Falling is a hotly debated issue among climbers. Some climbers believe it is irresponsible to take lead falls. Others see falling as a normal part of rock climbing. Some believe it’s OK to fall on sport routes but not on traditional routes. Others don’t make this distinction.
All these beliefs have their merit. Falling can cause injury and avoiding it diminishes that possibility. Gaining experience falling, however, allows us to learn about it and respond better, reducing the risk of injury. Most sport routes are bolted to allow for safe falls, whereas traditional routes may have definite no-fall zones. Yet some sport routes have no-fall zones, and belayer or leader error can result in dangerous falls. Some traditional routes offer protection and fall angles that make falls as safe as on “safe” sport routes.
To make a rational choice about falling, it’s important to understand our motivation for climbing. Perhaps we simply enjoy climbing for the movement, the beautiful places it takes us, and the control required to avoid a fall. We like “keeping everything together” and not pushing to the point of taking a fall.
Or, perhaps we enjoy climbing because of the effort, both mental and physical, that climbing requires. We are motivated by the challenges of harder grades and routes. Consider that the former is a recreation-based approach to climbing, whereas the latter is a performance-based approach.
We all climb for different combinations of reasons, and almost every climber enjoys the recreation component of climbing to some extent. The problem occurs when we want to improve and also want to avoid falling. The bottom line is, if we want to improve, then we must find a way to embrace falling.
When learning a new sport, we need to identify the consequences inherent in that sport. For climbing, the main consequence is falling. Whether we accept it or not, falling is part of the climbing process. A fall is possible no matter how in control we are. A hold could break, a foot could slip, or we could get unexpectedly pumped and fall. Whether our motivation is recreation- or performance-based, I recommend we become familiar with falling consequences.
At some point we’ll be faced with the possibility of falling while being pumped, where our mind resists continuing. Mental fitness involves expanding our mental conception, and we simply cannot improve if we don’t push past what our minds think we can do. Being effective while climbing requires that 100-percent of our attention is focused forward. Fear of falling will cause a portion of that attention, perhaps all of it, to focus backward, sapping attention from climbing.
To free our attention from fear of falling, we must reduce the unknowns associated with our falls. We tend to be afraid of what we don’t know. Specifically, we tend to be afraid of what we don’t experientially know. Obviously, falling can cause injury. We must investigate falling in such a way as to learn about it and at the same time diminish the possibility of injury.
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Lets not forget the fall risks involved with bouldering. There is as much evaluation and risk, if not more (specifically rolling an ankle upon landing on uneven ground) for injury. It is important to realize that bouldering has its specific risks and eval techniques that are similar but slightly different from that of sport or trad climbing.
One main one being, evaluating your decent. I think we all have been excited on a trip and worked our way up a hard problem just to realize that now we are twenty feet off the ground and there is no easy way down. That the “V-Whatever” we just climbed was the easiest thing on the boulder and it was at our limit. Point being before you go up, figure out how to get down.
Another thing to think about is the top out. The point were you are highest from the ground and pumped. Sometimes the easiest way to top out is to trust a body position that puts you into the No Fall Zone. This is an awesome and exciting place to be, but also a little scary. It is also something that needs to be evaluated and either ditched or embraced depending on your personal comfort zone.
The landing and pad placement is the last thing i will mention but no boulderer need be told that this is obviously the most important. Knowing how you come off the rock is important and is sometimes harder to judge than people realize. Take your time and think and make sure you have a spotter who is aware enough to move a pad if it needs moving.
I could probably drone on, but the love of my life is making me breakfast. Peace.
Hi Jacob, How did that breakfast taste that the love of your life prepared? Thanks for pointing out the need for addressing these issues in the bouldering environment. We’ll be getting into falling more in future lessons. I’ll do my best to include bouldering concerns also. Thanks, Arno
I’ve found that this is not only a good thing to clarify for myself, but also to discuss with new climbing partners (or even familiar ones — our motivations change day by day) before leaving the ground.
Even things like clarifying that I won’t say “Falling!” or “Take!” if I fall unintentionally can help reduce belayer stress…
I enjoy reading your blog and emails. I think you misrepresented a few aspects of falling in this article.
First, all climbs have a no fall zone…any time one could hit the ground. Bouldering always has this potential. Recently, there have been a number of ground falls indoors at local gyms in my area. In door climbing is no safer than the climbers participating.
Second, not all sport climbs are bolted safely. Falling may not be an option on a climb. I think you have done better in the past by explaining that falling is an “option” that one needs to assess correctly. I recently took a whipper on a trad climb that was long and safe. It was not by choice but by being on the 2nd pitch, I was not going to hit the ground. I had plenty of gear in place.
Finally, climbers get injured by holding on in fear of a fall. In many cases, hanging on gear or a bolt is the safer and less injurious option. The climb will always be there in the future for a clean ascent.
Thanks for continuing the conversation and encouraging our improvement.
Hi Doug, Thanks for your comments. The point I wanted to make in this lesson (I probably could have been more clear) is how we can be “performance” based and yet still not embrace falling. I’m pointing out that we need to choose our motivation: recreation or performance. I’m not really saying anything about how climbers should approach falling, or even anything about yes- or no-fall situations. That will come in a few more eLessons. The first 2 paragraphs are simply general misconceptions many climbers have that hinders their understanding of falling consequences. I’m not advocating one way or another. Does that make sense?
Please reply cause I’m curious how the “lesson” for this eLesson got misinterpreted.
I think yes-fall and no-fall are simplifications — there’s always the “freak accident” in a yes-fall situation and the chance that the climber has made a mistake when evaluating the risk. So yes-fall really means something like 99.9% yes — but for some people at some times 99% is good enough and others need 99.99%. One thing this lesson may be trying to say is that we should decide where our threshold for risk is and make that simplification before committing — people aren’t good at math when they’re 10 feet above their last piece and people aren’t good at climbing when they’re trying to do math…