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I'm learning to lead climbs, and I'm terrified of big falls. Part of this is learning to trust my gear placements, but a large portion is because I don't know how to fall - I've only taken small falls (while top-roping). This has an adverse effect on my climbing - I pump out very early while placing gear, and place too much, because being even a little above protection is very scary.

Is 'learning to fall' something that climbers do through practise or through on-the-job training, as it were?

This isn't something I've seen addressed much. Is there a 'good fall' technique for lead climbing? Are there things during the fall I should be doing?

How does one deliberately set about learning how to cope with big falls - higher fall factor than top-roping generally allows?

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The traditional saying among mountaineers is that "the leader must never fall." This idea that falls are a part of the sport is more of a modern sport-climbing thing, and it's a philosophy that is more well suited to gym climbing and bolted sport routes. Trad gear does fail sometimes. It's perfectly sensible to place lots of gear for redundancy. If you read Accidents in N. Am. Mountaineering, you'll see descriptions of situations where nuts and cams just pull out, one after another, like a zipper. Someone died last month at Joshua Tree when her redundant trad anchor failed under body weight. –  Ben Crowell May 9 at 20:31

4 Answers 4

You will learn to fall through practice however there are some important points to consider:

  1. While climbing DO NOT let the rope wrap/run around/behind your leg(s), when you fall you will flip upside down! Therefore always know where the rope is!

  2. DO NOT Kick/Push off the wall, you will only pendulum back into it harder!!!

  3. Always know where on the route you are; have you climbed above a roof and not placed any gear yet? Are you going to take an awkward swing? Are you going to hit the deck?

Is there good technique for a fall? Yes, feet out with knees slightly bent ready for impact hands up and slightly out elbows slightly bent. You'll want to be prepared to protect your face/head if need be. Do not hold gear or make some last desperate attempt to jam a finger into a pocket, it will get stuck and your climbing season will be over. If you know you're going to fall, take it and keep it clean.

If you have access to a sport climb and/or a gym Lead climb some routes that are of a hard difficulty for you in order to guarantee a fall. When I was learning to Lead my belayer was an experienced German climber, every time I said "TAKE, I'm going to fall" he would pay out slack and yell "Climb On!". I would then freak out and down climb to the last draw and yell "TAKE!" again. It was all in my head, if I could down climb six holds I could have taken 3 seconds to clip the draw. It's all in your head, get over it! Take a big fall learn what it's like and you will be prepared! Practice on an inclined route as big falls will generally end with you landing in mid air, you don't need to worry about the hands and feet as much but you'll get a good feeling of big falls.

In terms of preventing a fall, my personal recommendation is BREATHE! Practice your breathing technique, you will get less pumped and remain calmer.

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Good hints but I always thought it's good to push off the wall to prevent hitting the wall/handholds with your body or face. Of course you swing back into the wall but you will be more prepared then and you are able to absorb some energy with what I would call a push-up-position (arms and legs to the wall). How strong you push off the wall depends on the wall itself (slope, structure). –  EverythingRightPlace May 9 at 6:49
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@bashophil You will get way from the wall all by yourself just because your center of mass is not directly on the wall. If you push away from the wall, you will just hit it harder when you swing back to it. –  Benedikt Bauer May 9 at 9:01
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Ha, ha love the story about paying out slack. –  Liam May 9 at 9:17
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I loved the part on paying out slack. When I started leading (sport climb), my climbing friends had the habit of taking a lead fall on the first climb. It was part of the warm-up and it was preparing you mentally for the rest of the session. Sometimes it was mid-way a climb, sometimes at the end of it, simply not clipping the anchor and letting go. It always set the right mood. We tried to pick an overhand wall when available. –  Miguel Madero May 10 at 3:36
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I like this. As a friend of mine would say, "Take out the trash!" Mentally, clear your mind and stop thinking about it and just do it. Make the move and don't worry about falling. Stay loose and stay relaxed. –  manoftheson May 10 at 3:52

Is 'learning to fall' something that climbers do through practice or through on-the-job training, as it were?

