It’s a scary thought, but some day you’re going to fall off whilst leading a trad route, either accidentally or when pushing your grade. It might be on a route well within your capability but you’ve ignored the fact that it’s damp; or you might find yourself off-route, high above your last piece of gear as your fingers begin to uncurl…
Thankfully, the whole falling experience is a lot more enjoyable in these days of comfy harnesses, clever protection and dynamic ropes. But not that long ago climbing was all about waist belays, jammed pebbles, and hemp ropes. The motto then was simply that “the leader must not fall” – the consequences of anything else were obvious. But that’s not to say that falling is without its hazards these days, however many of the potential problems, complications and injuries can be reduced by a little bit of knowledge and awareness.
Be like a cat
There is an art to taking a lead fall safely – think like a cat. Aim to land on your feet, legs bent to absorb the impact, and the rope running free – not wrapped around your leg. Gaining full control may be out of the question on those monster 50ft+ lobs, but it will certainly reduce the risk of injury in shorter falls. Sometimes, yes, this will result in injuries to the lower limbs, but better that than impacting on your head or back. Laybacks and undercuts hold special risk in this regard – you are already leaning back, and if you lose your grip, the friction of your feet on the rock may rotate you into a headfirst, backward dive. Even if you don’t normally wear a helmet, you could be well advised to use one for such a route.
Falling of a traverse can also be particularly dangerous. If you swing into a corner from 20-feet to one side of your protection, you’ll hit with the same bone-breaking impact as hitting a ledge in a 20-foot vertical fall. The critical difference is that you are “landing” on your side, potentially exposing vital organs to the impact. In a pendulum there is no difference between a leader and a second falling, so don’t forget to protect your second from this fate as you gibber across a hard traverse.
Recognise when you can fall
All climbing, especially trad climbing, involves a degree of risk. But the risks are not always constant, and many climbs have certain places that you’re just plain better not falling off from, such as the traverse pitch on Main Wall (HS) on Cyrn Las. Reducing the danger and inherent risk with well-honed climbing skills as well as protection is all part of the game.
Don’t flirt with the potential of a ground fall either, since these never end well. And remember that you can still hit the ground from pretty high up on some routes. A good belayer will keep you safe - so long as they don’t doze off – but with rope stretch and slack in the system, you may fall twice as far below your last protection as you were above it.
The most important principle for using leader placed protection is redundancy. The idea is to develop a system where you trust each gear placement you make while maintaining a healthy scepticism about the reliability of any single piece of gear. Try not to put yourself in the position of having a single piece, no matter how bombproof it may feel - always aim for quantity and quality. Placing more gear than seems to be strictly essential requires discipline and endurance but is part of being a good trad climber. If you’re having trouble assessing your gear placements, try some easy aid climbing - you’ll quickly get used to placing good gear when you have to commit your weight to it to progress.
When do accidents happen?
Many accidents happen when the bomber gear turns out not to be quite as good as first thought. Perhaps you misjudged the protection (this is quite possible for experienced climbers and beginners alike), failed to build sufficient redundancy into the system, or misjudged your own ability and gone for it in a situation where you weren’t well protected.
Don’t have tunnel vision
The most difficult decision to make is how to climb without falling when falling is a bad idea. For example, if there is one OK-ish piece between you and the ground and you just cannot back it up. Here modern trends can introduce bad habits. Climbing walls, sport climbing, and bouldering all emphasise moving up in the most marginal of situations. But beware, this tunnel-vision mentality can lead to you making marginal moves even though the consequences of failure are catastrophic. Sometimes a climber may not even notice that they’ve gone from “in control” to “high risk”, and they are blinded to both the need and the opportunity to climb down to rest, reappraise the situation and in some cases, retreat off the route.
Train your brain
Just as you can train for power, you can train your brain and develop a few skills to make trad climbing near your limit a safer and more enjoyable experience:
1. When climbing, be conscious of how and where you are physically in relation to the route and climbing surface. Learn how to recognise when you are getting close to your limit.
2. Falls on steep ground occur when the leader runs out of power and no amount of chalking up will keep them on the route. Develop an awareness of your “midpoint” - the time when you have to decide whether to make the move up or down. Select a challenging route at the wall and see how high you can get before downclimbing to the ground.
4. Develop the mental habit of filing away “retreat information” - this can make the difference between stepping down and falling. For example, when you step over a small roof, the holds underneath disappear, so make a mental note of any features above the roof that will help you relocate the holds should you have to back off.
Some falls are safer than others
It’s important to realise that on steep or overhanging cliffs with good gear, then taking a leader fall may have few risks attached to it – assuming your belayer is paying attention! But be aware out there - learn when to back off and when to push yourself - there’s a time and a place for both. n
AMI member Ian McNeill (MIA, PGCE) has been climbing for 20 years. He offers instruction and guiding throughout the UK and also runs a retail shop selling power kites and outdoor equipment in Barmouth, Snowdonia. See www.climb8.com.
This issue the climbing expert is the ever-keen Jon Garside. Jon is BMC/MLTE Training Officer and has been climbing for nearly fifteen years. His real passion is pushing himself on trad routes, so he’s no stranger to the occasional fall! Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q. How can I practice falling?
A. Choose a belayer that you have complete confidence in, and a venue where you both don’t expect to hit anything and have complete trust in your anchors. A sport climbing crag will work, or an indoor wall - but make sure you speak to the staff first. Build up very gradually by sagging onto the rope from below an extender, then progress to falling off just above, then maybe a metre or more above. Train yourself not to grab the extender as you fall off. And remember - you’ll always fall further than you think, so don’t be tempted to go too far above the bolt!
Q. Are rope choice and gear ripping related?
A. The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that all ropes have a stated impact force, and this figure will vary between ropes. The lower the impact force, the more fall energy will be absorbed by the rope and not transmitted to that vital top runner - especially important when ice climbing. The trade off is that these low-impact force ropes absorb the force by stretching more. Also be aware that any benefits of a low impact force rope could be negated by poor rope management - such as not effectively using extenders to reduce rope drag. You want the whole length of the rope between belayer and climber to be able to stretch and absorb the energy.
Q. Why do some belayers step forward to absorb a fall?
A. When a climber falls off, they often fall out and then swing into the rock, a bit like a conker on the end of a string. On big falls, this can end up with the climber slamming into the rock, with a risk of injury. But if the belayer steps forward and introduces some slack into the system then the climber should come to a stop as they are falling down, as opposed to in. Also, by having more rope in the system the load on the top runner could be reduced. However introducing slack in this way is counter-intuitive and only appropriate in certain circumstances (sport climbing) or maybe on serious long trad leads where gear failure could be fatal. It needs a lot of thought, awareness, and experience, since you don’t get a second chance to get it right.
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