Overcome by panic, stuck on a cliff and unable to go up or down? Here’s how to deal with fear

Climbers can combat ‘freezing’ by confronting their emotions and avoiding ‘hall-of-mirrors’ fear

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 September, 2017, 9:13am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 October, 2017, 9:43am

Fight or flight is our natural response to fear, but if you are high on a cliff, there’s nothing to fight and nowhere to run.

So for climbers, fear can lead to freezing, which can be potentially fatal when suspended thousands of feet above the ground.

Psychologists say climbers should objectively face their fear, so they can assess the situation and calm down.

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A non-climber might think that climbing is a sport for adrenaline junkies, but its mediative movements require quite the opposite.

“Climbing is actually very low adrenaline ... with climbing, you have to deliberately move inch by inch up this huge wall,” Alex Honnold, an American famous for ascending huge walls with no ropes, told National Geographic.

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But even Honnold has had his moments, and on the 2,694-metre Half Dome in Yosemite Park in the United States, he suddenly began to doubt himself and froze.

Stuck, with no equipment, he calmed himself down and completed the climb.

Fear can be a result of past failures and future expectations, said Karen Lo, a sport psychologist who competed for Hong Kong in swimming.

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“Therefore the climber’s concentration is not in the present moment [when afraid],” Lo said. “Focusing on the task at hand will help direct the climbers attention back to the ‘now’.”

She said a small trigger, such as engaging your core or bending your legs, can be enough to redirect attention back to the climb itself.

Doug Seiden, director of behavioural health and therapy at the Hong Kong-based Jadis Blurton Family Development Centre, said: “The way to realise you are at risk of freezing is to become familiar with the symptoms of anxiety and fear, and when they occur to take time to mindfully recentre yourself.”

You can achieve this by focusing on multisensory stimuli such as sight and touch to bring you back into the moment, and by taking deep breaths from you diaphragm to relax, he said.

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Lo said climbers should practise breathing in training and not just when they freeze.

Climbers can experience fear even when they are objectively safe, such as when they are clipped into solid protection but hovering over steep exposure.

“When fearful, trying to avoid the fear and stop the discomfort of this strong negative emotion will just increase the fear in a ‘hall of mirrors’ fashion,” Seiden said.

Climbers should in fact, do the opposite and fully face the fear.

“This involves first being aware of the fear and letting yourself fully feel it,” he said, “which gives your nervous system the message that the fear itself isn’t to be feared.

“Then you can target its causes [fearful thoughts] by rationally assessing the situation, the evidence for safety or danger, and the meaning of possible consequences,” Seiden said.

Climbers returning to the rocks after a fall or injury can find their confidence has been knocked and they are more likely to freeze.

“He or she can first imagine themself doing the same climb smoothly without any glitches by using positive experiences to substitute the negative ones,” Lo said.

“The climber needs to imagine himself doing the same routine with careful footing, taking into account the feeling, grip, how straight your arms are.”

The next step is to go to the route and imagining themselves climbing while identifying the holds, Lo said.

“Then actually doing the climb.”