Photo: Author, Paul Roberts, on Highway Robbery 5.13a, Mt Charleston Nevada
The first article in our Fear Review series, “Can You Trust Your Fear of Falling?” discussed how to identify your fears and distinguish whether they are rational or irrational. This discernment then allows you to decide clearly whether you should allay your fear and go for it, or acknowledge an unwise risk and safely back down. It should be an integral part of your rock climbing training, whether you are a beginner or advanced.
None of that, however, will make your fear magically disappear. We have to learn how to quell that irrational fear of falling when we’ve considered the safety factors and decided to take the measured risk.
So, you feel uncomfortable falling, right? Maybe you have a tendency to ‘take’ instead of going for that next move? Don’t want to move off of that comfortable rest? Are you unsure if you will be safe if you do let go and fall? Perhaps you followed the steps from the previous article and have run through a risk management assessment of the fall, and you know objectively it’s safe but you still can’t get yourself to take the fall or push through the fear because of the fall consequence. This article is going to outline, in four easy steps, how to actively work through diminishing your fear of falling.
Step One: Identify the Risk
First, use the risk management assessment framework to identify whether your fear of falling is rational or irrational, safe or unsafe. To move past step one, your fall must be in your personal acceptable fall range. This means that you decide ultimately; “yes, this fall is safe. I could take the fall and not be injured, or the risk of the fall is acceptable to me.” Train yourself to assess these situations as objectively as possible.
Step Two: How to Fall
When you are about to fall, try to relax your muscles instead of stiffening up. Take a deep breath and exhale when you fall. As you fall, put your body in a cat-like position with knees slightly bent, shoulders relaxed and down, and feet slightly bent with the soles of your feet ready to embrace the fall. Remember, rock climbing training is not only about getting up the wall; it also involves getting down (intentionally or not) safely! Getting “soft” in the body is key to preventing more damage than necessary to your ligaments, muscles, and bones. When the body is relaxed and impacts a wall (or a bouldering crash pad), the impact is absorbed through the muscles and rest of the body more easily than if it is stiff. When you fall, try not to twist or turn your body. Face the wall in front of you and brace yourself for a soft impact, using your feet to start the absorption of impact.
Step Three: Practice Falls
Just like any other component of your rock climbing training, the absolute best way to get comfortable with the uncomfortable is more exposure. So, the best way to deal with a fear of falling is to actually practice falling.
Note: if you start with too much exposure (really big falls) it may actually increase your fear and not be helpful. It’s best to train your mind with a progression. Shoot to create a large base of fall experience by taking many manageable sized falls rather than taking really big falls.
Before taking any fall, ensure that you are a safe distance from the ground and your belayer. If you are on top rope, do this exercise near the top of the route and never close to the ground. Climbing rope is dynamic, meaning it stretches, and you could strike the ground from a low fall.
If you are leading, start your practice falls at the 4th or 5th bolt, or at least 30 to 40 feet above the ground, ensuring you could take a big fall and not hit the ground. This gives you a large factor of safety and builds your experience (as well as the experience of your belayer) in taking and catching falls.
The progression works like this:
Level 1: Top Rope Falls
- On a top rope, ask your belayer to give you 3 feet of slack, then fall. Do this three times before progressing.
- Now, take 3 falls with 6 feet of slack in the system.
- Graduate your top rope falling by taking 3 falls with 10 feet of slack.
Level 2: Lead Falls
- Start by taking 3 falls with your last clipped bolt at your waist.
- Next, fall 3 times with your last bolt clipped at your knees.
- Now, fall 3 times with your last bolt at your feet.
- Progressively move above your bolt in 1-foot increments until you’ve started taking falls with the bolt 10 feet below you, leading to a 20-foot fall.
- It is important to pay attention to your breath, the feelings you are experiencing at each fall level, and what you are saying in your mind. This is paramount to your mental rock climbing training. Take note of what you are extremely comfortable with, and which falls cause more hesitation and discomfort. These feelings are where we learn our personal boundaries that we have created in ourselves. These are able to be broken over time with this progression practice.
Customizing Your Falling Practice
It is important to customize your fall practice toward your goal. If you’ve never fallen and only climb in the gym, doing this progression on your climbing gym wall is a good place to start. If you have a traditionally protected project outside and are scared to fall on the gear, do this progression on a safe trad route. Double up on the gear you are falling on (instead of one cam, place two for redundancy). This type of practice is more realistic and will help you progress faster by diminishing your fear. If you are scared of the big air and exposure of an overhanging sport route, doing the progression on overhanging routes is ideal.
Step Four: Application to Your Project
Customizing your falling practice to match the type of routes you are trying is ideal. However, this is not always possible. So, after you’ve built your base by working through the progression, it’s time to start falling on your project. When you reach this step, it is key to apply a risk management lens to recognize whether your fall is safe or unsafe. If it is safe, start with a slow progression where you take small falls first. Then, work up to your point of hesitation on the route and take that fall. I promise it will change how you interact with your project 100%. Your confidence will improve, and your focus at the critical moment will improve as your mind lets go of the fear of failure. I cannot emphasize enough, do not underestimate the mental aspect of your rock climbing training. It will change how you climb.
Learn more about improving your confidence at the author’s website, MindfulRoutes.com.
Remember, when developing a skill, first focus on establishing a foundation of experience in order to build a base of confidence.