Several years ago, I was climbing with a new partner.
They had several years of climbing experience and appeared to belay with proper technique, but I couldn’t bring myself to take falls on them throughout the day, even on routes that I had previously felt confident falling on with other belayers. Each time that I decided to take instead of going for a move, I would look down apologetically. “It’s not that I don’t trust you,” I said, “I’m just having a hard time today.”
I wasn’t telling the truth.
Trust is built on experience, especially in falling practice. When we’ve practiced a certain type of fall, such as a fall on vertical terrain with few obstacles, we develop trust in our bodies to execute the fall properly, which begins to diminish fear. Over time, as we take more falls in that terrain, our trust grows. The same is true for working with a new belayer. When we haven’t practiced falling with someone, it makes sense that our body feels nervous about falling. There are unknowns, even with a skilled belayer.
How much slack will they be leaving out?
Do they know how to give a cushioned catch to someone my size?
Will they take quickly if I ask for a take or will they try to convince me to ‘go for it’?
Practicing incremental falling with a new belayer allows us to develop trust over time, which makes it easier to commit to challenging sequences when it matters.
To practice falling with a new belayer, remember to start at the beginning. This isn’t about taking a huge whip on the belayer to test them; rather, it’s about starting in the comfort zone and working one step at a time, the same way that you would practice on new terrain.
To start, you can practice taking and doing impact drills, pushing away from the wall and coming in soft. As this becomes comfortable, you can practice taking one step up into slack for small top-rope falls, giving feedback to the belayer on their catches and monitoring your own comfort level by paying attention to the breathing-eyes-body technique.
Once you’ve developed trust there, you can take steps into the lead.
This method develops the lived experience of being caught well, which deepens your relationship with the partner.
Not comfortable telling your partner that you need to develop trust with them?
You can always simply let them know that falling is a skill that you are working on and ask them for their support to do a few falls during the warmup. Most people will be excited to be able to support your process and may get curious about practicing the process themselves!