One of the greatest deterrents to progressing as a climber is the fear of falling. Here are some tips for how to keep that fear at bay.
Allow me to paint a familiar picture for you: Your hands are sweating and forearms are pumped; you’re 5 feet above your last quickdraw looking up at the next seemingly impossible move, all the while asking yourself, “Why am I doing this!?” Suddenly you’re over-gripping, repeatedly glancing back down at how high you are or checking your figure eight for the 10th time and nothing—absolutely nothing—can propel you forward because the fear of falling is too great. For some of us, this feeling disappeared early in our climbing careers, and for others, no matter how long we climb, there will always be that lurking fear of falling. Maybe you look at certain climbers and admire how easily they seem to fall. What is the secret you may ask?
There is no universal solution or secret to falling. The argument could be made that as humans we have an innate fear of falling. Most people I have introduced climbing to, or led a belay lesson for, mistake their fear of heights for a fear of falling from heights. I think this fear extends to everyone, and though some (Alex Honnold, for example) have learned to manage this fear in extraordinary ways, it is nonetheless always present. Here, we will look into different methods of coping with that fear, and hopefully give you more tools to push yourself towards that next move without the fear of falling encumbering you mentally or physically.
“The more you fall, the more you naturally become accustomed to the feeling. You also prove to yourself that it is, by and large, a safe and natural process of being a climber.”
Build Trust. A strong trust in the gear, a commitment to safety checks, and trust in your belayer are foundations for learning to fall comfortably. These factors—even when all observed—will never guarantee a comfort with falling, but can engender feelings of safety. There are certain times when we cannot fall for a variety of reasons, and these should be observed in detail at all times. Once those obstacles have been surmounted, you can start to fall safely, and often.
Fall on Purpose. I like to start my inside sessions with a “victory whip” from the top of my warmup. The term is usually applied to successfully completing a route and taking a fall in victory, but it helps me to calm the nerves and puts me in the right mindset when I start climbing at or above my limit later on. Mental fortitude and learning to just let go and embrace the fear allows me to fall at my best. The more you fall, the more you naturally become accustomed to the feeling. You also prove to yourself that it is, by and large, a safe and natural process of being a climber.
Here’s a famous example of a victory whip:
“The sooner you fall on a route, the sooner you can focus on the climbing and not the falling.”
Observe the Fearless. I asked around the gym for other tips and tricks people have used to negotiate their fear of falling. Josh Higgins—one of our most accomplished climbing instructors—had this to say: “If you want to get over falling, you need to climb with people who have no fear of it; we have a reasonable fear of falling, but we can be socialized for it to be the norm. Also, falling is a skill like anything else—both how to physically fall safely and being able to psychologically fall without fear. If you don’t practice falling, you are holding yourself back. All of this is in the context of a safe fall; your perception of risk needs to match up with the reality of risk. This requires knowledge and experience. Never stop asking questions and learning and you will be empowered and a better climber.”
Practice Makes Progress. Leslie, an avid sport climber and Mesa Rim member, says, “Falling becomes easier with practice, but it can be route-specific. Falling on one route does not necessarily translate to an easier time falling on a separate route. The sooner you fall on a route, the sooner you can focus on the climbing and not the falling.”
The secret to surpassing this innate fear resides in each of us. Therefore, we are tasked with discovering what will individually help us confront that fear. Find your breath; find your flow; find your mind. Listen to your body, listen to your fears, accept them, and let them be a part of the experience and the process. And if you need a bit more personal guidance, consider taking a climbing course. Soon enough, you will be falling as easily and often as Sharma on his most recent grade-pushing project!