SKILLS: Playing with Fear

What is Fear? What exactly is going on in the body? Why would anyone put themselves in that position? Can you train yourself to manage fear or even enjoy it? Could a deeper understanding improve your climbing…or coaching?

The author fully focused and managing the fear! © Lukasz Warzecha -
The author fully focused and managing the fear!
© Lukasz Warzecha -

I'm a mountaineering instructor with an endless fascination in people. I adore climbing, but people are what matter.

I coach people all over the world, from established climbers pushing to the next grade hanging off fingertips above crashing waves, to total beginners tying in at the local wall for the first time. Regardless of age, gender or experience I have found a large proportion of my coaching is teaching people to manage their response to fear. So I decided to dig deeper.

Fear: a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.

Dave MacLeod on The Longhope Route E10/11 - Britain's hardest, (and scariest?) sea cliff climb. © Lukasz Warzecha -
Dave MacLeod on The Longhope Route E10/11 - Britain's hardest, (and scariest?) sea cliff climb.
© Lukasz Warzecha -

Even just the dictionary's definition of fear highlights a key point. It doesn't matter if the danger is real – onsighting an E9 where you know if you fall you'll at least break your legs, or perceived – you're on top rope on a F4 at the wall. The emotion is universal. Dave MacLeod experiences the same emotion as you!

But if fear is this "distressing emotion", why would anyone put themselves in this position? Why choose to climb a bold route or free solo?

Chemically this is happening in your brain:


In evolution, the faster you can react to a danger (e.g. an attacking bear) the more likely you are to survive it.

Since birth you have been training a section of your brain called the thalamus to identify dangerous stimuli that might cause you harm. This can account for a fair amount of difference in reactions between individuals. Your Mum repeatedly telling you to "get down from there – it's not safe!" conceivably enhances your association of danger with heights and your sensitivity to that as a stimulus. If this is you, you're not doomed to overreact to heights for evermore, you might just need to invest some time in retraining your brain.

Once the thalamus has identified a stimulus it sends two signals. One is almost instant. This is sent to the amygdala (the brain's emergency centre), which starts the processes of pumping out stress hormones before the other signal has even reached the cortex (the thinking part of your brain). When the cortex has assessed the stimulus it sends a further signal to the amygdala, either to increase or decrease its reaction.

The purpose of stress hormones is to get you out of the dangerous situation you've found yourself in. The flight/fight/freeze response. They stimulate changes in your body to give you more energy and focus to run away from the bear, fight it or freeze so it doesn't notice you. The quantity and effectiveness of these hormones varies between people – it is a genetic disposition so can't be changed. The stress hormone most people are aware of is epinephrine, or adrenaline to its friends. It increases your heart and breathing rate, so more oxygen gets to your muscles; changes the metabolism of sugar which increases energy levels; reduces peripheral vision and auditory input to help you focus your attention where it's needed…. And has some interesting bladder and sphincter affects (theoretically to make you lighter so you can run away faster?). So, ignoring the wetting yourself part, it all sounds like it could aid climbing performance. True. With an awareness of what is happening you can be stronger and more in the zone with a healthy amount of adrenaline in your system.

However, if you flip the coin, these physiological responses will cause you to use energy quicker, increase your core temperature and reduce your visual/auditory input…so you're now over-gripping as you've got too much energy, have sweaty palms and reduced friction, so grip harder still, this increases your lactic acid build up so now you're getting pumped, you stay frozen in place for too long so the adrenaline build up needs to be released and causes physical shaking (disco leg!), you can't spot the key footholds or hear the vital beta your belayer is shouting at you (or the fascinating teaching point your instructor is explaining) – all this is resulting in thoughts of doubt, leading to a greater response from the amygdala and so the situation escalates….

