Falling is as integral to climbing as climbing itself. At the same time, it creates fear that you must address correctly—and you must learn proper falling technique in order to fall safely. I’ve laid out a series of seven lessons culminating in a Facebook Live event where I’ll field your questions. So, let’s get engaged and explore this fascinating topic.
These lessons are taken from the recent online course I did with Climbing Magazine: Overcome Your Fear of Falling. Here’s the outline for this series of lessons:
- Introduction and history
- Falling is a skill
- Understand your fear
- Know your motivation
- Incremental skill-building
- Skills and drills
- Conclusion and ongoing practice
I’ll touch on each topic to help give you an intellectual understanding of the material. However, to really understand it, you’ll need more visual guidance and practice. Practice will need to be guided carefully, as in the online course, which is flush with pics, videos, interviews, text, Q&A, and more.
This series is intended to help guide you to the realization that addressing falling and your fears around it, is necessary and to also point you in the direction of the online course to inform your practice. The course is a small investment: only $55. That’s not a lot. A simple sprained ankle from uninformed falling practice can cost much more. So yes, this series is an effort to get you to buy the course. But, it’s also to guide your decision-making to purchase it. Let’s get into some falling history.
In 1865, the Taugwalder climbing guides—a father and two sons from Zermatt, Switzerland— along with the English aristocrat Edward Whymper and four others made the first ascent of the Matterhorn. Ropes at the time were made of hemp, stretched very little, and were prone to breaking. It wasn’t wise to fall on them—they were used primarily to short-rope or secure climbers over dangerous terrain, for snow and glacier travel, or to fix lines to help climbers pass difficult sections. There was also little or no lead protection. Occasional steel hooks were driven into the rock and the rope was “laid” into them.
On the descent, after summiting the Matterhorn, the climbers were all tied together on a single rope, spaced out along its length. While passing above the north face, one person in the lead slipped, dragging the others along. The guides and Whymper were in the rear; they grabbed onto the rock and braced themselves, to prevent being pulled off. Then, as the rope came taut, it broke between Whymper/the Taugwalders and the other four members of their party, who slid to their deaths.
The sport of climbing and rope technology have changed a lot since 1865.
Now ropes are much stronger and stretch to absorb fall forces, and falling is an accepted necessity for improving. There were many stages between these two extremes. Perhaps one of the most important inventions was the concept of the body belay, part of a host of rope techniques that the climber Robert Underhill imported from the Alps in the 1920s and 1930s. Underhill also penned “On the Use and Management of the Rope in Rock Work,” for the 1931 edition of the Sierra Club Bulletin, helping spread these concepts to the masses. In the 1946 Bulletin, Arnold Wexler and Dick Leonard introduced the concept of the dynamic belay—letting extra slack slip through the system to cushion a fall—in their article “Belaying the Leader,” based on their own research and testing on the small outcroppings around Berkeley, California.
Harnesses, too, improved over time. I remember simply tying the rope around my waist when I first started climbing, in 1973. Later, I fashioned my first harness from webbing, tying waist and leg loops. My first commercial harness was a Whillans Harness. It certainly was an improvement over my homemade harness, but was very uncomfortable when falling because the loose leg loops came tight in the crotch area quickly. Harnesses gradually improved until they provided security and comfort when you’re hanging or falling.
Meanwhile, hemp ropes were replaced with nylon, yet were still woven in the same spiral manner. One of my first ropes was a Goldline, and had the spiral weave. Then came the “modern,” kernmantle rope, which has individual woven strands creating a core enclosed in a protective sheath. Kernmantle ropes are much stretchier, making for softer falls.
There was also an evolution in climbing ethics. The old ethic of “the leader never falls” shifted to accommodate viewing falling as an integral part of climbing. Instead of climbing being seen as a serious, no-fall proposition in the mountains, it now included many disciplines—like trad, sport, bouldering, gym, etc.—in which falling was not only expected but even embraced, with slogans like “If you’re not flying, you’re not trying” epitomizing the new mindset.
In the next lesson, we’ll dig into how to view falling as a skill. Warnings:
- Risk: Nothing, not even instruction from a coach or this online course, can eliminate the risks associated with practicing falling. Accept responsibility for any information you utilize for practicing.
- Experiential knowledge: It’s important to realize that you know how to fall when you experience falling properly. This can only be gained from proper instruction.
- Motivation: Your mind’s achievement motivation can get you into trouble, pushing you to take risks that aren’t appropriate. So, you need to be wary.
- Best option: Get a coach to help guide your practice. We have a network of Warrior’s Way trainers across the USA and abroad who are experts on teaching falling.
- Next best option: Utilize my online course, which outlines the process thoroughly with videos, photos, text, interviews, homework, Q&As, and more.
- Worst option: Practice yourself without these resources. If you do, then do it in small increments.
Facebook live date: Monday April 6, 4PM CT on @WarriorsWay FB page