4 September 2013

More on practice falls

Keri emailed to ask about clocking up her practice falls to gain leading confidence. In part 3 of ‘9 out of 10 climbers’ I detailed how essential falling practice is for a large swathe of climbers and highlighted the main reasons for lack of progress in confidence training.

One aspect that Keri picked up on that I hadn’t covered properly is what to do when you don’t have full confidence in your belayer for taking regular falls. I have of course learned the hard way not to be so trusting of belayers I’ve not climbed with before.

Keri’s point was that first, some belayers might not be the best at fielding your falls, but more importantly, even belayers who are pretty competent most of the time become distracted and might not hold your fall very well. 

Like most training problems, liberal use of common sense is the solution:

- Although it’s important to get unanticipated falls in (i.e unanticipated for both leader and belayer), it ought to be fine to remind your belayer that during the session you’ll be taking some falls. 

- ideally, fall off hard routes where both you and your belayer are expecting to see a fall. Do it all the time, year in year out.

- If you are going to take a planned fall, do take a squint at what your belayer is doing just before you let go. If they are making a sandwich (it’s happened to me more than once), then a gentle reminder to pay attention will help. You don’t even need to say ‘watch me’ if you don’t want to. Just a little tug on the rope, or a grunt of effort usually wakes them up. However, don’t get carried away. I’ve climbed with some climbers who become so worried about their belayers they hardly concentrate on the climbing at all.

- A related, but more subtle point is about the monotony of indoor leading. You do route after route, and familiarity with belaying breeds the tendency to become distracted. The skill of a good belayer is to allow themselves to pass the time of belaying without ever completely zoning out. It’s a bit like driving your car. Sometimes you daydream, but hopefully never that much that you can’t snap back into full concentration in a split second when a decision or action is required. Even if you have a conversation with the belayer next to you, a glance upwards every couple of seconds is essential and will go a long way to reassuring your leader too.

- If you are climbing with a competent, but less than expert belayer, you can choose your moments to take practice falls a bit more carefully. Falling from the second or third bolt might not be a good idea. However, you do have to ask yourself - if you don’t have confidence in them to hold your fall at the least favourable moment on the climb, what happens when a hold spins or you do simply slip off?

- Don’t be afraid to coach your belayer. If you feel they are not aware or understand key moments of danger for the leader such as clipping the second bolt, paying out rope effectively, or how to read their leaders body language to anticipate clips or falls, teach them. It might be a long process, so don’t go overboard. Many gentle reminders many be required.

- Communicate with your belayer before, during and after your lead. Things like “I think I’ll be clipping the third off that big sloper, so give me plenty of slack there” or “ I like a little more slack so I can clip quickly, but watch me up there at the crux”. So many problems are avoided by good communication between climbers. If you decide to clip early, shout for slack. If you are belaying and see your leader struggle or anticipate a clip or a fall, say something to remind and reassure them that you are watching. Even a quick ‘ok’ or ‘go on’ really helps. The belayer is still part of the climbing team.

Go to an indoor wall and you’ll see plenty of examples of belayers (and leaders) who are not really there. They are climbing to switch off. They pay out slack only when the rope tugs tight, they have no idea how their leader just did the crux so they know the sequence for their go. If you climb with someone like that, you have a few options; climb with someone else, practice your falls with someone else, or try to subtly gee your switched off climbing partner up a bit. Climbers respond to each other’s demeanor quite readily. If you are energetic, attentive and communicative during your climbing and belaying, your partner is more likely to be too.

A final point is that even when everything is perfect, the danger of both climbing and falling can’t be completely eliminated. This is balanced against the fact that practicing falls makes you a safer and better climber. Exposing yourself to some risk is inevitable. However, if you take all the precautions you can to make your practice falls safer, you can make it a perfectly acceptable part of becoming a better climber.