How to Fall While Lead Climbing
New climbers often ask us how to fall safely while lead climbing. The answer is not a simple one. We generally classify lead falls in two ways: planned and unplanned. A planned fall happens when the climber makes a conscious decision to let go of the rock. An unplanned fall happens when you fall while trying to send a route. In both situations there are specific things you can do in advance of a fall that will increase your safety. Some of these tips get to the basics of climbing safety and should be diligently practiced at all times. Others are more of a best-case scenario. On the rock you often have little choice about how, when and where you fall, but if you keep these tips in mind you will increase your chances of safety on and off the rock.
A Planned Lead Fall
You are tired and struggling. You’ve been searching the rock face for holds but you aren’t finding anything useful and you know you can’t hold on much longer. You need to let go of the rock. How do you keep yourself safe?
It is always safer to avoid shock loading a bolt. Statically weighting the bolt (letting go slowly while you are at the bolt) creates much less force on the fixed gear than dynamic weight (falling, even if it’s just a short distance). Keeping this in mind it is a good idea to try down-climbing to your last bolt or as close to it as possible, whenever possible. I have found that for beginning leaders, down-climbing is beneficial in two ways: it strengthens hand/foot/eye coordination which will help your overall climbing skills and it can provide mental strengthening by forcing the climber to slowly and securely exit the stressful climbing situation. In time, experience down-climbing will make you a better and more confident leader. Too much down-climbing, however can waste precious energy needed to send a route. If you are starting to get pumped don’t worry about taking the fall. You can take the fall, rest for as long as you need, then retry the move when you are ready.
Whenever you consciously let go of the rock it is also crucial to think about body positioning. Nasty lead falls often happen when the climber’s body is in a strange position or interacts with the rope. In an ideal situation you will be able to position yourself with your legs spread wide and the rope directly underneath you. This will provide the greatest chance of a clean fall in which you make contact with the rock only with your feet as the rope stretches to catch you. In many cases there is a traverse or there aren’t sufficient holds for you to truly reposition yourself to prepare for the fall. In this case, if you can, take note of your position on the rock and in relation to the rope and plan accordingly as you let go. If you expect a pendulum swing, you will be better equipped to deal with it as you fall.
One mistake that many new leaders make is to grab their gear. While the bright shiny quickdraw may appear to be a friendly hold to steady yourself on NEVER EVER grab your gear. In a worst case scenario you can seriously injure yourself (warning, graphic pictures). Even in a best case scenario it will put extra stress on your protection.
Finally it is always a good idea to warn your belayer before you take a planned fall. If you are on a long pitch, communication may not be possible and at all times your belayer should be ready to catch a fall. That said, a quick shout is always welcome.
An Unplanned Lead Fall
At a certain point the line between planned and unplanned lead falls blur. In many instances it will be clear that you may fall on a certain move and whenever possible all of the steps above should be taken (obviously with the exception of down-climbing). This includes awareness of body position, not grabbing your gear and warning your belayer. In some instances the fall is truly unexpected. Your foot can slip, a hold can break, the hold you thought was a jug may not be as positive as you’d like, and down you come.
Your best bet for staying safe leading is to be aware of the dynamics of falls and to continue to evaluate your position in relation to the rock, the rope and your last clip. The fall will go well if you practice good rope management to begin with. If you make mistakes or do not pay attention you can seriously hurt yourself.
Good rope management includes being sure to keep the rope between you and the rock (i.e. not backstepping) and planning your clip well. Backstepping can be a bit mysterious to new leaders, but it is a very important concept to understand. By keeping the rope between you and the rock you will make sure that your legs don’t interact with the rope as you fall. In a worst case scenario a backstep can flip you around and land you head first into the wall.
Learning to clip well and safely is also crucial to safe lead climbing. First and foremost this includes making sure not to backclip. Like backstepping, the concept of backclipping sometimes confuses beginning leaders. It doesn’t happen often, but if backclipped there is a chance that the gate of your quickdraw will actually open when you fall, unclipping the rope and leaving your last point of protection useless. For more info look for a future post devoted to backclipping.
Learning when and where to clip involves trusting yourself and learning your limitations. What is most important while clipping is to have a secure stance. When you clip you pull up extra rope, increasing the amount of rope between you and your last protection and leaving yourself the most vulnerable to taking a large fall. Climbing convention says that you should always try to clip when your bolt is between your head and your knot. This way you ensure that if you fall while clipping, there will not be too much excess slack in the system. My advice, however, is to clip where you feel secure. If you have a good hold and feel confident that you can make the clip there is no reason to continue climbing. Try first floating one hand up to ensure the bolt is within range then proceed to attach your quickdraw and clip the rope. As you climb harder routes you will invariably find clips with no secure clipping position. In this case do your best to arrive at the bolt and/or find the most secure position and try to only take the amount of rope necessary to make the clip.
If you are leading and you are challenging yourself you will fall. Falling is part of sport climbing. By ensuring you practice these basic and crucial safety methods you will keep yourself safe and happy. Once you leave the rock the only thing you can do is try to keep your feet in front of you to absorb the shock when you come in for the landing. Personally I love falling on lead. I avoid it whenever possible and it often scares me to death, but once I am flying I really enjoy the feeling. It gets my adrenaline pumping and as the rope stretches and I come to a rest I love knowing that I am pushing myself to my limit and that my safety system works. Remember to check your rope regularly, especially after big falls. Happy climbing and happy falling!