A few years ago I was contacted by Paul, a climber from Idaho. He had an extreme fear of falling and wanted me to help him with it. We arranged to meet when I was doing some training in the Rockies. I took him to a sport crag near Boulder, Colorado, and started running him through some falling exercises. At first he had difficulty just letting go of the rock while on toprope with no slack in the rope. He would finally let go but was tense. Then he did some short toprope falls, but the tension wouldn’t go away.
We took a break and talked. “I feel like I’m falling all the way down into Boulder Creek,” Paul stated. I had him take another toprope fall so I could watch where he looked. He didn’t look down into Boulder Creek, which was behind him. He was simply looking at the rock in front of him. It was the image in his mind, of falling all the way down into Boulder Creek, that caused all the tension. Instead of looking at the rock in front of him, I had him look down toward his feet as he fell. Looking down got his attention on the actual fall instead of his image of it. He was astounded. “I can’t believe it. I thought it would be scary looking down, but it isn’t!” he exclaimed.
Paul’s imagination had created a terrifying image of a fall, and he eliminated the fear by looking down and watching the real fall. The reality was much less stressful than his mind’s imaginings. He was able to take progressively longer falls until he was comfortable with 10-foot toprope falls. He still had a long way to go to diminish fear of falling, but this simple act of looking down gave him a tool to direct his attention.