Saturday, 15 May 2010

Learning to Fly

F**k! No bloody holds. My feet scrabble for purchase on the rounded bulges beneath me as I frantically search the top of the crag for something to grab on to. Nothing; the top is rounded and I just can’t get my body weight high enough to pull over. Fearful of committing to the top out I make to decision to try and down-climb, but the holds are rounded and extremely difficult to reverse.


I don’t really remember what happened next, I must have slipped. No fear, no life flashing before my eyes, I was not really aware what had happened until it was all over. It was a big fall about fourteen meters, almost half way down the crag and a heavy landing as the ropes pulled taught and my gear stopped me and swung me into the crag.

The fall, Upper Teir, Roaches.

Bruised and very shaken what I did next probably saved my climbing career. I knew I had to climb to the top of the crag, if I allowed myself to be lowered to the ground I may never have had the courage to climb again. I grabbed hold of the rock and slowly pulled myself up the crag via an easier route past the no. 10 nut which had saved by life now irretrievably jammed in the crack.

Despite this, this event back in 2007 still effects my climbing; I have a real difficulty in pushing myself if there is any chance of taking a fall. Falling however is part of climbing but faced with a move I’m not sure if I can do I often can’t commit preferring to back of and play it safe. With the rope above me I can usually climb 5b and often push 5c or even 6a; put the rope below me and I balk at attempting 5a.

So what role does falling play in climbing?

With some forms of climbing falling is not an option. Soloing is often thought of as the purest form of climbing, but for the soloist the consequences of a fall are serious injury and in many cases probably death. To solo requires intense concentration, calmness and supreme confidence in ones own ability.

Now I solo, but only easy routes way below my technical ability, and I never push myself outside my comfort zone. Others push it further but presumably the same principles apply. Alan Robert; notorious for scaling buildings is probably the most famous soloist in the world amongst non-climbers but for sheer audacity the solos of Alex Honnold are unique and regarded in awe by many climbers. His recent solos of Moonlight Buttress and Half Dome featured in the film Alone on the Wall are little short of amazing

Alex Honnold soloing past a party, in territory where mistakes are not an option.

Falling is also a bad idea on ice. Winter routes often rely on dubious protection of ice screws and pegs often with large runouts in between. Climbers have sharp axes in there hands and crampons on there feet which can do immense damage to your body in a fall. Will Gadd one of the best ice climbers in the world has never fallen on an ice screw. Again it is about staying well within your comfort zone.

Mid fall. The climber was ok. I'm amazed that someone managed to capture such fast event. Note how close the crampons are to the ropes!

What then should we make of deep water soloing? Here falling in an essential part of the mix as you climb close to your limit, and in many cases it is the only way to get off the route once you’ve completed it. The same is true in sport climbing. Lines are bolted and therefore falling is considered safe and an essential part of pushing your grade.

All part of the fun??

In traditional climbing the leave no trace approach means things are a little different. Here the situation is more adventurous as you place your own protection as you go. You have the additional skills of reading the fissures and cracks in the rock and working out how best to use them to protect yourself. One you’ve place protection you have a mental picture of how much you trust it to catch you if you fall from the moves above and this often feeds back into how hard you push.

Clocking up the air miles.

My problem however is I am failing to push even when the gear is good, even on bolted sports climbs I often fail to commit to the moves. The more I think about it the more I realise that falling may not be the problem. In the Alps last year I went canyoning, a brilliant experience which involved numerous jumps of cliffs into water. Yes it was scary but the fear was controlled, because the falls were planned, expected and “safe” as I know the water to be deep.

Now I don’t know much about the psychology of risk but familiarity with an experience or sensation, even ones of high danger breads a confidence and reduces the level of fear. So maybe the answer is for me to go out and choose routes which are well within but were gear placements are spaced and I must get used to operating a way above my gear.

But hold on; this is not the problem. I really should not fall off on these routes therefore I am not actually learning to conquer the fear. What I need to do is climb hard routes where there is a considerable chance I may fall but where the gear is reliable, therefore I will become familiar with falling off and the system saving me (even though I know this from the example in the intro). Or maybe I should do both? Anyway Peak tomorrow to put some of these ideas into practice. Where are my brave pills??

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