.

I plugged in two more good pieces from my stance-of-paralysis, and then took and lowered.

I’ve done this before.

I know better.

I know that, once the extra pieces are in, I SHOULD just keep climbing.  If I’m afraid of falling, then the extra pieces would help assure that my gear would catch me if I should fall.  But no… it’s not actually the fear of falling.

My gremlin with gear climbing is so firmly the fear of the unknown, that I actually don’t know how to even work on it.  Today, I feared running out of gear (ridiculous, given the height of the pitch and the big-wall-worthy assortment I took up with me).  That’s my common fear… running out of gear.  So, taking a ton up should help me feel more confident, right?  I worry about not having the gear to build the anchor that I’ll need at the top (not an issue today, since I was heading for easy to find bolts).

Tonight, I’m home safe and sound… we all had a fun weekend, despite everything, and are thinking positive thoughts for the injured climber we got to know briefly while waiting for the evac.

On the drive home, while texting with friends, one gave the advice to place nuts like your life depends on them… because it does.  Good advice.  When I bailed off my climb today, I had in two solid cams, and I still added a high point nut just to be on the safe side before I lowered off.

I’m pulling out my copy of “Maximum Climbing” to read up on fear.  I’ll let you know what I learn.  For you experienced trad leaders who struggled with fear starting out…  do you have any advice? Because I’m pretty sure I’m going to wind up out gear climbing again next weekend, and I’m not sure I can figure it out on my own this week.

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

Laurel October 4, 2010 at 5:06 am

What do you mean by failure? Obviously you’ve never died and (as far as I know) have never hurt yourself, so it must be something else.

What do you mean by fear of the unknown?

I don’t think you really fear running out of gear. Do you usually get too slow when stressed (stop too long at rests, take often, place “too much” gear) or too fast (skip perfectly good rests, place useless “mental pro”, run it out to get it over with)? If you get too slow and are placing good gear, it seems that you don’t have to worry about running out of gear (because the worst case is you get close to running out and back up your top piece and lower), and you know it.


Mia October 4, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Laurel – you’re right. I’ve survived each attempt. I’ve been told by ski instructors that I have an overdeveloped sense of self-preservation. Maybe that’s what this is, to.

What I mean by “failure” is that I haven’t yet developed the skills to reliably execute climbs that are reasonable for me, even when I know my pro is well placed, that I’ve got a solid belayer, and that the climbing is well within my ability. I do think that there are all sorts of reasonable fears in climbing… I have a lot more of those, especially when it comes to the mountains. But, with trad, and all of the above, I feel like the fear is unreasonable. If I got on a route that I couldn’t finish because the climbing is too difficult, then I’d consider that a success in trying. But I do think of my current situation with even easy trad as a glitch in my programming.

It really is the unknown … it’s the “how hard is that section up ahead going to be? It looks a little hard.” “Crap, I just placed my last red cam, what if I need that for my anchor.” And, the clincher… the good stance, gear placed, essentially on toprope “Go down go down go down go down” that my brain screams at me if I even briefly hesitate before a move that requires me to trust myself even a tiny bit.

It’s not a fear of falling… like I said, I am pretty well over that! I know, that if I’m worried about falling, I can put in an extra piece before a crux, and then climb confidently on my gear.

It’s not even really a fear of injury or pain… at least, that’s not what I’m thinking about at the time, although it might be a subconscious factor. Climbing hurts. Period. And I’ve chosen this as my activity of choice, and have gotten used to the scrapes, bumps, bruises, sprains, pains, and maladies that come with a climbing life. At times, I’ve feared injury… like when I was preparing for mountain trips and tried my best to avoid injury during the preparation… but right now, I’m back to “normal” life where I’m not consciously thinking, “I can’t get hurt because of X trip up ahead.”

When it happens, it feels like a big, overwhelming, vague fear — and for me, it boils down to the unknown. It happens less with redpoints or projects, and more with onsight climbing. Although, sometimes I have the head for onsight climbing… and on those successful days (am I answering my own question here?) it’s about not allowing myself to hesitate for too long at any one point on the climb… when the first non-positive, non-confident thought starts to dawn, I push myself ahead and keep climbing. And, on those successful days, it’s about keeping focused on the climbing and not on the gear.

Short version, I’m more like the “too slow” you described…


Laurel October 4, 2010 at 4:31 pm

With your answer to the too slow/too fast question, I think I can guess that you aren’t actually worried about getting yourself into an unsafe situation by running out of gear (if in a single pitch low commitment situation). If you place your last red cam and can’t finish the pitch without it, you can always lower down and borrow another from your climbing partners.

I think it’s possible that you are imposing more pressure on yourself than you need. You decide that you “should” be able to do a route (maybe exacerbated by someone else telling you it’s easy, or the guidebook saying 5.7), and if you don’t do without hesitation you feel like you have failed. So even if you’re not actually afraid of falling you may be afraid of falling on a route that you “should” be able to do clean.

