Hazel Findlay: fear of falling?

Posted by Hazel Findlay on 06/02/2012
Matt Segal trying, and falling off, Gaia (E8 6c), Black Rocks. Photo: Alex Messenger.

Can you imagine how rubbish Chris Sharma would be if he'd had the mentality of never falling? If you're trying to push your trad climbing without falling off then you’re holding yourself back, explains Hazel Findlay.

Often people ask me, or complain, about why they never seem to be able to progress beyond a certain grade, like E2. Is it because I’m not strong enough? Perhaps I’m not fit enough? I should train more down the wall; maybe if I go to the wall and do the blue one then that means I can do E2.

Usually though, the reason why people haven’t climbed E3 is because they haven’t tried an E3. Or if they have, they’ve backed off, sat on their gear or lowered down, mumbling a medley of excuses such as not being strong enough to do the next move, the gear wasn’t right, that they should have tried the blue route at the wall a few more times.

But these excuses simply cover up the real issue: no matter how many times they do the blue one, no matter how strong they are, the real reason they didn’t commit to the move is because they are scared to fall.

Fear of falling can be a problem in sport climbing as well, but it’s more the case on trad routes, obviously not without reason. Trad is scarier: there can be loose rock, more to think about and the daunting possibility that your gear could just rip right out. For beginners there also comes a point when you must decide that your gear is good enough and you trust it.

This is a hard decision to make, but it is one that must be made in order to fall. It doesn’t take a genius to know that you shouldn’t fall if your gear isn’t good enough. But knowing whether your gear is good or not is the tricky part.

However, there are a large number of cases when the leader knows her gear is good and that they are in a safe position to fall but, for some reason, this is not an option. It may not even be a fear of falling; rather the option of falling doesn’t even occur to the climber. Some trad climbers still believe that trad is a branch of climbing where the leader never falls, or at least avoids it at all costs.

This is the culture of ‘the leader never falls’ in the UK. I’ve travelled quite a lot and, I must say, there is a similar culture in other countries, but seeing as this is going on the BMC website, I’ll focus on the UK. When I go to a crag in the UK I very rarely see people falling off. For new trad climbers, not falling becomes the norm, which in turn further cements the idea that the leader never falls.

Granted, if you’re climbing Severe, not falling may be the best option, seeing as most Severes are very low angle and falling off would result in substantial skin loss, a broken foot or worse.  However, there are a lot of mid-grade trad climbers who simply do not fall. This is OK if you don’t want to progress.

Maybe you just want to enjoy climbing, enjoy being outside and don’t really care for pushing your limits or comfort zone. This, however, is in conflict with the idea that many people take up climbing because they want to challenge themselves. Some people also confess that they do wish to improve yet they still don’t fall.

There is no way you can improve (or, at the very least, you hinder your progression substantially) if you do not fall. If you don’t fall, then you’re not climbing at your limit. If you’re not climbing at your limit then you cannot progress. Can you imagine how rubbish Chris Sharma would be if he had taken up the mentality of never falling?

It’s not all about progression, but also enjoyment. One of the best moments I’ve had climbing was taking my first big trad fall. It was on Get Some In, in Pembroke. At the crux, pumped out of my mind, I had ran it out, hung in there for dear life, but simply didn’t have the beans. I fell quite a few times on that route, I think the adrenaline of falling and the fact that I was so tired was making it increasingly harder to climb.

But all that falling was exhilarating and eye opening: I knew that I could climb at my limit on trad. And this meant that for me that trad climbing could become no different from sport climbing: I could push my physical limit on both, equally. And, with the added mental challenge of trad climbing, I knew that this was the type of climbing I would enjoy the most, and tire of last.

With enough experience, falling on trad does not have to be dangerous. If you feel as though practising trad climbing is not enough and you don’t trust your gear, seek help. Either climb with someone who is better than you, study what they do, take their gear out and ask them why they placed what they. Or perhaps a better option is to take a course. Yes, it costs money, but you can’t put a price on enjoyment of climbing, or your personal safety.

