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On Focus And Fear: First Lead Climb


My daughter ‘topping out’ behind me as I finish my first lead climb. Happiness is …



Staying with the Adventure theme, I have another first to share. The past couple weeks saw me complete my first lead climbs. The difference from previous climbs being that the safety of a static anchor above me was removed; which is how the top-rope climbs we’ve been doing provided a more consistent safety ‘catch’. Top-rope climbs are where you are anchored and secured from a set point above you. You climb to that point, always with a rope fed from above to catch you.

In lead climbing, the anchors are set as you go, which necessitates having to climb above the last point of protection. This means a fall will only be caught at the last point of protection that was set; it could mean a significant fall – and I had a few. Moreover, there is also a portion of the climb, the start specifically, that has no protection – and where a fall becomes a full fall; with the ground being your impact point.

(I included a video of the final part of the first lead climb at the end of this post).

The Leap

This isn’t something you go into lightly. I’ve climb throughout my life. I have reference points and muscle memory, knowledge and experience to draw from. Still, this was a first. Mostly, I have been very fortunate of late, to have met a confident, patient, knowledgeable and encouraging climbing partner. He has been instructing towards, and encouraging these first lead climbs. It was only a matter of finding the right route, and getting in a few practice climbs. There is never a ‘right time’ to do these firsts. Like having children, an analogy he used and I have often referenced, you’re never really ready; but you kind of are, and will make work that for which you are not.

And so, the conditions were right and there was nothing else to do, other than to commit. So I did.


Surprisingly, I didn’t feel the fear I expected. The butterflies were there, but very similar to the final mental checks I take before stepping onto the stage to sing. They’re always there, but easily accepted. The difference I noted right off the mark with that first climb was the focus. I immediately tuned out the background noise and centered my focus on each step of the task at hand. I know this because in reviewing the video kindly taken of this ascent there was lots of background noise, none of which I recall.

Each hold was deliberate, I was talking to myself. No move was taken for granted, nothing was ‘muscled,’ I wasn’t going on blind faith. I was in the zone, my presence of mind, my focus, was in the moment, only in that moment. I wasn’t afraid. Fear existed, for certain, but presence and focus were the predominant state.


I had to overcome some things during these firsts.

Gravity. Not the ever-present pull of gravity on the body, but rather the pull of the rope tied to me. On a top-rope the pull is up. The rope holds you from above, and so the force you feel is upward; you feel secure from that upward force pulling you towards your objective. This time, the pull was down. The weight of the rope was (psychologically, if not actually) substantial, exacerbated as you moved beyond the last point of protection. As you ascend, the rope is a constant reminder of the consequence of error, the consequence of losing focus.

Secondly, confidence. Whereas previously I might ‘risk’ a hold, or ‘muscle’ through a move, this was not happening with my lead climbs. If it was a small hold, a crimp, then I would ensure I was chalked and confident, before I would  trust the hold. No ‘that should do‘ thinking happening this time. Once that process of checking was done though, I would muster that confidence and commit. Exhilarating!

Lastly, trust. In top-roping, I realize, now, that I just trusted that the anchor would hold. Certainly there is some complacency in that. That trust disappeared during my lead climb. I looked at every piece of protection with critical eyes, I looked to make sure each hold wouldn’t flake or break. I had to get used to and check that I was clipping into my protection properly. Trust had to be established at each moment, it was not taken for granted. As I clipped into each piece of protection, I double checked, I asked for second opinions, I talked myself through the process, and then, and for the most part, only then, when I felt certain, did I let trust be established.

The Reward

Let me be clear. The first climb was an easier climb, a 5.5 rating, which indicates the mid-range of an ‘average climb.’ I had climbed it twice previously that day before I did the lead climb, and I had the confidence of, and a direct dialogue with my mentor throughout. The consequences were real – they always are in climbing – but they were mitigated well.

Charlie. Sage mentor, patient leader, friend

Still, it was a watershed moment. My second climb was a 5.9. Considerably harder, which 3 falls confirmed. Pride has no place in climbing. Ego is the enemy when challenging yourself. I had to ensure I was ready, and not just bowing to external, or ego-driven pressure. With those first behind me though, I am ready for the next.

I am so grateful for these wonderful, encouraging and supportive climbing partners. My story continues, a new chapter has begun. Perhaps my favourite part of all of this though, has been sharing the experience with one of my daughters. Truly, having her with me, watching her overcome the challenges inherent in the activity, and persevering have been my happiest moments.

“The mountains are calling & I must go & I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.” – John Muir

The promised video from my first lead climb (click image):

(📸 Charlie Cullen)

2 thoughts on “On Focus And Fear: First Lead Climb”

  1. Pingback: On Cold Immersion: Wellness Tool And New Addiction | My Java Journal

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