3 Reasons to Stop Avoiding Falls

Climbing Issue #283, Cover photo by Andrew Burr

Climbing Issue #283, Cover photo by Andrew Burr

Stop me if you've heard this one. You got in over your head on a route and you're right in the middle of two pieces of protection. Panic rises by the nano second as you contemplate your options. You're too tired to make it to your next protection but you're also too tired to down-climb. There are no visible footholds in sight and all handholds previously spotted seem to have receded, leaving you clawing at what might as well be a slab of smoothly polished marble. You start to shake so bad, if your shoes had an ink pen at the toe box, you could duplicate a polygraph sheet. Your mouth is the Sahara dessert. Your field of vision narrows like you're looking through a monocle. You're cold and you can't explain why you feel so frigid inside but you're sweating worse than a guilty man at his sentencing. You look down and what should be a smidgen of slack in the rope from your belayer to you, now looks like 3 yards of angry colored nylon slack, waiting for you to take the scariest ride in the park. You've no option left but to fall and you're wondering why your stomach and your Adam's apple are fighting to share the same space.

When your fingers finally release, exhaustion and gravity tag team to hurl you earthward. Sheer adrenaline and instinct cause you to grab the rope in a feeble attempt to maintain control over something, anything. You squeeze your eyes shut like you snacked on a lemon. The fall is over in seconds but your back and your feet feel the shock at the end of the rope despite the stretch of the nylon meant to keep your body from snapping from the impact force. Your palms feel it next as you complete the impact with the wall; your belayer braced against your fall, feet firmly planted on the ground.

We'll do whatever we can to avoid falling. Scenarios like this and many others forever get cemented in our brains as trauma. Yet we still want to climb, because falling aside, we do enjoy the feeling and the challenge that we get from it; there lies the juxtaposition. We're caught between the enticement of the challenge and the unrelenting grip of fear when faced with a fall.

Avoidance is usually the easiest of the coping mechanisms. The moment our brain perceives the imminent threat of a fall, it triggers a fear response path that leads to resting on the rope early, which spoils the redpoint or onsight. We back off completely on scenarios which could be quite safe for falling but our brain tricks us into thinking there is a real threat of harm. The chain reaction then affects our ability to progress and we plateau; later we convince ourselves the plateau is due to a lack of strength and not a deficit in our psychological game. We train harder in the wrong areas and we go out again only to experience the same results. 

Fear is to be expected. It's our biological defense mechanism carefully crafted over a few thousand years to keep us alive. It's an alarm system designed to alert us to threats that could possibly result in a game over. 80 feet off the deck looking at a very hard piece of ground below, of course your defense mechanism is going to kick into overdrive. Our evolutionary design, for separating real from perceived threats, did not consider the technological advancements in nylon ropes and strong aircraft grade aluminum in its development.

Juan Rodriguez on Toxic, Smith Rock. Photo by Nicole Wasko, @nicole_wasko

Juan Rodriguez on Toxic, Smith Rock. Photo by Nicole Wasko, @nicole_wasko

So how do you get over the fear? That's the big misconception. You don’t; you deal with it. To do that, you fall. You fall over and over again until you become comfortable with the experience. You don’t have to like it, but if you want to climb on lead, it’s in your best interest to deal with it. Even if you chose to be conservative on lead, there are still variables that will inevitably pop up to make you pop off. Rocks could break; feet could slip; distractions happen; you could end up off route. And then what? The less experience you have, the more terrifying and potentially dangerous it can be. 

One of the fears that often comes up for people is the ability to trust that your belayer will keep you safe. Once you lose contact with the rock, much of the responsibility is now passed to your partner down below. That means we no longer have control and our brains and egos don’t care for that much. But, if the belayer doesn’t have much experience catching, your instincts are most definitely right. Sprained ankles and wrists, sore backs, traditional gear pulling from the rock can all be the result of hard catches. This is why avoiding falls could actually make it more dangerous for both of you.

If you were about to tie in for a route where you faced the potential to fall who would you want to belay you? The person that took one lead fall and caught one fall during their belay test and avoided falls forever after? Or someone who has caught hundreds of falls safely and has taken just as many falls during their climbing adventures? I would argue that someone with more experience would make me feel a little safer and more confident when faced with the possibility of a whipper. If either of those two people called out "I got you", I'd be more inclined to believe the one with more experience. Below are 3 good reasons why you should start practicing today if you plan to continue leading and lead belaying.

Climbing Issue #205, Cover photo by Jim Thornburg

Climbing Issue #205, Cover photo by Jim Thornburg

1) More is less. The more exposure you get to the art of falling, the less intimidating it can become over time. Practicing in a controlled environment is a great way to dilute the fear and adrenaline when faced with a potential fall scenario. A couple of the techniques you can practice are progressive fall techniques and breathing techniques to help you maintain control during those moments when your brain wants to take you from DEFCON 5 immediately to DEFCON 1.

2) Trust issues. When you practice falling (and catching falls) with a regular climbing partner you strengthen the trust between the two of you. Things such as reaction time, stress cue awareness, catch-timing, and length of slack to pay out can all be improved through regular practice. Over time, more of your attention can be directed to your climbing because you know you're being belayed by someone with increasing experience; someone whom you've trusted many times with your life and has proven able to make decisions that will keep you safe when the inevitable whipper comes along.

3) Sending in style. Experiencing the jitters when you are getting out of your comfort zone is perfectly normal. With practice, you can even use that nervous energy to increase your performance. I've seen many climbers get so worked up when they are faced with difficult climbing that they want the experience to be over before they even leave the ground. They are already anticipating how uncomfortable the harder parts of the route will be and the cascading effect that has on someone's confidence and self esteem is enough to ruin a perfectly good moment on the rock. When you are well practiced in falling, can make general assessments from the ground, corrections as you climb, and be comfortable even in the face of difficulty, you become a consistently happy crusher on the sharp end of the rope. Your entire experience transcends to something much more enjoyable. Rather than focusing on just getting the route over with, you can enjoy the process, and comfortably deal with the situations that would otherwise throw you into complete distress. You can then concentrate on climbing in a style that you can fully enjoy and be proud of because no matter the outcome, your self esteem will not suffer.

I've been climbing for nearly 18 years now but the best years have been the last 6 or so. Once I realized falling was a part of my roped climbing I didn't have to be terrified about and that I could use it to help my progress, I began to enjoy the experience like never before. No matter how hard you train physically, you are only as strong as your mental game will let you be. When you practice developing a higher level of comfort, and begin for the first time, to tap into what you are actually physically capable of, it's incredibly liberating. Consider falling (and catching falls) as if it were a technique, like any other, that should be practiced. Because of the greater potential for bodily harm, a class through AntiGravity Equipment could help you learn to apply the right techniques. We have a very fun, thorough clinic aimed at helping you understand why certain techniques are now adopted as the new standard in lead climbing and lead belaying safety. You can learn to belay with a variety of belay devices. You'll have an understanding of the physiological responses happening in your body when you're faced with a fall and learn techniques for how to maintain calm. This class works best if you can come with your regular climbing partner, but the instructor is happy to climb with you if your regular partner isn't available. Contact us via the form below to schedule a private clinic.

- Juan Rodríguez  

AntiGravityEquipment.com

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