I think it’s ok to be stressed when climbing. (can I call it stress instead of fear?) If it’s too much, it’s too much. But for me there’s always stress, it works better for me to notice it and be ok with it instead of trying to never feel it.

When you’re trad climbing you _can’t_ just trust that everything’s going to be fine. You have to make it fine.

If you’ll permit me a kind of out-there metaphor, maybe your brain is used to being ignored when informing you of stressful situations, so it’s resorted to yelling louder and louder to get through to you.

That voice will say “aaa, go down, if you fall here it will be bad!!”, and you will have to decide what to say back to it — maybe sometimes it’s “no, that’s ridiculous”, but sometimes it’s “yes, that’s true, but I want to climb anyway, so I won’t fall”. I don’t think blocking out that voice or feeling like you’ve failed when you hear it is the solution.

So maybe, instead of pushing away when negative thoughts appear, you can acknowledge it and decide what to do with it?

Eg: if you think “that next section is hard, I can’t do it!”, you can choose to tell yourself “yes, that looks hard, I should put in another piece of gear” or “no, actually it’s not hard, the crack is overhanging but there are two really good feet, and a nice parallel placement for the #2″ or “maybe I can’t do it, but the fall is safe and I am willing to try after I rest here for a bit”.

It seems that you may be good at dealing with your stress/fear/nervousness by forcibly pushing it away, but maybe it would be interesting to practice conversing with it and reasoning with it instead…


Mia October 4, 2010 at 5:14 pm

I LOVE this, Laurel… When I woke up this morning and got out of bed, I looked at my bedside… and realized… laying right under a copy of “Maximum Climbing” was a copy of a self-help book called “Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway.” Your thought process of…

“yes, that’s true, but I want to climb anyway, so I won’t fall”

…. that’s what I need to think to myself. OR… “Yes, that’s true, but I want to climb, so I am going to move now.” I don’t have to rule out falling… I just have to keep moving, instead of letting myself stop, hesitate, get scared, and abort.

I’ll try it… thank you for your thoughtful help… :)


John w October 4, 2010 at 5:12 am

Mia- it’s tough with trad because everyone has to fight their own demons, but one thing to keep in mind is this- lots of people have done it before you. Most probably with less gear and just as scared- or more so. My point is to keep this in mind while leading- guidebooks and climbers do a pretty good job of letting you know if you need more than a standard rack for just about any level of climber that you might be. Sometimes you need to tell yourself this mid-climb to convince yourself to keep going. I’ll also say this- in all my years, and probably almost 1000 pitches on the sharp end, I’ve never ran out of gear to the point I couldn’t keep myself and my partner safe. So- just keep at it and remind yourself that it’ll work itself out. Good luck!


Mia October 4, 2010 at 2:28 pm

John, thank you! One of the times I was remembering last night was getting to the top of a certain pitch on a certain day in Oak Creek Canyon, with a big boulder and a yellow camalot as my only “gear” and a big dude on the other end of my rope. We survived. ;) You’re right. I get so distracted by the gear that it’s hard for me to actually climb. And, you’re right. I need to remind myself mid-climb to keep climbing, instead of letting the “go down” voice creep in. I have a habit of pre-climb positivity (“I can DO this!”) but I might need to come up with some during-climb positivity to help keep my own doubts at bay.

Thank you for your comment…


Katie October 4, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Mia, there’s just so much I can identify with in here, and I’ve never climbed trad in my entire life. But the gripping terror of the unknown takes hold of me on sport leads all the time, and as a result, I’ve not spent nearly as much time as I should trying to get past it.

At the Nor’easter last weekend, Sonnie Trotter said something in one of his clinics that made a lot of sense to me. When asked how he dealt with fear, he said one of the first things he does is to rack up, tie in, and forget about everything to do with his gear and his rope. It’s about trusting you’ve prepared adequately, which you probably have, and you have someone to keep you safe. When you place gear and climb above it, you let go of it, just forget, and trust it will hold because after you’re above it, it’s out of your control. It’s that letting go part that’s so incredible difficult.

But you’ll get it. Just keep at it! You’re a role model for climber girls like me :)


Mia October 4, 2010 at 2:32 pm

I love that advice, Katie… and it’s similar to what I’ve noticed in my own climbing. Like I said above… my “good” days are ones where I am able to trust the system (because it’s trustworthy, not because I’m deluding myself) and just climb. It’s quite similar to Sonnie’s “trust” advice. I’ll try to work that into my pre-climb practice… to prep, and trust that I’m adequately prepared, and then place good, properly spaced gear, and keep climbing. That’s what I do with bolts, in the vast majority of situations… I don’t even THINK about a bolt once it’s clipped unless I’ve gotten myself off route or am risking a ground fall or a pendulum swing into something else. In other words — I’ve developed the ability better, in sport climbing, to separate reasonable fear from unreasonable (or less reasonable) fear.


