Jus' tryin' to improveI'm not really sure where this belongs, I just wanted to share an experience about trying to become a better climber.
So like any alpinist of "good stock," I always believed falling was a no no. And when some sporto type tried to tell me otherwise I worried that if I heeded his breezy advice about the "importance of falling in order to progress" I'd find myself on dangerous terrain with entirely the wrong mindset. Like a movie where somebody on LSD thinks they can fly (cue the weird music and witness the horror).
But in recent years I've gotten tired of never getting any better at rock climbing, and at the same time realizing that is my favorite subgenre of this whole climbing thing. A strength of the position I find myself in is that I'm really, really solid within my difficulty range. Almost soloing-solid. That makes me feel good from an alpine point of view. But the problem is that the upper bound on my range gets ever more calcified. I become by degrees more afraid to approach that upper end, saving it for "special days," only when I'm "really ready."
Recognizing that if you aren't advancing you are retreating, I came across articles about falling. Now here in Germany, the climbing gyms are all lead-based. You don't have ropes in place to TR with, and in general the culture is very "anti-TR." In some ways that is a shame, because I think it affects many people the way it affected me: I just don't push as hard as I should because I'm squeamish to fall. And I hate ugly hang-dog situations where you grab holds from other routes, and generally sweat and cheat your way up something. For me, that reinforces the idea that I don't belong there.
The solutionSo, a couple of trusted friends and I undertook lots and lots of "falling practice." Fall often and fall short, gradually falling longer. Once you are safe from groundfall due to stretch, then fall at every bolt. Fall right before clipping the next bolt. Fall when you "feel weird" because the route sent you off to the right or left, and you know there will be a swing in the drop. It's funny to me, looking at how much I resisted doing this and got butterflies in my stomach.
For us doing this, there have been dramatic benefits: getting on a lead at your limit or beyond is no longer a fear-dominated experience. And we have absolute trust in our belayer.
I know climbers who claim to never need this kind of practice. They find it faintly ridiculous that I communicate a desire to take some practice falls. "Just fall when you can't hold on anymore, not before!" Good for them that waiting until that point is not a fear-dominated experience! But I'm different. If I want to climb without fear, I have to practice falling on a regular basis. The additional enjoyment I get out of climbing this way makes it very worthwhile.
Not for everybody, I guess!I decided to write this down only because I've encountered enough negative feedback for something that I find positive that I wanted to share my thoughts with other folks who might be traveling the same road. Indeed, some climbing partners may never understand and not be supportive of the idea. The other day I had a funny experience along those lines...
I've got two pals who understand the falling practice thing. One thing for sure, it doesn't just help the leader to feel good about the drop, it also increasing the trust in the belayer. Well another friend is a great climber and capital fellow. But he doesn't want anything to do with "falling practice." The sad thing is that for me, I worry (certainly needlessly, but still) about his ability to catch me if I do fall. Therefore, climbing with him means being conservative. And for whatever reason he is reluctant to fall when I am belaying him. We climbed in this pattern for a few weeks. Then he fell unexpectedly, on a route with about 3 meters between bolts. Unwilling to wait for the belay to catch him, he paniced and grabbed the rope, wrenching his (already injured) shoulder. He was okay, thank goodness, and I didn't feel a thing, though I was prepared to be lifted slightly off the ground to catch the fall. My judgement is that my friend lost the round: failure to extend trust that time will just make it harder for him to extend trust in the future. And therefore, harder to push his grade. Finally, even at a comfortable grade, the climbing experience will be ever so slightly more tinged with fear rather than expectation of delight.
Another thing I noticed is that this fear is kind of like alcohol addiction, in that you are never really cured. If I don't practice falling for a few months, I end up all nervous back in the same place I was before.
So that's why I think falling practice with your trusted partners is the right way forward. Happy climbing!
BTW, or p.s. - please don't practice falling on climbs with poor gear, or dangerous runout. The ideal practice ground is slightly overhanging terrain with bolts for protection. Watch for local "ankle-breaker" ledges. My essay above is not an instruction manual for how to execute a lead fall, it is simply a diary explaining my own personal motivations to practice the activity. For detailed instructions consult the books in the section below. You could get killed or injured doing this stuff without using the gray matter atop your neck, so please err on the side of caution!
For more information
- 9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes - Dave MacLeod's excellent book devotes worthy space to this topic and inspired me to follow up on it.