Tip 11: Complete Guide to Falling

Calvin Landrus, SRCFC Director

Climbing Tip: The Art of Falling

When I began climbing nearly 30 years ago, the adage was “the leader never falls.” In the day of hemp rope and imaginary protection, it was life saving advice because the system would probably fail to stop the leader and most likely allow the whole climbing party to be swept off the face. Although taught to a “newbie” climber, this essential principle of the past was on the verge of becoming obsolete.

By the seventies, climbing gear had improved enough to safely stop falls, but the “style” of the time didn’t endorse falling. It was called the “ground-up” ethic – everything started from the ground and proceeded upward. When a leader fell, it was considered appropriate to lower to the ground, pull the rope (and as much protection as possible) and start again. The concept of figuring out a move or series of moves while leading was considered bad form. Thanks to a few visionaries, some of whom did so in a climbing vacuum, began to “hang-dog” routes until they were able to redpoint (climb to the top without falling) the route. And over time, the tide shifted. The advancement in natural and fixed protection have led to low-risk, high performance climbing.

Scott Milton in an article called “The Leader Better Fall” in Gripped (v7.04) said, “Obviously, the goal is to not fall, but if a leader is not falling on safe routes, then that person is not pushing themselves hard enough and their growth as a climber will be stunted.” Falling is never easy for two simple reasons:

  • It’s not a natural and an often scary thing to do.
  • It shows that we just failed.
    The scary part can be justified in some climbing situations, but many times it is not.

    Falling is a climbing skill that should be learned and practiced. First, always be aware of your fall zone. Your fall should be safe from hitting anything (watch out for small ledges, etc.). Make sure the rope is not behind your leg as this can lead to a head–banging flip, (obviously, always wear a helmet!). And, know that your belayer is attentive and gear placement is solid. On a route that is slightly overhanging where most of the rope is out (i.e. high on the pitch), take a few falls for the fun of it. Start below the protection and then slowly work to where the protection is at your feet. The late Todd Skinner, when freeing the Headwall on the Salathe’ Wall route on El Capitan in 1988, would start each day with a few falls. It was a way of getting the jitters out – 2,500 feet off the deck.

    The second part to falling is showing the world that we failed. This kind of “fear of failure” is normal and keeps most climbers from accomplishing as much as they can. On pitches where a fall may come into play, many climbers focus on the possibility of falling with all the requisite implications and emotions, and they don’t concentrate on the task at hand.

    For me, when I’m on a climb that is in my “hard” zone, the issue is often a lack of focus on the fact that I’m above a safe fall zone. Then when the moves become difficult and I’m losing my confidence in success, my mind begins to race and I get into tunnel vision mode. That leads to missing key holds and not looking to get the bit of extra rest that will allow for success on the route.

    In football, the decisions of the quarterback determine the effectiveness of the offense. When college quarterbacks transition to the pros, they often go through a rough stretch as they adjust to the faster pace of play. However, after a few years of experience, the game “slows down” for the quarterback as he is able to speed up his decision-making with confidence.

    As I write this first part of this article, I’m on a plane to El Potrero Chico, Mexico. I haven’t been on rope for over two months and normally, when I’m not climbing regularly, I’m not very receptive to the idea of falling. Adhering to my own advice, I’m making a decision to accept the possibility of “failing by falling” rather than grabbing a draw or saying “take” too soon. I pray that the Lord will give me the confidence!

    Land of the Free See More Pictures!

    After having a great trip, I’m back at home. My decision was first put into action on Land of the Free (10 pitches: four at 5.10, five at 5.11 and one at 5.12). The first pitch is 5.10d, near my upper limit for on-sighting (I had a rope gun for the harder pitches) and is slightly overhanging. All said it was a perfect test for me. The climbing was straight forward until I tried to reach the fifth bolt. The steepness was bringing on a pump in my forearms and the holds were getting smaller. I was ready to hang and rest, but I recalled my “point-of-emphasis” of falling rather than just “taking.” So, I began to work up through the moves, figuring them out and then down-climbing to decent but not great holds for recovery.

    Finally, I was ready to do the next 20 feet of climbing with the idea of sending it or taking a whipper. With much travail, I made it to easier ground and was pleased that I had pressed through. Although, I have a long way to go, it was a great first step in learning to fall.

    Living Thought: God’s Existence

    Have you ever questioned if God exists? I have. One of the reasons to question it is trying to explain the existence of evil. In a book exploring C. S. Lewis’s case for Christ, the author, Art Lindsley, shares that Lewis’ explanations for evil (free will, natural law and soul making) actually argue for God’s existence. Upon reading through those explanations, I was struck with the notion that the prospect of a climbing fall and its consequences argues for the existence of God as well. Let me attempt to explain.

    When we launch up a pitch, we are making choices that obviously have consequences. Lindsley writes, “Lewis…argues that in order for our choices to have real consequences we must make those choices in a stable and predictable natural environment.”(1) Would climbing be engaging and satisfying without the possibility of failure, injury or even death...most certainly not. Without the constant opportunity for victory or defeat, sending or falling, climbing would be meaningless.

    In the vast majority of climbing falls, the only pain we really experience is the feeling of failure. Those feelings would only exist if there is a consistent natural world to experience. Paul Tournier said, "If there had been no fear of failure, neither would there be any joy in success." So the fact that there is that kind of consequence in all climbing falls, argues that God created the best world for us so we can explore and experience our imperfections and learn to grow through them.

    Some climbing falls can lead to devastating consequences. Most are usually “operator” error but some are attributed to an act of nature or an unavoidable accident. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain, “Pain insists on being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world…. It plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.”(2)

    Later in his life, Lewis deals with his own personal suffering from the loss of his wife to cancer. In A Grief Observed, his thoughts move from sound intellectual reasoning to processing his own emotional journey of pain and suffering. Did he get all his questions answered? “When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of “No answer.” (3) In the Bible, Job receives that kind of explanation for his sufferings. Through a progression of questions, God shows Job the limitations of human understanding. Both Job and Lewis learned to trust God because the pain forced them to lean into Him, not away from Him.

    The last kind of evil comes from humans making choices. Lewis surmises that God could arrange the world so that “a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void.” Without the possibility of evil, there would be an elimination of all our choices.

    One of the biggest decisions all people will need to make is, “Does God exist?” Although thought and reason (including many ideas outside of this article) will bring many to the point that His existence is a possibility, a choice is still required. From the very beginning of Jesus Christ’s ministry, He was calling for a decision. In Mark 1:14b-15 it’s recorded that ‘Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"’

    Climbing is captivating because it gives exciting consequences to our actions with a fall being the most evident. Discussions and decisions about our view of God and the afterlife have consequences that are much greater. What is your choice? Are you going to try to climb to God with your own efforts or do as the Bible suggests: fall into the loving arms of God? “O my Strength, I sing praise to you; you, O God, are my fortress, my loving God.” (Psalm 59:17)

    (1) Art Lindsley, C. S. Lewis’s Case for Christ – Insights from Reason, Imagination and Faith (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2005), p. 56.
    (2) C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Macmillian, 1969), pp. 93-95.
    (3) C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Bantam Books, 1976), pp. 80-81.
    Continue the discussion at the Where Climbers Gather Forums.

    Date Posted - 12.28.13

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