This article was originally published in June, 2012.
Just because you don’t actually feel afraid to fall does not mean you are completely comfortable falling.
It’s the uncertainty that gets us. We know we might fall, so at committing cruxes we hesitate, second-guess, slap lamely for a hold, or simply let go. What we need is more practice with the whole falling process, so we can commit 100 percent to hard climbing. It’s important to dial down the stress of falling a little at a time. Remain comfortable as you practice: don’t just climb up and take a big whipper. You’ll tense up and “endure” the exercise, further ingraining a fear-based mindset. Instead, use the following methods, which extend your comfort zone in small increments, just like any good “stretching” activity.
Begin by picking a slightly overhanging sport climb with a clean mid- or upper-section. Start with short falls in case there are obstacles you didn’t notice. The terrain should be easy enough that you can climb up or down without too much effort. Lead up 40 to 50 feet. At the bolt of your choice, stop and have your belayer lower you about 15 feet, creating a toprope scenario with plenty of rope in the system. Begin practicing here.
Your belayer should lock you off (not taking in slack) as you climb up a few feet. Now take a fall. Focus on your form: look down, with arms and legs shoulder-width apart and bent, and exhale as you fall. Looking down allows you to see your landing zone. A relaxed-but-ready arm and leg position allows you to respond to the impact into the rock, if any. Exhaling throughout the fall helps you stay relaxed. The longer your fall, the longer your exhale should be. Next, climb up five or six feet while your belayer locks you off, still on toprope, then fall as before, looking down and keeping arms and legs shoulder-width apart and bent. Exhale all the way through the fall. As you gain comfort, slowly increase the distance of the fall, but never climb above the level of the highest clipped bolt. If you begin tensing up, backtrack to shorter falls until you can fully relax. Once you’re falling 15 or 20 feet on a slack toprope, exhaling the entire way, you can move on to short lead falls.
There’s a catch
When you practice falling, make sure you also practice catching a partner’s falls. Belaying falls will help you understand what to look and ask for when you’re leading. If you are inexperienced or nervous about catching falls, you’ll contract and stay rooted to the ground, causing a hard catch and possibly slamming the leader into the rock. Instead, “give in” to the fall and allow yourself to be pulled up two to five feet or more, depending on the force of the fall. Don’t jump; let the force of the fall do the work. Practice catching people of different body sizes. Giving a knowledgeable, cushioned catch is critical for keeping your partners safe during lead falls.
Using the same rigging as before, climb to the high bolt while your belayer gives you a regular lead belay. With the bolt at your waist, let go, falling as far as the slack in the system allows. Pay attention to your form: looking down, arms and legs bent, exhaling through the fall. Climb up a move or two and practice short lead falls until you are comfortable and relaxed. Slowly increase the length of the fall. The belayer should be giving you a very active, cushioned catch. Exhale slowly all the way down each fall, and remember to simply let go, not jump out. Jumping out will cause you to swing more sharply into the rock as the rope comes tight. You can test this effect, carefully, to see how it works and improve your falling and impacting skills. At all times, the catches should feel very soft. Spread out your practice sessions over several days, and slowly increase the distances until you are taking falls longer than those you’re facing on your project routes. Incorporate a few falls into your daily warm-up routine. You can also do this exercise on a project you’re working on, practicing a specific fall that might be holding you back. If you discover that your project does not have a clean, safe fall, you’ve learned something vitally important. Pick a safer climb for pushing your limits. With a little time focusing on commitment to falling, you’ll improve your commitment to climbing. It may be too late to get physically stronger for this autumn’s projects, but a clearer mind might be just what you need to send.
For more on this topic, see “Overcome Your Fear of Falling,” also by Arno Ilgner.
To check out a pretty big fall, watch Leo Houlding whip off Pretty in Pink (E8 7a /5.13a or b) at Deer Bield Buttress, Far Easedale, Lakes (UK).
Arno Ilgner is the author of the bestselling book The Rock Warrior’s Way and Espresso Lessons From the Rock Warrior’s Way. Go to his website for more info.