A little of both. You can go to your local gym or outside on routes that you feel comfortable climbing and once you get a few feet above a solid bolt or bomber piece of gear, let go. Read this article on practicing falling, and this one. Since you know you're going to fall, the fall won't feel the same as a surprise lead fall, but you can learn how to relax and react. You can continue doing this on various types of climbs (slab, crack, overhang, etc.) to get the hang of falling. After some practice, try pushing your limits (safely) on a project to get over the psychological aspect of falling. If falling is all you are thinking about when you're climbing, you won't enjoy the climb and you are much more likely to actually take a fall.

This isn't something I've seen addressed much. Is there a 'good fall' technique for lead climbing? Are there things during the fall I should be doing?

The biggest things are relaxing, knowing where your rope should be in relation to your feet based on the last piece of gear, not fighting it once it's happened, don't grab the rope, don't grab gear, and being aware of your surroundings (i.e., potential obstacles you can hit if you should take a fall). Depending on what kind of climbing you're doing (slab, crack, overhanging, etc.), there are specific things you should be aware of.

Slab

First, a fall on low-angled slab is usually unpleasant even if you do everything right. However, in the event you do:

  1. If it is steep enough, pat your way down with both your hands and feet. It's all about keeping everything off the wall as much as possible and not catching on anything on the way down.

  2. If it's lower angled, skip down with your feet (do not jump, just light touches). Try to keep your balance and keep your feet moving and keep your knees bent so they ease the impact along the way and when you finally come to a stop.

Regardless of the type of slab, avoid any prolonged contact with the rock, try to avoid getting caught on anything, and if you ever get flipped as you're falling, tuck and roll.

Crack

Avoid any jams that might not come out if you fall so you don't break something or get flipped. If it's a wide crack (off-width), you may need to apply the same types of techniques for falling as you would climbing slab.

Overhang

Avoid any jams or positions that will keep you from taking a clean fall. Watch your footwork and hands so you don't get in a position that will cause you to flip or get caught in the rope. If you're falling into a wall, relax the knees and elbows to soften the impact.

How does one deliberately set about learning how to cope with big falls - higher fall factor than top-roping generally allows?

Practice and experience. Find some safe projects to push your limits on. Climb routes you are comfortable on, but place one less piece of gear. The biggest thing is learning to trust yourself and your gear. As you lead more, you'll start to develop the right mindset for it.

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Excellent answer. I think it's important to take the different kinds of climbing into account. –  EverythingRightPlace May 13 at 5:53

Just two small addenda to the great answers from AM_Hawk and JPDurham:

Look down.

This advice seems obvious, but if you don't specifically train yourself to do this, you might not do it when you take an unexpected fall.

Know where on the route you should absolutely not fall.

Both answers kind of mention this, but I thought it was important to state it separately. These are four situations that I thought of on the spot, but there are definitely more (some of these expand on AM_Hawk's third point):

  • When casting off to lead a pitch and you would sustain a factor two fall because you have not place a Jesus Nut.
  • When falling would result in decking from a significant height either onto a ledge or the ground. This one seems obvious, but keep in mind that sometimes normal slack in the belay system and clipping high can result in falls that are unexpectedly long.
  • When a fall would result in a pendulum impacting with a wall close to the lowest point of the pendulum motion. At this point you are moving sideways with the same velocity as if you had fallen straight down. What makes this situation dangerous is that you are likely to impact with the side of your body, which is not at all equipped to absorb and impact. Expect a broken pelvis or worse!
  • On loose rock where a fall could result in rock fall triggered by you or your rope.
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Great answers here, to add a single (non comprehensive) point I've learned through a dozen or so good falls I've taken or caught: as long as your not at risk of decking (either ground or ledge), and your belay is comfortable, give your belayer some room to move.

We've often tied the belayer in with a few feet of slack so the belayer is pulled up (and can even give a little jump late in the catch, especially on a clean 90 degree wall). Doing this will avoid that abrupt jerk when the rope comes taught. It's that abrupt jerk that pendulums you into the rock at an uncomfortable pace (and can break ankles).

You fall a few extra feet (which comes with risks if you're not on a clean 90 degree wall, so consider your particular situation), but it really softens the catch. However the belayer definitely has to be aware that they'll be pulled off their feet, and need to be in a comfortable position to accommodate this.

We often like to tie into the anchor using a bite in the rope on our multi-pitch routes. Easy tie-in, and you can easily set the slack the belayer has.

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