On Wikipedia a leader fall is described as: “an undesirable downward motion hopefully stopped by a rope”.
In regards to sport climbing on bolted routes, I strongly disagree with this definition because falling is an important part to improve your climbing level and should be regarded as such. I would like to share with you 5 principles for overcoming the fear of falling.
1. Embrace Falling As Essential
Humans are horizontal beings. We feel safe with both feet on the ground. Climbers, however, dare to leave that comfort zone to explore the vertical world. But, when being on the sharp end of the rope, many struggle with the fear of falling and/or the potential consequences of a fall. If you want to lead harder routes you will have to overcome your fear by changing your outlook on falling.
For a novice climber fear of falling is normal but gradually a climber should accept that it is an essential part of the sport rather than trying to avoid it as much as possible.
2. View Falling As Fun Not Failure
The next step is to proceed to the stage where you aren’t bothered anymore if you fall or not because you are positively focused on success rather than on failure. The ultimate goal is to end up by enjoying a fall (yes, it is fun!).
3. Keep Your Focus Upward
In overcoming the fear of falling, another important step (maybe the most important) is trusting your belayer.
I met a French climber who told me a freaky story. One day he teamed up with someone he didn’t really know. He decided to attempt a route beyond his limit. Halfway up the route and above the last quickdraw he felt that he couldn’t hang on any longer. He shouted “TAKE!” to his belayer but nothing happened. When he looked down he realized to his horror that the belayer was gone! He had apparently listened to the “call of nature” and decided that the Grigri would lock at the first quickdraw in the case of a fall.
It is vital that you trust your belayer at all times. Not only when you shout “watch me!” You’ve done a partner check, right? You trust him or her completely, right? So there’s no reason to look down but just focus on what’s above you: the anchor chains.
A spiritual note: As a Christian I can keep my focus upward as my Belayer in life is 100% trustworthy. When you’ve done your partner check for life (meaning: you’re connected to Jesus and entrusted your life into His hands) there is no reason to look back because, “There is no condemnation anymore for those that are in Jesus Christ.” (Romans 8:1)
4. Delete a Few Climbing Commands
I once met 2 climbers at the crag. A French and a German climber teamed up for the day. The German climbed out of an overhang and was about 3 meters above the last bolt. For some reason the French guy didn’t give enough slack and the German climber shouted “lockern” which means “give me slack” in German. The French guy understood “block”, the French expression for “take!”…. The harder the German shouted “lockern” the harder the French tightened the rope until the German guy fell down, quite upset…
Climbing commands are essential but in order to overcome fear of falling it might be necessary to take your climbing dictionary and delete a few words. Since you trust your belayer. There is no need to shout ‘watch me’ before attempting a difficult section. Of course he/she is watching you! If not, you shouldn’t team up.
How odd it is when a climber reaches the top of a route (either leading or toprope) and asks the belayer to tighten the rope before lowering off. It seems as if the climber wants to check if the belayer is still on guard. Of course he is!
So when you reach the top and clip the belay chain: just jump down without checking your belayer. If you feel that isn’t safe because your belayer might not be attentive, well, you weren’t safe all the way up either.
5. Fall As Much As Possible
Some years ago I climbed weekly with a friend in a gym. We had the agreement that we would never clip the belay chain but instead dyno to touch the last hold and make a big leader fall. Since we had the agreement, we knew the belayer would always be on his guard and belay dynamic. What was scary in the beginning, evolved to a normal feeling and to a fun factor because we did it every time.
And that’s important: falling ALWAYS should be part of your climbing. Every time you rope-up, there should be some falling because the progress in overcoming the fear of falling can be quickly forgotten. One bad fall caused by a poor belay that’s too static can mentally destroy 1,000 good falls and undermine your falling confidence. This is a step by step progress, so have good communication with your belayer that you plan to fall if you don’t reach the top is necessary.