We have all been there, halfway up a route and suddenly it hits you, this sinking feeling in your gut. In your mind you see every climbing magazine story about bolt failure or gear breaking. You replay that ridiculous opening scene from Vertical Limit: everything that could go wrong is going wrong in your mind. You look down at your last piece of pro, and suddenly what is only five feet feels more like twenty.
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Most of the time I can manage my fear, either ignoring it or making it work for me. Some irrational fear will creep in and I will immediately dismiss it and go on with my climb. I don't know what suddenly brings these fears to the surface, sometimes it catches me on the most mundane of routes. However, there are those occasions when the fear wins, times when I can't shove it back down, and I'm paralyzed by it. There have been times when I have backed down even sport routs with the most modest of run-outs. I can't explain it! But then I suppose for many of us, climbing is this delicate balance of fear and joy. An orchestrated dance between our physical, mental, and emotional selves. But that is exactly what makes climbing such a personal experience. There will always be competitions, but the the real battle is the one that is won within ourselves every time we get on the rock. Not just the physical war we wage cranking hold after hold, but the emotional one that rages in our mind--this tempest of fear and emotion.
So what can we do to hone our skills, to better overcome these nonphysical obstacles? Any climber with any time under his harness will tell you that climbing is just as mental as it is physical. If your head space is wrong you are never going to send that route; it will have you beat before you make your first clip. This means we must train our mental and emotional strength in addition to our physical strength.
This same idea applies to fear. Now granted some fear is good, it keeps you alive. There are times when your gut is telling you to back down, and you should. But I'm talking about that irrational fear, that fear that keeps you from your goals. The human race is pretty much born with a fear of falling, so it is only natural that you come face to face with this fear as a climber. This fear can be overcome!!!
In this case, knowledge is once again power. The more you educate yourself about the safety specs of climbing gear the more you will trust it, and more importantly know when not to trust it! Learn as much as you can about climbing safety, not just to curb your fear but also to keep yourself, well... Safe! Proper technique and etiquette will do more to save your life than any amount of gear.
Also, knowledge in the form of familiarity is a powerful weapon against the fear. Practice taking some falls at your gym, the controlled atmosphere will make it much easier and safer. Climb a rout you are comfortable on, but don't clip the anchors (or skip some other bolt) then take a deep breath and let go! Falls generally aren't that bad, in fact, they can be quite fun! The more comfortable you become taking controlled falls, the less scary it will be taking one unexpectedly. You will have eradicated that fear of the unknown, which is probablly far more terrifying than the actual fall. Most importantly, climb and climb often! The more you do it the more you will get comfortable.
Now, there's no magical solution for working through your fear. It will take time and dedication. Much like forest fires, only you can prevent it. It will be a longer journey for some, but then that's part of it--the journey is the destination. Climbing is so much more than grades and competitions; it's a personal journey for every individual who undertakes it. So get out there and enjoy the journey!