Somehow, despite thumping after thumping, I keep trying… so in all likelihood I’ll keep at it! :) And, I’ll keep you posted on what I learn.


David October 4, 2010 at 2:44 pm

I highly suggest reading Arno Ilgner’s series of books for exactly these reasons! Fear and commentment! He has quite a following here in the deep south. He runs clinics inside and outside to help those with fear problems. It’s helped a lot of folks so far!


Mia October 4, 2010 at 4:19 pm

David – thanks for the reminder. I have read The Warrior’s Way, and will give it another read in this new phase. Thanks…


Patrick Gensel October 4, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Hey Mia,

Being primarily a trad climber, I know what you mean about running out of gear and fear of the unknown(i’ve had a cam blow out of a crack on me before). Just yesterday I was climbing a single pitch 5.4. this climb was below my skill level by a lot, but I had read that it was fun so I did it. It was 160 foot route, with no bolts up top so I anticipated having to build an anchor to bring my partner up. mid way up the climb I had realized that I was not leaving myself adequate gear for an unknown anchor situation and got a bit nervous. I shouldn’t have been nervous, this was a 5.4 after all right? despite the ease of the climb, I was placing gear frequently due to the dirtiness of the rock. fortunately when I reached the top I was able to sling a large chock stone for my belay anchor, But thats the thing, I didn’t know that was there, and it very well could have been another situation. In retrospect I should have been more proactive in placing passive gear, I believe that the ease of placing a cam especially on unknown terrain makes one forget that nuts can often be placed just as easily, leaving more cams for anchor building.(just my 2 cents)
As far as fear in trad goes, It helps me when I think about the fact that I placed all my gear and not someone else. In sport climbing, its really hard to tell whats going on underneath a bolt hanger, is the bolt too short, is the rock fractured under there, who bolted this route any way? etc. I’ve developed a certain bond with my gear and placing it.


Mia October 4, 2010 at 4:24 pm

I know… I’ve seen bad bolts before, and those moments I’ve thought – man, I wish I was gear climbing!

I’m also re-learning the importance of placing passive pro. For one, I’ve been climbing on Wallnuts long enough that I rarely choose the wrong piece for the place anymore… my eye for passive pro is a little more first-try-accurate than my eye for cams. You’re right about placing passive pro — I’ve never gotten to an anchor and not had the passive pro I wanted; I have gotten to anchors and not had the cams I wanted.

Thanks so much for the thoughts, Patrick! It also occurs to me… the routes that I have pushed myself on, and embraced my fear on better tend to be harder… 5.9 and up. For a season, I totally gave up sub-5.7 trad because the routes just weren’t fun… I decided I would rather take falls on 5.9 on gear, than be scared up a 5.6 or 5.7 with runouts and discontinuous cracks and lots of stuff to hit if I fell. I’m working on fitness so that I can make that decision again, and just hit the 5.9s and 10as and take good, clean falls… instead of scaring myself on 5.7s.


Leslie October 4, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Hi Mia!
What a timely blog post. I just got back from Red Rocks and was pretty much gripped the entire time trying to lead trad routes. I can onsight 5.11 sport routes, but I actually cried trying to lead a 5.6 gear route. For me it is trusting the gear. I pretty much feel like I am free soloing every time I climb a gear route. Yesterday I led a 5.6 at our local crag here in Bozeman and I placed my first cam and then had a hard time leaving the safe ledge I was on. I have been practicing building anchors and sitting on them, placing gear on top rope and clipping in direct while my belayer gives me a little bit of slack. This is helping but my problem is I can’t get into my mental bubble that I get into with sport climbing. That place where you are flowing with the movement and not focusing on falling. Good luck to you, there are other women struggling with trad leading out there too, you aren’t alone!


Mia October 4, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Leslie – when I started out on gear, I seriously considered switching to free solo because it seemed less scary! I’m not a free soloist… I’m not even much of a highball boulderer anymore, but I definitely can relate to your Red Rock experience!

Confidence with your gear placements… for me, it came from a combination of reading great books with pictures, about gear climbing and anchor building (thank you, John Long)… and climbing with enough different partners, over enough seasons, that I saw that different people make very different decisions when it comes to gear … and in my experience so far, every marginal to good piece I’ve seen fallen on has held. Only placements I’d consider less than marginal haven’t. Climb with partners who will give you feedback you are willing to receive on your placements. And, over time, the confidence comes.

Hang in there, and goodness gracious… next time I get to Bozeman, I’d love to get out and climb with you!


Leslie October 7, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Give me a shout any time in you are in Bozeman, it’s always fun having female partners. [email protected]


Malcolm Daly October 4, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Great blog! It takes me way back to my first trad lead where I was too dumb to realize just what danger into which I was putting myself. I had three nuts, 5 carabiners and a coupe of slings when I set off up a multi-pitch first ascent. I survived but am not sure I learned any lessons.