This double-edged sword has caught me out a few times. A great example was last year on Left Wall. For those who haven't heard of Left Wall - where have you been hiding?? "Quite simply one of the best pitches in Britain" - Rockfax. Steeped in history, it is an infamous, steep test piece in the Llanberis Pass. UKC nails the description: "An aspirational climb which defies most superlatives"

"…It is also one of the most fallen-off climbs in the Pass" - Rockfax

The storied Dinas Cromlech.
© Si Panton

I drove past this beast of a crag twice a day on the way to/from work last Summer. I wanted to prove myself but needed to do the climb justice and climb it well - I had put it off for almost 10 years. When I finally came to do it, I was deadly nervous. Preparation pre-wee essential, slightly trembling hands, craving for sugar - I was adrenaline fuelled.

It went so smoothly. Every move worked just as I had pictured it, the gear was great, went in first time and when I got to the line of jugs leading off left to victory I wasn't remotely pumped, so I headed up the harder direct finish. Topping out my friend asked me, how did you find the hard bit going right? What hard bit?

It was such a glorious route, and we had a great spell of weather, so I decided to go and do it the next day as well. I was with the same group of friends, still respected the route and planned my moves off the floor but there was no pressure, no nerves. It was flipping nails! I battled through the hard moves going right before fighting back left and scampering off on the line of jugs. I truly believe what was missing was a degree of fear.

The author on the technical face of Left Wall, E2. © Tim Neill
The author on the technical face of Left Wall, E2.
© Tim Neill

"Fear gives you that extra energy that gets 110 percent out of you. If you didn't have fear, you wouldn't have that intense respect and intense concentration to make sure you don't mess up." - Famous BMX stunt rider Mat Hoffman, after riding his bike off a cliff in Norway, doing a couple backflips and then parachuting down…

A less commonly discussed stress hormone is cortisol. Cortisol changes the metabolism of fatty acids and increases blood sugar, which increases energy levels – the same double-edged sword as adrenaline release. In addition, it is an immunosuppressor and reduces inflammation. This directs the body's reserves to the flight/fight response but long-term can leave it open to disease.

The really fascinating thing about cortisol is its effect on memory. Low to medium levels have been reliably shown to improve learning and enhance memory. However, high levels have a traumatic lasting impact and can cause "Flashbulb" memories.
Combine a respect for the effects of cortisol and openness, and you can look after yourself and your climbing partner well. In my opinion, an awareness of these effects and remembering that genetic differences change an individual's response, is essential as an effective instructor. This will help you judge how hard to push your students, and when to step away so their cortisol level and consequent learning increases.

The hormone oxcytocin is possibly responsible for my deep connection with climbing. Like cortisol it greatly increases memory, but it also improves trust and feelings of closeness to those around. The evolutionary theory being – if you need to fight a bear it would be better to do it as a team. This is why there is a tradition of taking your date to watch a horror movie and getting scared together - chemically tricking your brains!

I have a few memorable examples of this happening. A good one was with Will a few years ago - the day we went from being friends to being climbing partners.

Mousetrap. Top of both of our lists, top of our grade, tidal, a loose and confusing new style at the time and under pressure from an external source – "you can't be an MIA if you haven't climbed Mousetrap"… On reflection this comment should have been disregarded as the nonsense that it is.

Mousetrap - a Gogarth classic. © Will McEvoy
Mousetrap - a Gogarth classic.
© Will McEvoy

At any rate the situation was enough to get those juices flowing. It took until 4:30pm for us to commit to the 90m abseil. The climb is an emotional journey travelling through a maze of solid quartzite chickenheads you cling to, and disposable sandstone holds you need to puzzle out how to weight. I led the first pitch and froze in a chimney for 20 minutes unable to climb up or down. Will had a similar experience on pitch two and got lost, so we added another pitch and ate up more time. The final pitch was thankfully Will's, and it was dark. Responsibly we had our headtorches. Regrettably, as the connection in mine was damaged it flickered on and off and Will's batteries were dying, so there was an unfortunate degree of reliance on the lighthouse's intermittent illumination. Finally joining him at the top at 10:30 I was rewarded by one of the best hugs ever and a friend for life.

