Falling is essential for advancing as a rock climber. The saying goes, “If you aren’t falling, you aren’t trying hard enough.” To progress, you need to try moves that are at the edge of your ability—or beyond—and when you try that hard, you will fall. Toprope falls are the safest, but falling also can be quite safe on well-protected lead climbs, as long as you have good technique and a solid belayer. Before climbing into a situation where you may take a leader fall, assess the dangers: On low-angled rock, if there’s a ledge or corner below you might hit, you have to be confident you won't fall. Otherwise, place more pro or downclimb to a safer spot before taking a whipper.
How to fall safely
by Chris Philpot
- Warn your belayer if you think you might fall. Yell “watch me!”
- Shout “falling!” as you peel off. Don’t yell “take!” if you’ve already begun falling. A good sport climbing belayer will react differently when he hears “falling” versus “take.” In both cases, he’ll lock off the belay device, but if he hears “take,” he’s likely to step back and brace harder to keep the leader from moving at all, possibly creating a more jarring fall.
- Look down to spot your landing and any obstacles. This also leads to the best body position for a safe fall.
- Breathe out to help relax the body. Shrieking counts, though you may lose a few style points.
- Relax your legs. Keep your arms and legs slightly bent, with your knees “soft” and ready to absorb any impact. Think: falling like a cat.
- Keep your hands up, forward, and a little out to the side, for better balance and to avoid scraping them on the rock or catching them in the rope. Let your legs absorb the impact when you swing into the wall.
- Fall with the rope behind your foot or leg. That can give you nasty rope burn or even flip you upside down. As you’re climbing, stay aware of how the rope is running; your belayer should help by alerting you if you’re climbing with the rope behind your leg. Keep it in front of your legs and feet, or between them, especially near the start of a route, when pulling past an overhang, and when clipping. If you’re traversing, try not to step so your body is between the rope and the wall—thread your foot behind the rope instead, so it stays in front of you. If the rope ends up behind your legs or ankles, take the time to step around it and reposition.
- Push off the rock as you fall, unless you’re an expert who can see that shoving off might help you clear a ledge or another obstacle. Pushing off just throws your body out of balance and puts you in position to slam back into the wall when the rope comes tight.
- Grab anything to try and stop yourself. Grabbing a quickdraw, protection, or the rope is a recipe for rope burn or a severely injured finger. (Many climbers have lost digits this way.) Let the rope and belayer do their jobs.
Falling is a skill, and practice makes you better. “Practice falls” can ease the jitters before a hard climb, or cure a long-term case of the heebie-jeebies.
- Choose a sport climb (inside or out) on a vertical or gently overhanging face.
- Enlist an experienced belayer. You want someone you can be confident in, and who has experience catching falls.
- Choose a spot at least 35 to 40 feet up so there’s more stretch in the system to absorb the impact and there’s no chance of a ground fall.
- Start out with a few falls on toprope (meaning you’re climbing on lead, but you’ve clipped a bolt above your waist). Then fall with your tie-in knot six inches above the bolt, then a foot, then two feet. Focus on the “Do’s” of good falling technique.
- Practice frequently to imprint muscle (and mental!) memory.