Let me make a suggestion. Stop sport and gym climbing for a while. Go bouldering and trad climbing. I find that making the switch between the lots-of-fun-bolt-clipping mentality and the contemplative, zen-like mindset needed for trad leading is a very difficult thing to do and gets in the way of my being able to trad lead with any sort of calmness.

Climb safe,


Mia October 4, 2010 at 4:31 pm


Of course, you’re right. The times I’ve gotten comfortable on gear (albeit temporarily) are times where that was my focus. So far, most of the trips on my radar this winter happen to be trad trips… so I might just get the opportunity to focus this winter.

Thank you for the thoughts… much appreciated!


Hans Flinch October 4, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Awesome write up! I just started trad climbing at the beginning of this summer and I’m finding myself very reluctant to push myself as far as climbing more difficult routes. However, with some encouraging climbing partners I’ve been able to get myself to comfortably leading 5.7s which is up from around 5.4 without getting too incredibly terrified above gear.
One of the big things that helped me was exactly what Malcolm said, dropping the sport rack for a good while and just focusing on the joys of placing pro and getting comfortable placing pro. I’d add one other thought, that after a good long while of just trad climbing, going back to the sport wall and leading again on stronger harder leads really helped reaffirm my ability as a climber and I found it easier to venture onto harder terrain in the realm of trad. It was also really nice to remember that I still knew how to climb something above 5.7!
Hope that helps,


Mia October 4, 2010 at 4:34 pm

Ironically enough, my relatively healthy approach to fear sport climbing came directly from spending a summer taking falls on gear. Sport climbing just felt so EASY after all of the work of trad climbing. I guess if I devote myself back to trad for awhile, I have that to look forward to… :)

Be safe out there, Hans… congrats on your learning so far, and I’d say, don’t feel you need to push yourself too hard. I started out — in the very very beginning — a relatively bold leader and that lasted all of about two climbing trips before my bold got me stuck on a traverse on a sport climb and I felt true lead climbing FEAR for the first time. That was during my first season as a leader … and I STILL struggle with the fear from that experience. Had I taken things a little more slowly, I might have been able to avoid having a bad experience, and had more good experiences in my toolkit before that particular episode…


Dylan Vanderhoof October 4, 2010 at 3:52 pm

I’m also primarily a trad climber these days, and I know exactly what you mean. I honestly haven’t been climbing all that long on the scheme of things, but I’ve found that while I’m incredibly comfortable trad climbing at or a little under my grade (long 5.7-5.8 routes right now seem to be my thing), as soon as I start to push grade at all, the fear takes hold to some extent.

I think the #1 thing that’s helped to alleviate that situation has been my initial brief foray into aid climbing. In part I suspect because its made me trust my gear a LOT more, since every piece is weighted. There’s nothing like aid to build confidence in your placements. However, I think the other thing is that now that I do some aid, I suddenly feel like I have an “out” per se. If I’m stuck in the crux I don’t mind tossing in a piece, yanking on it to get through, and then coming back another day to send the route without aid. (I just don’t tell people I climbed it clean obviously) That being said, I climb almost entirely long multipitch (or at least that’s my goal), so yanking on gear now and again isn’t as demoralizing as it might be on single-pitch climbing. =)

Fear or not (and I’ve been terrified a climb or two, mostly on runout friction slabs), I have a hard time getting back to sport climbing, much less gym climbing, the more time I spend doing trad. There’s a mental engagement aspect that I think once you really make your total focus for the climb, some of that fear starts to go away a little. Your world is a little 4′x6′ rectangle moving with you up the side of the wall, and everything else is kinda secondary. I’ve found the climbs where I’m most afraid are the ones where I never really dial in that focus on the climb and the gear, where I spend too much time with my head outside my little box rather than focused like it should be.

Ironically, I think I have a harder time pushing grade on sport routes than trad. I can’t sew up the crux on the sport route while I’m working it like I can/do with a trad climb. =)



Mia October 4, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Dylan – you are right on, all the way around. Weighting my placements has helped me develop confidence in my ability to place gear; and, whether I remember it in the moment or not, I KNOW that I can aid (or french free) through a crux if I need to! God knows, if I can get myself to do that sometime instead of bailing… I’d sure as heck rather french free and finish the pitch than bail! Good reminder!


Lizzy October 4, 2010 at 4:12 pm

I also struggle with my trad head a lot and go back and forth from lacking confidence to totally in The Zone. I think the thing that helps me the most when I’m climbing well is the ability to compartmentalize my climbing. I climb between stances (or, on harder routes, between a “good” foothold/fingerlock/etc.) and then place gear at the stances. When I’m placing gear, I’m not worrying about the crux moves, or the weather, or how I feel. I’m just placing gear. If I’m at a good enough position, I might take a couple extra seconds to survey my surroundings to see what my gear options are. I’ll always go for a good nut placement because generally I have more than enough nuts, and cams are more useful higher on the climb (I also have silly worries about running out of gear). Then, when I’ve placed my gear, I am in climbing mode. I’m not worrying about the gear below me, or what I’m going to do next, I’m just going to focus on the next couple moves until I get to my next stance/good hold. Then I switch back into placing gear mode.

