Falling for Climbing

By: Aleks Shineleva

Preacher's Daughter (5.11). Red River Gorge. Photo by: Alex Drew

Preacher’s Daughter (5.11). Red River Gorge. Photo by: Alex Drew

It’s been nearly a decade since I first started climbing. I fell in love with it from day one and it became more than just a hobby. It’s my life, it’s my escape, it’s my frustration and it is my first love. The longest relationship I have ever been in. We’ve had good days, we’ve had great days. Climbing and I have had days that ended in tears (my tears)  and me screaming “I quit!” in it’s laughing smug fucking face. I’ve been so mad at myself, and at climbing, that people thought I was absolutely bonkers, but I’ve always came back to it, and it always took me back, forgiving me for my tantrums, and shameless expectations of success.

I’m a committed boulderer, involved in a complicated relationship with sport climbing. I’ve always sport climbed, but I have never been any good at it. Clipping bolts is awesome, and I’ve been to the Red every year for the last 6+ years trying to improve. Mostly trying to improve my “head game”. Sport climbing and being on the sharp end has always been fun, but it has also always been terrifying. Every climb is a battle, mostly mental, which becomes physical because I fuck up beta and over grip like a mother fucker.

To make you, reader, understand, every route I climb, I am convinced that I’m going to die. You would ask :“Why in the world would you keep doing it then?!” The answer is:” I don’t know”. What I do know, is that every time I come back to the ground alive, to me, it means I’ve cheated death and I might as well have another go at it.  Perhaps, next time it will be less scary and maybe I will finally convince myself to climb properly and unafraid. Perhaps if I do, well then I can stop tormenting myself and  those around me. I’ve lost count how many people shake their heads at me, roll their eyes, or offer never-ending advice of how I should live my life.


I  will climb up into and out of crux moves for ages, longer even that it would take me to commit and do a proper move. I can rest on the wall for days, (I warn my belayers that it might be a while, so they have a fair chance of bailing….same way I will bail out of a crux for thirty minutes), but committing to a move that may end up in a fall (fail) is not an option. It really should be an option, since in my brain I understand that it is exactly what is holding me back from progress. My crippling fear of falling.

Knee bar AND heel hook rest?! Burlier's Bane (5.12a). Red River Gorge. Photo by: Shelma Jun

Knee bar AND heel hook rest?! Burlier’s Bane (5.12a). Red River Gorge. Photo by: Shelma Jun

It’s been a struggle to push myself past it. Instead of progressing as a climber, I’ve been maintaining at a safe level that staggered my growth at sport climbing. There is no sign of improvement because of a paralyzing fear of falling that causes me  anxiety and also causes anxiety to my anxiety. In my mind, I know I’m being ridiculous and my fears are not real, however as soon as I get on the wall, those fears become ‘oh so very real’ and I am ‘oh so very very scared’.

In the past, I’ve sat in my harness dangling off a wall, refusing to climb, to the point where, at some point, my partner threatened to just tie me off at a tree to make me move. I didn’t move. I folded my hands and assumed a meditating buddha in a lotus pose, and then I lowered off, defeated and embarrassed. I failed. Again.

Climbing lessons translate into life, and I always think, regardless of how cheesy it may sound, that failure in the sport is directly affecting how I go about my everyday life. I tell people that to learn, it’s ok to fail because it is the best way to learn, but then I don’t take my own advice. Goddamn hypocrite.

I hate being scared, but what I hate even more, is not being in control, and being a hypocrite, naturally.

Buddha Hole (5.11d). Red River Gorge. Photo by: Shelma Jun

Buddha Hole (5.11d). Red River Gorge. Photo by: Shelma Jun

A few months ago, climbing wanted to have a talk, it called and left a message. It was time to talk about where we were in our relationship. We’ve been together for a long time, we’ve become complacent with each other, things have been too familiar and too repetitive, thing have gotten stale. Climbing asked if I’d be open to try something new, perhaps introduce a new element into our relationship, to spice things up.

We’ve had a long and difficult conversation, but our love is strong, so I agreed to try this new thing. It would be on my terms, and I could always say no if I felt uncomfortable. We decided to introduce falling into our relationship. We agreed to start out slow, small, safe falls.

It wasn’t easy. I was reluctant to bring falling into our safe relationship, but climbing convinced me to trust it and to trust myself. The first time I fell, I was terrified.  The second time we did it,  the fear did not go away, it  was definitely there, but I felt a little bit more comfortable in it’s presence.. We did it again. With each fall, it felt a little more  natural.

Jokes and sexual innuendos aside, to an outsider, it just looked like a regular climber, taking regular lead falls, but to me, inside my own head, I was screaming bloody murder, arguing and pleading for my life to not be over. In my heart, I know that a two foot fall I just took, willingly, will surely kill me. It may not kill me right away,  I will definitely flip upside down, break both of my ankles, somehow I will manage to get the rope caught on something sharp,it will be cut and I will plummet to my death. Oh My God. I’m insane. Again, to an outsider-crickets are singing songs and birds are chirping.

All of my friends would always say: “just fall, it’s not a big deal…you will be fine, everyone does it…”, but it is a big deal. It was a big deal. It took me years to allow myself to fall, to try something new in my relationship with climbing, and now that I finally have, I feel liberated. Falling wasn’t a failure, it was a commitment to allowing myself to let go of my fear and do what I love. I wanted to see what is on the other side of that fear that has been so fucking crippling for such a long time. The reward was enormous. The reward IS enormous.I can finally climb, instead of trying not to fall. My face no longer hurts from shutting my eyes and tensing every muscle in my body preparing for my imminent doom. I am not being dramatic. Actually, my face still hurts, because I still do it, occasionally I let out a yelp or a full on animal grow that scares the shit out of people, myself included.. I can’t control it, it just happens. Sorry people.

Ro Shampo (5.12a). Red River Gorge. Photo by: Shelma Jun

Ro Shampo (5.12a). Red River Gorge. Photo by: Shelma Jun

Climbing and I are taking our relationship to a new level and I can not be more excited. We are open and honest with each other and  it has brought us closer. Falling is not failing, and falling leads to success. I really believe that.  However, if anyone ever tells you that if you take a couple of falls, you will forever be cured of the fear of falling, you can call them a fucking liar straight to their face. Concurring that fear takes repetitive and determined training. That fear sneaks right back in if you do not practice it and keep it under control.

I fear the fear less, but I still struggle sometimes with the confidence that my fall will be safe, which holds me back. I work on it always, and as a matter of fact, I will be taking practice falls forever to keep that shit under control.

It is my believe, that fear is healthy and is necessary for us as humans, however our ability to conquer or at least to tame that fear, is what truly makes us human, and is what truly makes each and everyone one of us absolutely incredible.

That’s right, I’m incredible. I said it.

You are also incredible, so go conquer a fear and have an awesome day, climb something and take a giant safe fall that will scare the shit out of you and at the end will make you laugh!

I love you climbing, thank you for convincing me to try something new to make our love even stronger.



aleks (1)

ALEKS I’m a Russian queen raised with Brooklyn rage. In 2007, my friend Sara introduced me to bouldering and I thought it was the stupidest thing ever. Until I grew obsessed w/ getting to the top, which I finally did. The triumph that followed cannot be described. My skin was trashed, butt sore, it was a tiny boulder, but it was beautiful and forever addicting. Hello, I’m Aleks, and I’m an addict. Let’s go shred the gnar, ladies!

One Response to “Falling for Climbing

  • Lillian
    4 years ago

    Thanks so much for sharing! This sums up my relationship with climbing perfectly and is super motivating to have a summer fling with falling! Keep crushing!

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