Learning to Fall

» 21 November 2010 » In climbing »

You should read my disclaimer before reading this article…

Probably the largest single blocker for most people wanting to move from the F6s to the F7s, or into the Extremes, is footwork. I’ll be writing about that at some point soon. Fear of falling, on the other hand, is usually the second biggest blocker and waaaay more fun to fix! So tonight I’m going to discus tactics for dealing with that.

But Tom, I’m not afraid to fall

Sorry kiddo, I don’t believe you. At least, if you’ve not gone through the steps below, or something similar, then I don’t. Let me explain.

New climbers seem to fall into two categories, those who don’t think they’re afraid of falling and those who really, really know they are. What’s interesting for me is seeing how almost everyone I’ve climbed with flip from whichever category they start in to the other one within 6 – 12 months of starting the sport. I guess it’s not that surprising. Those who were originally scared tend to make continuous but small advances until they’re comfortable. Those who were originally bullish push themselves harder and harder until the scare themselves silly and force themselves to be more cautious!

Being scared of falling off is natural. It’s primal. So much so that ‘getting over it’ requires a lot of practise – enough practise in fact that by the time you’ve put that much effort into training for climbing you’re probably pushing the lower Extremes or F7s. Which leads me back to my original statement. Basically you’re either already scared, practised at falling and thus aware of how hard it is to really let go or you’ve just not scared yourself enough yet :)

OK, maybe you’re right. How should I fix this then?

Good question! And the answer, alluded to above, is simply to practise. Indoors at first then outdoors on bolts and then, when you’re ready, on trad gear. The aim is to get yourself into a position where you can climb close to your physical limit and be totally and utterly involved with the moves, without any part of your brain even contemplating falling (assuming it’s safe to do so). Any time spent thinking about falling is taking up precious brain power that should be thinking about climbing!

The BMC advocates a technique known as ‘clip-drop climbing’ – UKC did a good video demonstration of this here. For me, whilst I see what they’re getting at, it doesn’t really make sense. Why fall off when you’re right by the clip? You’re essentially on a top rope by then anyway. Why faff with clipping when you’re trying to practise falling? Instead, what you need to do is build up gradually, and then keep at it.

Step One: Less clip, more drop

Start at your local indoor wall. Obviously, before leaving the ground, make sure your belayer knows what you’re up to and and you’re happy with all your knots (although you should be doing that every session anyway!). Before you do any falling practise, it’s sensible to make sure there’s nobody climbing the lines on either side of you too. It’s also better if you can get yourself a more experienced belayer (or at least someone who understands dynamic belaying) as you’re less likely to injure your ankles this way. Get yourself on a slightly steep wall, bolt to bolting if you’re not used to climbing steep stuff, until you get 5 or so clips up. Get your belayer to take in and simply hang. Just sit there for 20 seconds or so and get calm.

OK. Now it’s time to go. Simply get your feet on the wall, hands on some holds, lift the weight off the rope and let go. Your belayer won’t have paid at any slack so you should just slump down to where you were before. Easy right? Great. Now do the same again, but move an inch higher. Maybe your belayer has to give out a little slack. Now just slump again. This time you’ll fall maybe 3 or 4 inches. Great. Easy.

Repeat, and move a little more. 2 inches, then a full move, then 2 moves. Then reach the next clip. Don’t increase the distance until you’re comfortable at the previous height, and by comfortable I mean you climb up and just let go. No stopping, no thinking, no checking your belayer is watching (you’re doing falling practise – if there’s any doubt your belayer isn’t watching you need a new sodding belayer!). The aim is to get happy at clip 7 (i.e. missing one clip, climb to the next one) then do a dynamic move into space. You’ll fall most of the length of the wall. This will probably take several sessions.

Lesson one accomplished. I guarantee the next time you go climbing you’ll push yourself harder and be better than you were before.

Step Two: Make falling part of your routine

Once you’re happy falling, do more of it! Falling practise as described above takes some commitment, but the session only need last half an hour. Making falling part of your routine takes considerably more commitment (and money, unfortunately. Don’t use your best ropes for this). I use a combination of the following three techniques:

  • Fall off every route: This is one of my favourites, but it does eat ropes. Never clip the top chains, ever. When you get to the top of every route, simply let go. Again, no stopping, no thinking, no checking. Force yourself to just let go and push with your feet. (If you get good at that, start missing the last clip too. That’s really fun :) ).
  • No stopping after the penultimate clip: You’re near the top. One last clip to go, then the chains. You’re pumped to all hell, and your brain is screaming for you to take. Not a chance. 6 moves to go, no chance of hitting the deck, what’s the point? Go for it, and you’re not allowed to stop no matter what. Can’t make the last clip? So what. Keep moving, what’s the worst that can happen? I do this for every single sport route I climb*, as a matter of course.
  • There is no take: This is kinda similar to the last one, but it counts for the whole route. We usually do a session of this every few months. The idea is to get warmed up, then pick routes either at or a half grade above your on-sight max. If you ask your belayer to take, they ignore you. That’s the rules. And if you fall off you immediately get lowered right back down to the ground, so you don’t want to be doing that either!

*unless I’m bolt to bolting a redpoint project, but that’s different, m’kay.

Step Three: Learn to keep moving whilst pumped

The next part of the process (and not really part of learning to fall) is to learn to keep moving up when you’re totally knackered. This really is the key, if you’re comfortable with falling you can keep moving without stopping to worry about falling off and who knows, maybe that next hold is better than it looks and you’ll get a good rest.

No stopping after the penultimate clip and There is no take are good for this. In addition, I use a couple of easy exercises to beat my body into submission:

  • Circuits sessions, which are great for endurance as well, but (and here’s the trick) make sure you end each circuit with a series of vertical moves. You want to be as pumped as you can be, sure you’re going to fall, but you know the sequence and you know you can climb it. Get used to the feeling of your forearms burning but keeping on moving.
  • Pace. Force yourself to up the pace through steep sections so you don’t get as pumped. This is much easier if you’re not afraid of falling. I can’t give any advice here as I’m terrible at it, if you’ve got some tips, get in touch and let me know.

Step Four: Push your limits

Now you’re well practised and not afraid of falling, push your climbing. Start onsighting a grade or two harder than you’ve ever managed to climb. Start redpointing, and go for the redpoint before you’re sure you can make it. Get yourself totally involved and totally committed to the route and just see what happens. You’ll be amazed at how much better you climb just by not worrying about falling off and letting the moves and the intensity of the climb wash over you. For me, this is as good as it gets!

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  1. mrtom
    01/03/2011 at 10:46 pm Permalink

    Practising falling is completely stupid and cannot be justified -it does not help the climber. We have banned it at our climbing wall because it always results in injury. When people first tried copying this ridiculous craze, I told them not to do it because they would hurt themselves, and surprise surprise, they did! ALL OF THEM!

    “assuming it’s safe to do so” -it isn’t “safe to do so” -you’re going to hurt yourself! and you’ll trash your rope, and cause damage to your quickdraws and the bolts. There are NO benefits to practising falling.

    Dynamic belaying?! -belayer runs across the floor as the climber falls -making the climber fall further (?!) and the belayer will probably trip over something (especially if outdoors) and then drop the climber. Not to mention the fact that the belayer is standing in a stupid position to start with, miles away from the wall, and gets dragged across the floor as the climber falls/loads the rope.

    Simple solution: Over time, a climber naturally gets to trust the equipment where appropriate. Trying to rush this trust will result in injury.

    Don’t be stupid! Just because you’ve seen American idiots do it on “Adrenalin Junkie”, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

    I’m annoyed that the BMC appear to condone this. -It goes against any common sense. -safety first.