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Falling - the forgotten secret to climbing

Posted on February 09 2014

Have you read tonnes of articles on finger strength and finger boarding. Have you been training hard and can do that one arm pull up or one finger dead hang (one finger pull ups are going to far). Are you just not strong enough on that move or were you too pumped. Are you great on bouldering but the higher walls make you jelly like. Is it your endurance? It could be but more often than not it is trepidation and sheer fear that holds you back.
If you are free soloing go well within your grade. If you are trad climbing or sport climbing maybe it is your mental state holding you back. Can you see it in yourself and deal with it or do you not even know it is affecting you. At the end of the day it is never worth hurting yourself for glory. Some may disagree but climbing is not all about going all out and pushing the grades. It has its place but being healthy enough to climb another day should always be high on your priority list.

The rhetorical question of this article  - "Is it better to push yourself to the level where you are pumped and fall so you are climbing at your limit or train effectively so you do not get pumped."

The problem with this questions is that the two areas are not separate. Indoors, in a safe environment pushing yourself to your limit might just be your endurance training and that endurance training involves a lot of falling. In sports routes the same is true but the area that splits people is Trad climbing. Before I move on I want to clarify that while ice climbing falling is dangerous and building to a pump where you are likely to fall holding ice axes and wearing crampons is fool hardy.

Some say while Trad climbing you never fall and the protection is there just incase. There are others who say you can't improve if you don't fall and it is just a part of the sport. These people are normally the best and they normally climb to a very high standard. Just think about the below.
You are climbing an E1 and your left hand hits a hold that is marginal at best. The rock is slightly overhanging so if your hand goes you go. You are about 3m away from your last piece but you would fall into thin air as you are about 30m up already. You are confident your last piece is bomber. You can't put in another piece till after you have made this move. Do you risk it, go for it and fall?
This is oversimplified. It depends on so many other factors such as how easy is it to down climb? In this example, assuming the rope is running straight, freely and there is no swing and nothing to hit. If you have never fallen before this is likely to be very scary and you might wish you had fallen more in more controlled environments (indoors). This fall seems safe. The fall factor is 0.2 (6m fall / 30m of rope) and there is nothing to hit. 
In this case an important aspect was that the piece was bomber. How often to we trust our equipment? It is important to realise that equipment works. It has been tested to very high fall factors but it still depends on your placement and this can only come with experience. 
There are so many mistakes you can make. On the above the rope could be between your legs as you fall turning it into a tumble or the karabiner could be back clipped. You really need to know what you are doing but with the right experience and the right judgement falling can be part of climbing. But if you are a few months into your climbing  and trying to improve by pushing yourself in trad a better policy would be to climb within your grade to ensure falling is unlikely and leave the pushing till you are on top rope.
A large part of it is your mindset. If you are stressed or unsure your mind will be taken of the job in hand and you are more likely to make mistakes. While climbing some of your safety is in the hands of the belayer but a lot is in your own hands. Pre climb checks and communication are key.
If you are not in the mindset I have seen suggestions that you should fall on purpose. I can see why this would work but it has to be indoors or on sport routes and you need to understand doing this will reduce the lifespan of your ropes and gear. It might help but it will not replicate the unpredictability of falling and your personal state at that point.
What it will do is teach you how to fall. This is very important. Don't push away from the rock or you will swing back into it. Don't lean back too much or you might flip. Always think about the position of your body before you fall. Avoid tangling the rope around your ankles.
I have found knowledge is power and helps you understand when you are safe or not. Nothing beats experience before you make these choices.
I would like to end this by saying that climbing relies on your own knowledge. This article is purely opinion. You could get hurt on any fall, even in a safe indoors environment and a number of factors could come into play. You have to be very sure before you get in a situation where you could take a fall. Wearing a helmet has its benefit's too as does having a belayer who can catch a lead fall!!!

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