8th Mar 2012


Just to give you a bit of background, I am 33 & a petite 5ft, I have been climbing now for 3 years, and have been leading routes for the last 2. I am leading mainly S & HS with a couple of VS's.

However I have difficulty with the 'mental' approach when leading. Do you have any advice on controlling my racing mind?

I only seem to panic when leading, & although I have been told my gear placement is good I can’t help but totally lace the routes & still worry that if I fall the gear will pop out. Or I fear will get to a point where I cannot reach the next hold (I have seconded many routes & had to just dyno for holds or balance on the smallest ‘pebble’ &  although I have not fallen there is no way I could have also placed gear to protect moves). Yet I have also happily followed several E1's and an E2, without falling or panicking.

I am just about to start climbing again after a broken wrist (not from climbing) & would like to start a new season of climbing positively & with a fresh mental approach.



Don’t worry Emma, you are not alone. Regrettably this is a common worry for a lot of climbers I come across. It’s also quite a tricky question for me to answer but I’ll certainly try.

Although you have given me some useful info about you and your climbing, you haven’t mentioned the rock type that you are having these problems with. From some of the things you say, IE. Balance and pebbles, I guess you are talking about grit. Now due to your stature this is relevant and has a bearing on your confidence levels. So I will answer your question under the assumption you are mainly a grit climber.

Now there are two things going on;

Confidence in your gear placements and

Confidence in your climbing ability

So one at a time, let’s look at gear first.

Placing gear has certain rules but it is also a very personal thing. Different people have varying placements that they would be happy to fall on. As a lead climber it is very important that you are mentally ready to take control and be in charge of what happens to you on a route. No one else can help you once you are up there climbing, so you have to learn to be self reliant. This means it could be well worth your while having some sessions where you essentially workshop yourself in placing gear. It’s all very well other people telling you your gear is good but if you don’t believe that deep down then they are empty words. So I suggest (with a friend you trust) you find a section of crag at ground level that has plenty of opportunity for gear placements; then you place around six-ten pieces of gear, a mixture of nuts and cams. Then together you look at each piece of gear and assess how good they are marking them between 1 and 5. We all place bad pieces of gear (hopefully only when that is all that is available. IE. Something is better than nothing!) but the trick is to know what makes a good or bad piece. You can also attach a sling to the pieces and do some downward yanking to see how the placements respond.

Once you have gone through this process a few times and are happy with what makes a good placement work, then you could progress to dropping a heavier weight onto these pieces IE. A rucksack filled with ‘stuff’. This is occasionally how people who headpoint routes test bits of gear that they aren’t happy with, just to see how much load they can take.

The main thing is, at the end of this process you are a lot more confident and happy that your gear placements are good and you know why they are good. You are obviously aiming to place gear that you would score 4’s and 5’s with some 3’s thrown in. 1’s and 2’s are placed as a last resort and preferably a cluster of them together, so they can be equalized and add up to a 4 or 5 placement. There are plenty of videos on you tube where you can glean useful info, so it would be worth checking these out before you have your workshop sessions at the crag.

The final test for you and your gear (and this is especially important if you have never taken a leader fall) is…to take a leader fall! So, you need a couple of friends and a route that you can easily set up a top rope on. Then basically you can lead up, place gear and happily fling yourself off with the knowledge that the top rope will be your back up. Obviously, your top-rope belayer doesn’t want the rope to be tight, there has to be enough slack in the system, so that all of your fallen weight is taken by the gear. I’m sure you’ll have fun with this and will probably be impressed by the bits that you weren’t sure about. So make sure you try some falls on what you assess to be grade 1-3 pieces and see how they fare.

Next, is your climbing confidence.

I can relate to some of the things you have written regards your worries about not reaching holds or simply having to dyno or do very hard moves to get to the next hold. When you are short, this is a genuine reality of climbing but I think is magnified on gritstone. The nature of grit is that it can be quite featureless and you don’t have a choice of different hand or footholds, whereas on limestone, you tend to be able to climb the route in the way you want to rather than how the route dictates. Grit in a funny way can feel like climbing indoors (oops, I think I heard a few gasps of breath from outraged peak climbers), only from the perspective of ‘either there is a hold or there isn’t’. So this is useful to remember and what I’ve done over the years, after some nasty experiences, is head for the cracks. I love a grit crack because;

  1. There is always gear and
  2. You will always be able to reach the holds or should I say the jams!

So assessing your route is very important and I feel you should only head onto a grit route that you don’t know much about, when you are feeling confident and in a go for it mood. As a small person, it can be a very difficult rock to push your grade on, so don’t feel bad if you haven’t whizzed up through the grades. I’d suggest hunting out friendly (and solid) limestone (or mountain) crags where you can test yourself and maybe push yourself a bit more.

All my hard ascents have been on limestone-style rock and after years of analysis I now understand why that is.

Good luck.