How To Climb as a Wuss

By Zoe Holmes

A book's worth of tricks

It’s been a running joke among my friends for a while now that I should write a book on how to climb as a wuss. This is usually brought up after spotting me doing something particularly ridiculous. And while I haven’t yet developed quite enough tricks to fill a whole book, I thought I’d share some: I want to stress that these tips aren’t for improving head game - there’s been a lot already written about that (and the very point of me writing this is that head game is something I’ve yet to master). Rather, these are things I do to let my poor head game bother me less.

When I first started climbing outside my fear of falling held me back from improving and, more importantly, enjoying myself. I felt a lot of pressure to get over that fear, and that I needed to in order to be considered a “proper climber.” And maybe, if I couldn’t get over my fear, climbing wasn’t for me. Skip forward a bunch of years, and the fact of the matter is my head game, for the most part, still ranges from poor to terrible. But I really enjoy climbing and I’ve now achieved things I never thought I would. A big part of getting here was accepting I get scared easily and doing all that I could to make climbing a bit less scary. So I thought I’d share the things I do these days, in the hope of helping someone who’s in the same boat.

An excerpt from Zoe's logbook supporting her "1.5x rack" rule.

The Kit

First things first, the tool kit. I typically carry: a clip stick, my stiffy and several alpine draws/extra long slings. (And to any non-piss-easy trad route, it goes without saying, I bring at least 1.5x the recommended rack.)

Stick clips are a pretty standard piece of kit these days. But one thing that I didn’t appreciate when I started climbing was that a clip stick isn’t just useful for getting the rope in the first couple of bolts. It can also be a great way of getting a top rope up. Once I’ve got a top rope in, I’ll work the moves until I have them dialed and then go for a burn on lead.

My stiffy was a present and it is by far one of the best presents I have ever received. It was prompted by a short-person strop I had half way up a sport multipitch when I couldn’t put in a draw from the nice ledge but rather needed to commit to a ridiculous double knee bar chimney move to get it in. The stiffy is good first and foremost to open up clipping from lower stances when scared to pull a few more moves to get to the bolt. But it can also be very useful to help “french free” to get a top rope up. Everyone mocks my stiffy when they first see it but I can name multiple people who have subsequently gone on to buy their own. 

Alpine draws (and long slings) are good for extending draws. At an entry level this just involves clipping a slightly longer draw to a bolt so you can clip from a more comfortable stance. But this is only the beginning. Full wuss-mode draw extending involves clipping a whole train of extendable draws to a bolt so that you effectively half (or quarter) the distance between bolts. This may look absurd but it’s a great way of dealing with intimidating runouts. This is of course only possible to set up if someone has already been up the route. So I usually either enlist someone to do the route first and put them in for me. Or I clip stick up and work the route on top rope before adding these in for my red point burn.

For trad routes, even on my best days, I am a master of walking/back-cleaning cams. Yes it might be faff but my fingers/calves are nearly always stronger than my head so if I can have a piece above me, oh yes I will. (Many thanks to my patient belayers who have had to witness this over the years). 

Note the mega-extended draw for Zoe on "Loose Cannon" at the Dungeon in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Ok, but more fundamentally: timing. Predicting when I’m likely to have an especially bad head game and planning to avoid scary things at that time is one of the most important lessons I have learned.

One of my biggest revelations was realizing the effect of my menstrual cycle on my fear levels. Before this, I would have good head game for a couple of weeks and think I’d finally cracked this climbing lark and then two weeks later would be a jittering wreck. Now, I am very aware that my fear levels are typically highest in the week running up to my period. I use a period tracking app so that I know when I’m going to feel mentally stronger and mentally weaker and plan sessions/trips accordingly. In my pre-period peak-wuss week I usually find I’m best off working on refining beta on a project (perhaps on a top rope).

The other thing I keep an eye out for are sessions where I am likely to be running low on ‘psyche-amine’. Now I don’t know what hormones/chemicals are actually involved but I’ve noticed that after climbing something mentally challenging (whether I did well and beat the fear or succumbed) the next day I often lack the mental energy, the 'psyche-amine', I need to keep it together on something that might scare me again. On these days, I mostly feel like doing classic multi-pitch routes that are well below my comfort level; ideally ones that are adventurous and/or cardio intensive and/or downright silly to regenerate some serotonin. If this isn’t possible (say the people I am climbing with are set on going cragging or to get another hard multi-pitch in) then I just embrace top roping/seconding for the day (even if the routes are something that ordinarily would be well within my ability to lead) and refuse to feel ashamed about it.

Which brings me to the final point - people! Now this is obvious, but one of the most important things for me has been finding the right people to climb with. I appreciate I’m not everyone’s cup of tea so I forewarn someone before I climb with them for the first time that my head game is mediocre and I might faff around a bit (a lot). Then I try and find people who also like to work things/push themselves so things are mutual.

Some people might say that the approach I take to climbing deviates from the spirit of climbing. Or, it is self defeating and that I’ll never get over my fear with these shenanigans. I don’t have much to say in response to the former other than you can think what you like - I just want to enjoy climbing my own way. But to the latter I’d push back and disagree. For me this is a way to ensure that I get out and do lots of climbing. And by climbing lots my head game in turn is naturally improving.

Left Photo: Zoe climbing Extemporanée in St. Loupe, Switzerland.
Right Photo: Zoe climbing a multipitch route in Tour D’aï, Switzerland.

The Bigger Picture

My average climbing level is much better than it was when I started out and I even very occasionally surprise myself by climbing almost boldly. I have a whole host of harder/run-out routes that I never thought I’d get on, let alone send. But actually some of my proudest moments have been the few occasions when I’ve pulled my weight in a partnership and got a rope up (with varying degrees of style/bullshit) when a climbing partner who is definitely braver and stronger than me has not wanted to do it. Yes every one of those almost-bold days there’s one where I yet again fail to commit. But even on those days I’m usually having fun and am still improving.

The ‘rock warrior’s way’ might work for some people to get over their fear of falling - I’ve instead taken the ’wusses way’ to slowly, slowly make my head game a little less terrible.

Zoe Holmes

she/her

Zoe grew up in London (UK) but family holidays were usually spent walking in the mountains. She took up climbing when she started her PhD in London in her mid 20s. While immediately hooked she spent those years largely climbing indoors except for the occasional (usually unsuccessful) trip outdoors. She moved to Sheffield (UK) during a lull in the pandemic and there really started climbing outdoors in earnest. She moved to Santa Fe (USA) in September 2021 for a year and enjoyed the sandstone, basalt and granite the south west has to offer. She now lives in Lausanne (Switzerland) where she has a lifetime supply of granite cracks, hard technical limestone projects and long limestone sport multipitches (though she often wishes these had a few more bolts).

Header photo: Zoe approaching a climb in Red Rocks, Nevada.

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