It doesn’t always work that smoothly, but when it does work, it is awesome. I think in general the ability to not constantly be worrying about every aspect of the trad climb (the moves, the gear, the falling, the weather, the grade…) because that’s just too much to think about all the time, and it’s pretty stressful.

Falling on your own gear and really pounding it in to your head that it will hold you is a good thing too. Climbing and falling on cams in the Creek and Zion (especially two moderately “crappy” placements that ended up holding falls just fine) gave me greatly renewed levels of confidence about cams in granite.

I was also feeling pretty wimpy after watching a backwards-lead-fall-minus-helmet and helicopter evac my last trip to Squamish (although I think they just like to use the helicopter, because they easily could have carried her out in much less time, IMO). I shook and quivered myself up a route that is way below my onsight level. It happens. Things get into your head. I know that I just need to be patient with myself, because pushing and getting frustrated really doesn’t get me anywhere except more frustrated.


Mia October 4, 2010 at 4:42 pm

Lizzy… thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. Wow… so many good reminders and bits of advice here this morning!

I’m going to think about your system, as you described it on a good day. I remember standing at the stance, good gear in, the first non-hiking move on the route the next move, yesterday… thinking about the drizzle, and about whether I’d have enough gear, and then getting scared and bailing. You’re right. It’s the multifactor worrying that gets me. Where, maybe, if I keep my brain focused on what I’m doing — maybe even using words (like I do when I place gear — I look at the crack, think “turquoise wallnut” and then place it) … for moments like “Rest…” and “Move…” instead of standing there worrying while I should be resting, or scouting my next placement.

And you’re so right about being patient. I worry sometimes about my climbing partners just totally giving up on me because I am such a head case… but so far, a precious few have stuck around.

Thank you, Lizzie…


Lizzy October 4, 2010 at 5:11 pm

The partners who are worth having are the ones who are patient :)


Eileen October 4, 2010 at 4:40 pm

Hi Mia,

I basically try to do what Lizzy said, “I climb between stances (or, on harder routes, between a “good” foothold/fingerlock/etc.) and then place gear at the stances.”

Sometimes that means “When in doubt, run it out” but it is definitely more comfortable than frantically placing while at a crux.

One thing someone recently told me was that I should remember I can always pull on my gear, in a sense, turning a climb into an aid climb. Sure, you’ll blow your onsight that way but it is a safety option. Another thing I was reminded about is that if I did run out of gear, I could down climb and perhaps walk my last piece up. I tend to forget those options if I’m trad leading after going sport climbing, I think it might help mentally to remember them.

I really hope you can make it to the JTree Tweetup, we can work on trad leading there :)


Mia October 4, 2010 at 4:43 pm

I know — it just so happens that all of my possible winter trips but one are trad… ;) Looks like the universe is telling me to work on this now!

Thank you for the thoughts, Eileen… I really appreciate it. And, I’m the same way — I forget certain things I should know, sometimes! This is all a good reminder…


Laurel October 4, 2010 at 5:04 pm

Oh, I really like Lizzy’s advice about compartmentalizing. It really helps me to be in climbing mode and then in gear mode. It also helps me to notice where the next place to switch back to gear mode may be.

This works especially well at Vantage because the the rock often alternates between broken up (good for climbing, not as good for gear) and solid and smooth (good for gear, not as good for climbing).


Bill October 4, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Hey Mia,

Seems like your okay with falling, and you have faith in your abilities to place pro and in your system as a whole. The way I read it, it’s all about “fear of the unknown” and “fear of running out of gear.” So here are my two cents on what appear to be your two primary concerns: I did the clinic with Sonnie that Katie talked about, so I’ll start with a Trotterism: “fear is an illusion.” Hope that helps. Oh yeah, and “when in doubt, run it out.”

Little too cliche? Seriously, I suppose when you’re trying to onsight a route, some fear of the unknown will always be present. More accurately, the unknown will always be present, but fear need not be. You can certainly minimize the fear if not completely eliminate it. First, by getting all the beta you can (guidebooks, as John W. suggests above) and then sizing up the route yourself, discussing with your belayer. And second, by simply continuing to climb. Get out there day after day, week after week, route after route, crag after crag. The more you trad climb, the more your confidence will build, and the less you’ll find yourself encountering something above you that is “unknown.” Fear will dissipate with experience.

So will your concerns about running out of gear. The first couple leads I did, I took WAY too much gear. Still probably do, but getting better with experience. So keep at it. Keep climbing, learn from your “failures” and resolve to do better next time.


