How To Face Your Fears and Overcome the Mental Challenges of Climbing

Max Lurie is an AMGA certified Rock and Alpine Guide, as well as an accomplished alpinist. Max has been climbing since 2004 and traveling to the world's greatest mountain ranges in pursuit of his passion.
Written by
Max Lurie

When the topic of mental challenges comes up on courses, as it often does when climbers begin leading. I like to say that “climbers travel to the far reaches of the globe to discover the world and in the process uncover their own internal landscape”. 

Meaning that we can only learn how we respond to a specific situation once we find ourselves in it. I believe that it is often this process of self discovery that drives climbers to be so obsessed with the sport. We can then take this knowledge and apply it to other aspects of our lives.

Climbing can be stressful, dangerous and dynamic, these are all things found in other facets of modern life. By forcing ourselves to confront and overcome these challenges on the rock we become more adept at doing so elsewhere in our lives. 

One of my favorite quotes about fear comes from the Sci-Fi Dune series written by Frank Herbert, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings obliteration. I will face my fear and I will permit it to pass over me and through me.”

Maybe a little melodramatic for rock climbing, but we’ve all had those moments of fear and panic.

Man rock climbing in Boulder Canyon

Common Fears in Climbing

Fear is a natural response to a dangerous situation. It is not to be ignored, it is a healthy sense of self preservation. There are different types of fear and they should be responded to accordingly.

When talking about physical danger, there is perceived risk and actual risk. For a new climber on a top rope it may feel exhilarating and very scary, yet in actuality they are very safe. While veteran climbers may ascend a rock face sans rope.

Feeling perfectly safe and in control while engaging with an activity that has very dire consequences.

Fear of Heights

The fear of heights itself is an irrational fear, meaning that heights themselves cannot hurt you. It is the falling that is an actual danger.

For example, being in a high-rise building on the 100th floor with floor to ceiling glass windows might invoke some very real manifestations of anxiety, yet there is no actual danger. I have found that the best “cure” for this fear is systematic and incremental exposure.

This helps build confidence and take away the anxiety over time. It uses positive reinforcement to build experiences that lessen the fear.

Fear of Falling

As climbers we develop an interesting relationship with falling. We are constantly considering falling, if it would be ok in a certain spot, how to do it properly, and we even practice it in a controlled environment.

Having a healthy respect for falling is very important as a climber because the consequence can change rapidly through changing parameters.

We want to be realistic with our decision making as it pertains to risk vs. reward.

Everyone has a different risk tolerance and that is totally okay. I suggest to everyone as they start leading (and subsequently incurring more responsibilities) to think deeply about what is and is not important to you with your climbing.

So that you are realistic and confident in the source of your motivations for climbing.

Alpine to the Max teaching a beginner rock climber

Fear of Failure

The fear of failure is probably something that we can all relate to in our lives.

This one isn’t as readily obvious as the fear of falling or exposure to potential bodily harm. Yet it can have very real world consequences by affecting our decision making in various ways.

We have our own internal expectations for ourselves that might drive us to make riskier decisions than we intended.

There are also external social pressures that might drive us to do things we don’t necessarily feel comfortable doing.

We want to make sure that our motives for climbing are our own. Meaning that friends, partners and even other climbers at the crag can influence us to make different choices than we would otherwise.

It is a pretty common situation that a boyfriend pushes his girlfriend to do something that she doesn’t want to do or doesn’t feel comfortable doing. She is just placating him at the expense of her own mental and sometimes physical safety.

The Psychological Impact of Climbing

I divide the challenge of rock climbing into three categories: physical abilities, technical systems and mental fortitude.

All three are inexplicable linked, in that we only have 100% of attention or bandwidth at any given moment. If we exceed that limit, something is going to get truncated and that is when accidents happen.

The intersection of challenging physical movement and the ability to protect it is one of the major draws to climbing, for some. This vertical arena allows us to test ourselves as a modern day lycra wearing gladiator. Even with the best of intentions sometimes we find ourselves in a “no fall zone” where we have to fully rely on our movement abilities for security as well.

This can lead to a hesitation or getting pumped which can ultimately lead to a fall. If we were to do the same moves on top rope, it would be no problem physically because the mental component is gone.

The Role of Trust in Climbing

One of the many transferable skills from climbing is exploring our relationship with trust.

Trusting in our partners and often trusting in our own abilities as well. We’ve all heard about the power of positive visualization. Climbing is no exception. By visualizing yourself making hard moves you are actually conditioning your nervous system to work efficiently in spite of potential fear or anxiety.

Picking the right climbing partner is also very important. Trusting in their ability to catch you if (when) you fall. This relationship is built over time. Start small and build up to larger objectives with new partners. Even if you are both very experienced.

