I finally manage to grab a hold on this overhanging 6b+ route that I’ve failed to manage on the last three attempts, so I frantically reach down for the rope and try to pull it up and clip the next quickdraw. I’ve definitely got my hands wrong here, as I reach down with my right to clip the quickdraw hanging on the left. It’s awkward, and it doesn’t work, so I plummet down. “Wow, that was scary!” – my belayer says, looking at me with wide eyes. But actually, it felt sort of fun…
Those who climb with me regularly will know that I’m obsessed with fall practice on lead climbs at the moment, and I can tell you in all honestly this has really improved my climbing over the last couple of months. It has been helping me to deal with my fear.
Doing more lead falls was one of my New Year’s resolutions this year, a decision I made after reading Dave MacLeod’s recently published book ‘9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes’. An entire chapter in this book is dedicated to the fear of falling and how to deal with it – essentially, do loads and loads of practice falls. Dave says the fear of falling is the biggest thing holding most climbers back from achieving their true potential, and I completely agree with him.
But it’s not about doing a couple of practice falls, like most climbers do when they are first learning to lead. No, I mean lots of falls. Every session. At least 10, plus a few unexpected ones. Because you have to get hundreds of these under your belt before the fear disappears, or maybe thousands.
It isn’t a short-term thing, it’s something you have to commit to long-term. The idea is pretty simple: start off with easy falls, climbing just above the bolt you have just clipped and letting go. Then progress to falling off when the gear is just at your feet; then start climbing a little further and falling without clipping the next bolt. Then finally progress to climbing to the next clip, pulling out the rope to clip in, but falling at the last minute.
Yep, it’s pretty scary at first. But if you take it slowly and progress systematically, you will notice the fear subsiding, and your climbing will start improving. If you aren’t preoccupied with being scared of falling, you will start climbing with better technique. You will stop over-gripping holds and wasting your energy too early on the route as a result. You will start trying routes outside your comfort zone and end up achieving more than you thought you could. You will stop asking your belayer to take when you are still perfectly capable of pushing on to the next move. In short, you will become a stronger climber.
I started incorporating fall practice into my climbing at the start of this year, after I came back from an outdoor climbing trip in Morocco, and the following month I led my first 6c route indoors. Not long before that I was convinced that’s too hard for me, and even 6b’s often made me feel uncomfortable.
Now I’m trying 6c leads during every roped climbing session, even if I don’t finish them. And I don’t worry about whether I might fall off at some point on the route as much as I used to.
I feel like I’m not necessarily climbing a huge amount stronger now than a couple of months ago, but my mindset has definitely changed, which makes all the difference. And, this may sound a little crazy, but I actually have fun doing practice falls now! And sometimes even ones that I’m not prepared for…like that 6b+!
Ok, I admit, it certainly more exhilarating afterwards than it is when you know you are about to fall. You know, that type 2 kind of fun, where it is only fun when it’s over? But still, I have noticed a huge improvement in my fear. And I will keep working on it!
So to anyone struggling with fear of falling – and that’s pretty much most climbers, at least when they start out – try fall practice! I absolutely swear by it.
Start with tiny little falls, and progress slowly. Read Dave MacLeod’s book if my post is not enough inspiration for you. And even if it is – read it anyway, it’s a really great book!