Mia October 5, 2010 at 1:16 am

Thanks, Bill. All solid advice, for sure. When I have a day like yesterday, the thought creeps in… “Maybe I am just not cut out for trad climbing.” Then, I remember that when I started all of this, I was terrified on toprope. All it took was practice and trust in the system, my partners, and myself, to become confident on bolts. Trad climbing is just taking more practice!


Ian Newhall October 4, 2010 at 8:31 pm

Just thought I’d chime in since I also have had this problem. I was up at Squamish a few years ago, literally a day after someone I supervised had to be let go. My bosses (unbeknownst to me) thought it would be best to let me take the blame for letting her go and it was a horrible ordeal. Anyways, my climbing game was severely off and climbing 5.7′s sport and trad was an exercise in futility that weekend. I’d get to a spot where I was having difficulty/doubts/fear and immediately picture the previous days proceedings in my mind. I’d get flustered and flail about in one spot until my belayer finally gave up and convinced me to lower.

Since then I have recurring issues with the same thing (even though I reconciled with my friend and former coworker). The intense feelings of fear and difficulty for some reason just “stuck”. I now have two ways of dealing with it. Well three, but two immediate ones.

When I start having those feelings, I first separate what is present and what is not. In other words, I focus on the immediate task at hand. Placing one more piece of gear, regardless of what I have left; Moving slightly higher/over/back down/into a rest position. If number 1 doesn’t work, then I move on to my second option which is to get mad enough to be motivated. I will take that fear and doubt and I’ll show “them” (bosses, bored belayer) that nothing will stop me.

Number 3 is always (and I mean ALWAYS) done after the days climbing is done. A pint or two with your climbing comrades will a help debrief whatever issues there were and will also serve to bring you closer to them and that just might help with the “unknown”.


Mia October 5, 2010 at 1:18 am

Focus… and get MAD. I like it. I notice the “Get mad” at play with other partners. For me, I don’t see it as getting mad as much as getting stubborn instead of giving up. But, that’s a great reminder. Not to mention, I’d rather sit around with my friends sharing stories after sending (or trying) than bailing… :)


Josh October 4, 2010 at 8:39 pm

Fear and the Trad climber, a topic near and dear to my heart :)
I’ve been leading on gear for about 8 years now, and leading sport for about the same and I definitely think that learning how to handle fear is the biggest and most difficult jump to make in breaking into the harder trad grades (say solid 5.9 and up?). I know quite a few people who only lead gear climbs that are many grades below their capability, and only one person who leads grades above his capability!

Lots of good points above!
1) Don’t fight the fear accept it, absorb it, understand it, make peace with it and it won’t hold you back anymore. o
2) Be willing to try any route that you can do safely (not necessarily cleanly).
3) If you’re cragging, have some faith in the guidebook ratings. Usually they’re accurate at least to +/- 1 letter grade, and if they don’t have an R or X then they should protect well enough to keep you out of groundfall.

One of my very first climbing mentors told me that you should always listen to your gut and always be willing to look at a climb, evaluate it and if and walk away if it doesn’t feel right. For me the fear is always there, whether the climb is 5.0 or 5.11 I always have some butterfly’s in the pit of my stomach and it has more to do with my state of mind that day than the difficulty of the route.
I personally always try to do a few things before getting onto the route that helps me get into good headspace before leaving the ground: try to figure out if the fear i’m feeling is the good fear keeping me safe, or the pointless and bad fear thats holding me back and making me hesitate, look at the stances and evaluate the gear placements high enough that i’ll be out of ground fall, evaluate any potential ledge fall risks mid-route.

If it’s a route that’s been on my mind for a while and is challenging or is making me nervous sometimes i’ve found it actually helps to take a nap at the base of the route for a few minutes while someone else climbs, and to roll all the thoughts and feeling around in my head for 20 minutes; to kind of “live” with the route for a while before I start. I’m kind of amazed how many times I’ve woken up and realized that what I was feeling was the bad fear and said f~ck it, racked up, jumped on route and went for it.

Once on route then I fall into the climbing stance to stance rythm, and try to cultivate a quiet mind. Aware but trying not to overthink. And remember even if you take you don’t have to go down right away. Hang on gear for a couple of minutes before you lower, shake your arms out and contemplate the climbing to the next piece!

And most important, perfect practice, makes perfect!!! You got over your fear of falling by falling. You can’t get over fear of leading Trad onsight by doing anything other than leading trad on-sight. My biggest recommendation would be to drop down a grade or two from your upper limit and preferentially lead on-sight trad for a few months or a year. Avoid top-roping and minimize sport leading. If you have to lower off a lead, grab some more gear, or do whatever you need to in order to regain your headspace and yo-yo.

For the first few years I climbed I never actually had any climbing partners that were better than I was (not that I was climbing all that hard). That forced me to lead, almost all the time, and if I wanted to do something new it forced me to lead on-site often. The down side was that I probably didn’t technically progress as fast as I could have. The upside was that it forced me to develop good head space. A number of the folks I climb with fell into the trap of top roping my climbs to push themselves instead of doing it on lead, and would only lead things that were much easier. It’s mentally easier and more “fun”, but it won’t take you as far.