BMC view:
This article is a performance training article aimed at experienced trad climbers, climbing around E2, who are looking to push their grade. Falling off any trad climb can be risky but remember that falls from easier climbs often have more hazards due to lower-angled rock. When pushing your trad climbing, at any level, a helmet is strongly recommended.
 



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1) Anonymous User
06/02/2012
Interesting and accurate article - thanks Hazel. I would add a caution which is to say that many people think that taking one or two whippers will do the trick and get them over the fear of falling. However if done incorrectly, it's very easy to actually make the fear worse. Good falling practice includes regular practice, incrementally bigger falls, but crucially, coupled with relaxed body posture and breathing. Otherwise, it's easy to strengthen fear pathways in the brain. If you're not sure how to go about getting over your fear, do as Hazel suggests and get some proper advice. Rebecca, Smart Climbing
2) Anonymous (author comment)
15/03/2012
This comment broke the house rules and has been removed
3) Anonymous User
04/04/2012
I think this is an interesting point to address. i climbed frequently for a number of years up to 10 yrs ago, my best was around E2/3 then, now I'm heavier, not as strong and out of practice! but I'm changing this! :) i do think a huge consideration for many is actually the cost of replacing the ropes!

You work on the basis that after 7-10 falls you have to replace your ropes, so this can become very expensive, something a lot of people can't afford. So not falling is the best option.

im interested to hear from Hazel regarding this issue as any advice would be beneficial to though's worried about this. are we to ignore the recommended fall max? do we have a minimum/max. fall register to gauge what counts as a FALL? when do you make your rope redundant? 15yrs ago if you had a major fall twice we would replace our ropes! has technology changed as such that we can safely take more chances? comments and replies most welcome.
4) Anonymous User
18/06/2012
There is a mechanism to gauge the severity of a fall, and rope manufacturers are required to state a rope's tolerance to falls measured against that mechanism - a bit of reading on "fall factors", and then of manufacturers rope-specific information will help understand about what's acceptable.
5) Anonymous User
28/06/2012
Have you posted this so we can proof read it?
:D
Thanks for the article-food for thought. Some climbs are safer to fall from than others. But this is what separates trad from sport.
6) Anonymous User
06/08/2012
I Am currently recovering from a very severe fall! I was leading a climb graded E1 which was my first attempt at this grade! I had three pieces of gear in, all of which I was certain were bomb proof! At 30 feet up I felt myself peeling off. As I fell all the gear failed one at a time offering little resistance and doing little or nothing to slow my fall. I landed straight onto my back which resulted in three broken vertebrae. I required surgery as a result of my injuries and was very lucky to have survived and to still be able to walk. During my time in hospital I spent hours obsessing over what I had done wrong, reading every article and Internet post I could find to try understand it. Eventually I realised that it was just an unfortunate accident out of my control and ultimately one of the risks of this sport we all love! Being scared is Definately a hindrance and so is over confidence. Finding a balance is what we have to strive for. My accident was the most frightening experience of my life but that fear is not going to stop me climbing again. It will take a year before I have healed enough to take to the rock again but I am determined to get there! I think taking the time to gain knowledge from more experienced climbers is Definately the best way to improve your confidence and your safety and I for one will be taking a few dedicated classes so i can improve on my trad abilities. Obsessing over grades shouldn't be the be all and all of your climbing anyway. To me it's all about enjoy myself, my surroundings and the people I climb with!

Good luck and enjoy yourselves!
7) Anonymous
05/10/2012
This comment broke the house rules and has been removed
8) Anonymous User
20/01/2013
A fear of falling is one thing that may be good to deal with but actually falling on a trad route can have a different range of potential risks compared with dealing with the same moves and situations on a sports climb. I have known of a handful of such events when an 'experienced trad climber' has fallen, on a steep route with nothing to collide with on the way down, but they have hit the ground, as their gear has come out.
Be careful as to what you encourage. Good protection is paramount; if a trad climber leader doesn't fall off very often their gear doesn't get tested much in this way either and perhaps what keeps them safest is that old mentality of 'the trad leader doesn't fall'.
Hannah

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