Whenever people find out I climb they usually assume that I'm just not afraid of heights, period. It's not that I'm not bothered by the heights involved in climbing, it's that I'm good at not letting the fear affect my performance. It's kind of the opposite of fearless, actually; I get really focused when I'm afraid and get a spike of adrenaline, and I perform better. I can't speak for every climber out there, but I think that basically all climbers are afraid of heights just like everyone else—we're just better at dealing with the anxiety, remaining rational and performing in those situations. Climbing has the appearance of danger in spades, but in all actuality it can be a pretty safe sport over all (depending on what you're doing, of course). While it can be terrifying to fall on a tiny piece of gear, you also know how strong and reliable all of that gear is—which is why it's so freakin' expensive. I just watched a fascinating video tour of the DMM factory; a piece of climbing gear like a carabiner is traceable in the production process from start to finish, and inspected and tested some 15 times before it makes its way to the shelves.
Part of the trick to this whole head game, just like anything, is practice. Taking an intentional fall of 20 or 30 feet onto your rope is unnatural for anyone at the start, but the more you do it the more comfortable it becomes, until it can even become fun in safe situations. There's a balance of recognizing the objective danger of the fall, putting aside any visceral reaction to the height and exposure, and determining whether a fall is safe, whether you need to place more gear, or whether you might be in a place where you absolutely must not fall. There's a lot of thinking going on, so the most important thing is to keep a cool head.
Right now I'm on the upswing in my mental state as it relates to climbing. When I began I pushed and pushed, falling first in the gym, then falling outside, and as I pushed the technical grade on trad climbs, I began falling regularly on gear. It began as a simple matter of willpower—I would intentionally commit to a climb that I was afraid to lead on gear because I knew I would probably not make it without falling on the first attempt, but once I was on the route I was committed. I could either climb higher and try to send the route, or I could fall, and get more comfortable falling on gear. I felt strong, I felt in control, I was fearful only in truly dangerous situations, and it felt great.
The problem is just that I stopped putting myself in those situations; I stopped falling. Maybe I needed a mental break from it, but now I need to get back there for this trip to Yosemite for the big stuff. Hanging out in space off a rope 1,000 or 2,000 feet up a cliff is a mind-melting kind of experience if you don't have that steel built up around your nerves. The rope you're hanging on is ridiculously strong—you could probably hang a car off of it—but to keep reminding yourself of that while you're hanging on a strand 1 centimeter in thickness is no easy task.
The easiest way for me is through visualisation. I have to imagine how tiny of a weight I am on the rope, like a spider on a strand of silk. But the other day, as Anne and I jugged ropes up the 100 foot Castle Rock formation in Boulder Canyon, I truly felt the exposure in a way I hadn't for a long time. I have a long way to go, but at least I've been to my destination before, and remember what it felt like. I just need one good day, one day where I feel confident and bounce around and act as if the gear I'm sitting on is as strong as it really is. Once I get that back, I'm ready for El Cap!