Mia October 5, 2010 at 1:20 am

Josh… this is really great. I love the taking a nap suggestion… friends have poked fun at me before for my tendency to “commune with the rock” when I’m outside. I’ve never thought of napping (or, quiet time… or meditating… or what have you…) I’m always just either focused on being first on the sharp end or first on belay. I’ll try introducing a bit more “communing” with the routes I’m climbing… I like that a lot.


John w October 4, 2010 at 10:38 pm

So much good advice here- such a great group of people climbers are!

I really liked Mals advice- I’m pretty good at switching between gear and bolts, but if I’m gear focused, Ill struggle to clip bolts at my limit and vice versa- it takes time to make the switch, and when you’re new, don’t underestimate how long that switch can take. Also don’t underestimate the switch between different climbing areas- I usually need at least two or three days on new rock to get a feel for it. Before that, I’m climbing way below my limit.

I also had the thought that it might be worthwhile to lead a route that a more experienced leader has just done and left a few ‘key’ pieces on (and checked them on the way down)- it sounds kinda weird, but there’s something to be said for this tactic- I’ve done it now and then and often times find myself climbing better simply because the leader who put it up was better than me and I could focus more on the climbing. Take a rack, of course, but it may help. Laurel and Lizzy had some great thoughts as well! Keep us posted!


Doug October 4, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Fear is a strong emotion, but anger is stronger. Next time you feel yourself getting overwhelmed(unreasonably) by fear….get pissed! Come on, you know you can climb the grade, you know how to place gear, you know you can lead it safely….you should be pissed! Then, take a deep breath, relax and do it.


Mia October 5, 2010 at 1:21 am

Doug -

I always get pissed AFTERward… but I’m not good at getting pissed during! It takes a lot for me to get angry… but you’re right… I might be to that point. ;)

I like it. Something different to try! Thank you…


Randy October 5, 2010 at 4:57 am


As someone who has seen you in action and fights the trad demons as well (with recent success), maybe I can give some some decent advice.

-Allow yourself to be challenged, even if you “feel” like you should be able to climb a pitch in good style. You know inside your head where the fear comes from, so rationalize the fear and act on it. If the fear is running out of gear on a pitch, work on solving that problem, whether it is by placing passive gear when it is available and good, or by looking ahead to determine what sizes you need to conserve, and place what you think you have plenty of (you’ve solved this problem before on Outer Space, and ended up with an extra #2 Camalot). If the fear is of the unknown, let yourself figure out what is up there, knowing that if you don’t like what you see, you can aid past it, downclimb it, or bail from there (let yourself truly fail, knowing you tried).

-Work on the system. Like others have said, work on climbing between stances. Think of how the rope runs, the angle of pull, and how you are going to sling your pieces. Execute the climb like you are creating a safety system. When you are to the top, re-evaluate each little nuance of your protection as a system and not just a collection of gear placements. By looking at the climb as a problem to solve, you may just find yourself thinking less about fear.

-Instead of taking the “out” (being lowered), stop and think about your demons, and if you come to the conclusion that it is really all in your head, let yourself get just a little higher before you build an anchor to be lowered. That way, you can chalk up another “win” even if you don’t make it to the top.

-Don’t place “fear gear”. You know when you have good gear that will hold a fall, and you know where your next stance is for good gear. By placing that unnecessary gear you introduce negative reinforcement (especially if your “fear gear” is marginal). Definitely allow yourself to re-evaluate your protection, or to place more if you find a good placement, but not necessarily just because you’re gripped.

-Mileage. Try to get more leads whenever you get a chance. Instead of leading once, then going straight to TR, keep leading to reinforce that you actually know how to safely gear climb.

-Trust your climbing. I’ve seen you on climb, and you are very solid. Let yourself climb, because you are very good at it.


Dan October 5, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Great responses across the board. Can’t say I disagree with anyone and there is a ton of good info being shared. This is exactly what I love about the climbing community. I certainly couldn’t agree more with the concept of working up to and through your fears by taking it one step at a time. When I started climbing I was afraid of heights. To this day if I walk up to the edge of some abyss I get extra cautious the closer I get. However if I’m roped up, over that same edge and on the face I feel completely comfortable…relatively speaking anyway. The two things I’d say that transformed my fear and overall experience leading trad were bouldering and clean aid climbing. The bouldering thing is pretty obvious…it makes you stronger mentally and physically. Back in the day a good trip to Hueco Tanks would do wonders. The clean aid climbing thing took me by surprise though. I started simply aid climbing routes I had already climbed free…which is fun and a pain in the ass at the same time. What surprised me was it made me 50 times more proficient at placing gear…which translated directly into leading trad because 9 times out of 10 I chose the right piece the first time when I needed to. So the confidence grew with placing gear exponentially. Also standing on and moving around every piece I placed gave me a trust in the gear I cannot describe. It’s not to say gear won’t fail, and standing and moving is different than falling, but with aid climbing gear placement is in slow motion and you almost have a dialog with each piece. It’s interesting…to me anyway. But yeah…both of those things helped me tremendously…you may or may not have the same experience. Good luck to everyone. I’ll be in Indian Creek in two weeks…for two weeks…maybe see you there! The Creek by the way still scares the crap out of me.