Group of friends rock climbing in CO

Strategies for Managing Climbing-Induced Anxiety

There have been many publications on this topic relative to climbing.

Probably the most popular book is The Rock Warrior's Way: Mental Training for Climbers by Arno Ilgner. I would suggest his book for a deeper dive into this topic. However, a few methods that have worked well for me over the years are as follows.

Red Pointing: Rehearse hard moves on top rope or go bolt to bolt until you can start to comfortable link sequences. Use modern sport climbing techniques to make your life easier. This can also help you improve your onsight climbing as well.

Have a plan: Think ahead, climbing is like chess in that the more moves ahead you can think the better off you’ll be. The plan doesn’t always work out, but by being receptive to your surroundings you are less likely to get tunnel vision. Your form or technique is less likely to fall into a fight or flight state.

Do your homework: Research the route beforehand so that you know what you are up against. This will reduce the number of surprises and will allow you to climb faster through difficult sections with more confidence.

Rest early and often: When onsight climbing we often don’t know when we’ll encounter the crux sequence or even how many cruxes there will be. So never pass up an opportunity to shake your arms out and look around.

The Importance of Proper Training and Preparation

While physical training is a very obvious way to improve your climbing abilities. Additionally, it can also help improve your mental game as well. When we feel strong we climb with greater confidence and efficiency.

This often translates to better technique and situational awareness. Things like bouldering or going to the climbing gym allows us to build familiarity with specific techniques and movements.

So that our bodies feel comfortable doing those same things when the consequences are higher. This physical training translates into a mental resilience that allows us to achieve our goals.


Climbing, an exhilarating pursuit of both physical strength and mental fortitude, often places a spotlight on the former, overshadowing the critical importance of the latter.

The mental challenges that climbers encounter are equally vital to conquer.

Just as we diligently train our bodies, so too must we cultivate our minds. This endeavor calls for practice, patience, and unwavering persistence.

In the realm of climbing, focus and concentration are indispensable. A momentary lapse in attention can bear severe consequences. Thus, training the mind to remain present and alert is paramount. Additionally, fear, a natural response to the inherent risks of climbing, must be acknowledged and managed rather than allowed to paralyze progress.

Climbing routes, resembling intricate puzzles, demand mental agility and creative problem-solving. Conquering these mental hurdles leads to heightened confidence, empowering climbers to challenge their limits and tackle more formidable ascents.

To address mental challenges with the same diligence as physical ones, practice becomes a cornerstone of the endeavor. Like refining physical techniques, time must be dedicated to training the mind.

Systematically engaging with the terrain and being honest with our motivations for doing so. Patience is equally imperative, understanding that growth in mental resilience is a journey, not an instantaneous achievement. Progress may be gradual, but every small step forward signifies a noteworthy triumph.

Persistence, akin to the unwavering dedication required for physical skill development, is essential.

Selfie of rock climbers in Colorado

Frequently Asked Questions

Is It Normal to Feel Anxious Even if I’ve Climbed Many Times Before?

Yes, or course it is! There are so many different reasons that we might feel anxious before or during a climb. It is important to remember that this is suppose to be fun. Confronting and overcoming that anxiety can be a rewarding challenge, but it is always ok to say no. Don’t ever go climbing out of obligation, you should proritize quality over quantity.

What are the Most Common Mental Barriers Faced by Climbers?

Probably the fear of falling or getting injuried is the most common because it is the easiest to visualize. Understanding the difference between perceived and actual risk is a very important skill do develop. Because there are times when it is perfectly safe to fall even though our bodies are telling us otherwise.

How Can I Overcome my Fear of Heights While Climbing?

Like any fear or phobia, we can overcome it with slow incremental exposure therapy. By building positive experiences we can take away its power to paralyze us.

How Can I Build Trust with my Belayer?

You can build trust in your belayer by ensuring that you’ve both received adequate instruction from a certified guide. Like any relationship it takes time to build that trust and develop familiarity with communication styles.

Are There Specific Exercises or Routines to Build Mental Resilience for Climbing?

You can practice falling on steep routes in the gym or even outside to build familiarity with the sensation. This will also give you a benchmark for deciding when it is appropriate to fall or not on future routes.

Can a Fear of Falling be Completely eEiminated?

No, nor should it be. The fear of falling or at least a healthy respect for the consequences is an important component of our decision making in exposed terrain.

How Can I Handle the is Disappointment of Not Completing a Climb?

You are a complex individual with many different interests, hobbies and pursuits. Attaching your self worth to whether or not you ascended an arbitrary hunk of rock dishonors the rest of who you are.

Admittedly, climbing can be an all consuming activity that breeds obsession.

Remember climbing is suppose to be fun. If you aren’t having fun change it up or go do something else.

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