All these subsequent effects are very interesting but still do not completely explain why we choose to put ourselves in fearful situations. Simply - Dopamine and Endorphins. It is agreed in the scientific world that the main motivation for participation in risky activities is the release of dopamine and endorphins after a scary experience. These hormones result in feelings of satisfaction and reward. Increased risk/feelings of fear lead to increased dopamine release. The amount of dopamine we release varies hugely between individuals. This is down to molecules on nerve cells called autoreceptors, which control how much dopamine we make and use, essentially controlling our appetite for risk. Hence some people enjoy rollercoasters and others don't. Your mother / brother / boyfriend might be genuine when they say they don't enjoy being scared!

Sally getting her 'try hard' face on. © Tim Neill
Sally getting her 'try hard' face on.
© Tim Neill

Enjoy the dopamine. However, it is worth being wary of for your personal climbing and particularly as an instructor - the bliss and euphoria that comes from topping out on some routes can lead to a lack of focus and poor decision making. Dopamine can also be very addictive, so striving for the next dopamine hit can cause the risks you take to escalate, climbing to take over your life, and dominate your relationships. Love the dopamine rush, but with your eyes open.

So what next?

An understanding of what's going on in your body is a great way to increase your ability to manage the fear response. The physical reactions are expected and can be harnessed. There are other great articles and books that discuss management techniques such as "9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes" by Dave MacLeod. His blog is also pretty insightful. Matt Lloyd wrote a fine article a few years ago. Dr Rebecca Williams talks through how to use self-talk as an effective strategy for improving climbing confidence here. The online resources are plentiful if you are driven to explore.

The important thing to remember is that fear is a response to a potentially dangerous situation. You need to be competent enough to recognise if you are reacting to a perceived danger or if you are in fact in actual danger. If the second is true you need to be capable of assessing the consequences and managing the risk before committing yourself.

Be prepared to get some guidance. Whether this is from an experienced member of a local mountaineering group or a qualified instructor the important thing is not to try to puzzle it out on your own and get it wrong.

Whatever you do - Go play with fear! And do it safely.

Leading EdgeSally is working with Leading Edge this year, a mountaineering company focused on running bespoke courses that focus on developing you as an individual. It will be a great opportunity to make progress quickly in a safe and inclusive environment. Kick off your climbing year by joining Sally and the Leading Edge team in Costa Blanca for their Spanish Sun Rock courses in April.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Sally Lisle

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9 Feb, 2018

Good read. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the dopamine hits, but I think a good dose of fear can be genuinely insightful to ones inner workings, if your open to such things, and is like to think that's the main reason I keep getting myself scared

9 Feb, 2018

Always loved risk.My main attraction towards climbing and mt biking.

10 Feb, 2018

That was a brilliant article Sally, well done.

The point you make about struggling on Left Wall the next day I can totally relate to but am going back to 1986 on North Stack Wall having repeated The Bells, The Bells! No psyche whatsoever and doing it again for photos was absolutely harrowing. Nearing the peg I called over to my photographer Bernard [Newman] to throw me a safety rope ... he missed. I probably should've died that day.

[Blatant plug] If you've not read Punk in the Gym I suggest you do and check out the section on North Stack ....

Thanks again for a great article.

Andy P.


10 Feb, 2018

Interesting article. I wonder if anyone has any insight as to how/why certain groups of individuals are more likely/willing to take risks? The obvious example I'm thinking of is young males - they're often cited as being the boldest (/stupidest?!), most willing to take risks (I don't know if there's any evidence to back this up, but it's definitely a commonly heard stereotype). I often hear older climbing partners talking about how they used to take risks that they wouldn't anymore.

Is there any reason chemically that this might be the case? Or is it a purely social thing (i.e. some evolutionary thing about trying to be the 'alpha' or whatever)? Do testosterone levels have an impact on the chemical changes mentioned in the article?

Or is that stereotype just b*****ks?

10 Feb, 2018

Interesting stuff but biochemistry is just the easily tested part of the puzzle. Psychologically or intellectually putting yourself into genuine danger opens up a whole objective perspective on life and self, asserts control over your life, puts all the everyday stresses in their place 

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