Greg October 6, 2010 at 3:55 pm

This is a very cool idea Dan has described: Clean aiding routes you’ve freed as a way to practice/perfect gear placement technique and build confidence for non-aid leading. Five stars! (also, double rainbow all the way). I’m going to pass that on to my peeps here. Thanks Dan!


EJ November 5, 2010 at 5:21 am

I’ve done this. It works pretty well to boost the confidence. But maintaining your lead head takes ongoing work. So after a while that confidence faded unfortunately.


Greg October 5, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Hi Mia,
So, my perspective comes from 20+ years of climbing trad, one personal serious injury from falling, and being present for several extremely serious injuries to others due to falls. Here’s my feedback:
1. You might want to add this book to your reading list: http://warriorsway.com/
2. You might want to up the frequency of your climbing days…repetition and consistency increase comfort and fluency on the rock. Widely spaced climbing days don’t actually help you get more comfortable on the rock….which is why week long climbing trips are so amazing: Your body and mind get tuned up and synched for the process.
3. On days where you don’t feel super strong, climb the stuff that isn’t near the top of your lead ability. When the days come that you *do* feel superstrong, and you are amped to get on a particular route….go for it. I’m saying that when you feel good, test yourself.
4. Fear (note that I waited til #4 to even mention fear) is a self reinforcing emotion with physical symptoms. The more you give in to it, the more it re-appears. But in climbing, *fighting* fear is a really bad strategy, because it causes you to overgrip, breathe poorly, and think poorly. So. Fight the SYMPTOMS of fear: consciously modulate your breathing, consciously relax your hands so you don’t overgrip, consciously rehearse the next 3 moves before you do them. If necessary and possible, climb up, inspect next placement spot, then downclimb. NEVER place gear in the crux….place below the crux and climb above it.
5. I assume you’ve taken falls on your gear? I assume you and your second have habituated the placement of your feet to the rope so that falls are clean? The more successful falls you take on gear you’ve placed, the more confidence you have in your gear placement competency. It doesn’t take many to internalize the belief that your gear will hold. (Also, the more practice your second will have in removing stuck pieces…heh, heh,heh)
6. Remind yourself why you climb: Is it you against the rock (on the good “feel strong” days)? Is it you against yourself (to prove to yourself that you can do it)? Is it for the experience of being out in nature, and doing something elemental and challenging? Is it to solve the puzzle of this route, your mood that day, your strength that day? Is it to help you get your seconds up a route that they couldn’t lead? Whatever it is, that is the mental zone you need to be in that day, on that route. Remind yourself before you leave the ground.
7. If you really want to know about managing Fear in climbing, talk to people who have soloed at their lead level on a regular basis, like Steph Davis. Fear is always there, like a bird fluttering just outside the little egg of calm you build and move within….rationally, you know if it gets in, you’re done…..so, rationally, you know that you need to keep it out and focus on the moves at hand, to breathe, to move. Remembering that, and repeating that process, lets you manage Fear. You’re aware of it, but your awareness only increases the strength of your calm and your focus, so it doesn’t control you. Even if it touches you, the practice with breathing and focusing on your hands, your feet, the moves, and seeing “rest” spots will let you calmly move through it and it will recede…enough to let you feel the calm again.
Cheers ;-)


EJ November 5, 2010 at 5:20 am

My Squamish trad lead / meltdown story: Leading a lovely crack up a slab this summer I came upon a moment where the crack was too wide for finger or hand jams. I had no toe jamming/foot jamming technique (without getting them stuck and being in massive pain) and then it hit: total brain meltdown. I actually said out loud, after I took: I want out of here! “Here” being that shroud of fear where you just want to escape. I surprised even myself. That thought usually goes unspoken. I just couldn’t see going above pro I’D placed with rattley hands and bad feet. To me as a noob trad leader the thing that gets me is not trusting my gear. Yes I gently sat down and my last piece held. But I didn’t want to fall on my gear. (I don’t ever want to do that actually.) My belayer talked me through breathing and regaining rationality. He reasoned that my pro was great, the crack continued ahead with lots of options and I had a rest ledge to stand on coming up. After I got my breathing calmed and brain cleared, I saw he was totally right. I figured out what piece I wanted to put in when I stepped up next and readied it, knowing I was going to have bad hands and feet for a moment. So…I did it. I just stood up, made a little move and plunked in a cam above my head. Episode: over. The thing I am not able to do is gather that calm and strength in the moment when I’m climbing above my gear. I can only rally when I take and regroup.


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