I had plans for this week's blog post, so many plans. I intended to spend a delightful day writing about the role of power in climbing. I was going to delve into my latest adventures on overhanging walls and discuss how these experiences have helped me embrace my powerful side and unite it with my love of technical climbing.
Two flat tires, two trips to the bicycle shop, several tears, tantrums, and swear words later and my dreams have failed to transform into reality. The blog post pontificating on power has been put on hold until further notice. Rest assured it will materialise once my inner tube related luck improves.
So, I'm pulling a gem from the archives. I originally wrote this piece for Beta magazine and was very pleased with how it turned out. Despite the circumstances, I'm certainly glad to have the opportunity to share it with you again.
Since this was published I've written another article for Beta about how to make your climbing kit and kaboodle last longer, have another article about projecting boulders coming out in their next issue, and have had the privilege of editing other contributors' articles. Working with Emily and everyone involved in Beta has been delightful and I'd love it if you'd go and check out their website and buy yourself a copy (or 5!) of the magazine.
Learning to Fall
There’s a lot to learn when you first start bouldering. Where do the boulders start and end? What do all the numbers and letters mean? Which holds are you allowed to use? Should these weird shoes hurt this much? Shouldn’t there be a rope of some sort involved? Learning to fall was low on my priority list, which with hindsight was a mistake.
When I first started bouldering, I simply avoided falling at all costs and I think this is a common approach. If I didn’t think I could complete a move I just wouldn’t try or fully commit to it. I gave boulders that I couldn’t down climb or drop down from in a controlled manner a wide berth. I don’t remember much about my early climbing experiences as they’re mostly lost in a blur of adrenaline. But I do remember being afraid to fall.
The first time I fell off unexpectedly, I cried. I was reaching for a handhold and my left foot, that was supporting most of my body weight, suddenly slipped off the hold. I fell straight down, landed on my feet, didn’t hit a single hold on the way, and didn’t hurt myself at all but I was very taken aback by the whole thing and had a little cry. Luckily my coach/husband was there to get me through the traumatic experience by punching me in the arm and telling me not to make such a fuss. It sounds harsh but this technique has proved to be very successful at soothing a crying JoJo over the years.
People often talk about progression in climbing in terms of grades or how many pull-ups you can do. However, I think a lot of progression comes from moments like these. This incident had frightened me, but it was also exactly what I needed. The thing that I feared had happened and I was fine. I’d fallen off and I hadn’t died. As an outsider watching that moment it must have looked like nothing but for me it was one small fall for woman, one giant leap for woman kind.
Of course, I wasn’t instantly cured of my fear of falling. The more I climbed, the more things I came up against that stoked the flames of my fear. They each needed to be addressed and smothered to stop the spark from spreading into a full-blown inferno. Facing each of these has been just as important as each new grade I’ve climbed.
The challenge of facing a boulder I couldn’t climb down from was thrust upon me totally against my will when I unexpectedly topped an overhanging boulder. I found myself hanging from the top hold with my feet dangling beneath me asking my coach/husband what to do next. The answer appeared pretty simple from where he was standing but the idea of letting go seemed ridiculous. I would obviously be killed. But, as he pointed out, I wasn’t going to be able to hang there forever and I couldn’t get my feet back on so I might as well just get on with it. The insensitive maniac! Unfortunately, my arms gave out before I could come up with a witty retort or a better solution to my current location problem. So, I dropped down from the wall, had a quick check to make sure I was in fact still alive then celebrated my excellent achievement of climbing my first 5+. Another fear faced and another fall survived.
Branching out into the world of dynos brought with it a whole new level of terror. My brain works on a worst-case-scenario basis, leading me to view dynos as exciting ways to badly injure myself. When confronting a series of volumes to run across, my catastrophising brain considers how my foot might slide down one, subsequently smashing my face into the treacherous hold and breaking all my teeth. Relatively simple dynos produce prophecies of shoulders being ripped from their sockets or large chunks of skin being removed if I don’t cling on with sufficient gusto. I vividly remember the first time I tried to jump from one hold to another. I ended up marooned in a corner of the wall squealing ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it’. A friend then firmly pushed me off the jug I was clinging onto in order to generate some momentum and send me in the direction of target hold. Not exactly my finest hour but, again, I made it out alive.
Hopefully these stories illustrate that every fall can be seen as an important step on the journey to being the best climber you can be, rather than moments of fear or failure. It’s taken a lot of practice and quietly talking myself into terrifying moves, but I’ve managed to cultivate a much healthier relationship with falling. I now understand that falling means I’ve faced my fear, tried something difficult, and pushed my limits mentally and physically.
When introducing a friend to bouldering for the first time, I told her that falling is a sign that you’ve found something worth climbing. Words tend to come out of my mouth before I think too hard about them but apparently this pearl of wisdom really struck a chord with her. She told me the first time she fell from the wall and survived she felt “F***ing invincible!”. Quite a contrast to my experience of gently weeping into my husband’s shoulder.
This is the approach I now take with all beginner climbers. As well as explaining what all the silly words mean and promising that they’ll get used to the painful shoes, I actively encourage them to engage with the idea of falling as early as possible. It will be scary, and you might cry, but you’ll live. Each time you fall, you’ll learn something about what you can survive and how you can improve. You might even find that learning to fall is the most important step towards learning to climb.