Climbing: Learning How to Fall

I still remember the first time I walked into my local climbing gym, The Cliffs at Valhalla, about a dozen years ago with my then-small son. I had never seen anything like it, this giant cave of candy-colored hand-holds, graceful bodies moving between them like ninjas. I was hooked before I even touched anything. My son took to the wall like a bird in the air, now his expertise soars wherever he goes. Me, I just try to stay in one piece. As with backpacking, climbing offers me a mind-body challenge worth writing about. And when the Northeast grows cold, the climbing gym keeps me on—and off—my toes. 

As a sport and fitness industry, climbing is, well, climbing to new heights. Perhaps because it centers around such a basic, human movement of discovery. As a practice it involves questing to be one’s best self, and climbers go out of their way to support each other, on plastic or real rock. They form communities which in my experience are among society’s most inclusive. A climbing gym’s success depends on this, and on the skill of its route-setters, who blaze the walls with a steady rotation of routes or ‘problems’ of varying difficulty-grades. Progress in this not-about-winning game requires pushing limits and understanding what those limits actually are.

There are essentially three main ways of climbing at the gym: bouldering, top-rope climbing, and lead climbing. Bouldering involves shorter walls and sequences of tricky moves, where crash pads are the climber’s only protection. I love the power and purity of bouldering, but my worn-out tendons… not so much. So these days I usually partner up with a friend, strap on my harness, tie a rope to it, and climb on top-rope. The rope loops through an anchor at the top of the wall, and my friend—my belayer—manages the other end of the rope with a belay device, taking up slack as I climb. It is easy to just let go of the wall and hang for a rest if needed. 

Lead climbing, like leading anything, calls for much more skin in the game. The climber pulls up the rope and clips it into bolted protection every few feet or so while the belayer gives out slack. Letting go of the wall above a clip results in a ‘fall factor’ equal to twice the distance from that clip, plus the rope stretch. It is a head-trippy free fall often followed by what climbers call a ‘whipper.’ Intentionally doing this, with control, is one of the requirements for the lead-climbing certification test. As it should be. Passing that test is my ticket to more climbing fun with friends, and more personal progress. Which I want. Gulp.

I’ve had reasons for not ‘studying for’ and taking that test over the years: too busy bouldering, shoulder is injured, now it’s the other shoulder, now it’s the hip, now my shoulder is frozen. Well I am now, for the most part, all healed up with no more excuses. So I took a lead-climbing class last month. It went pretty well until the falling part. There were three of us in the class and I was up first. After confirming girlie shrieks were allowed, I willed myself to be ready.

Who was I kidding?

I took an epic, terrible fall, flipping completely upside down at the end of it, smacking my body full-on against the wall. There I was, dangling and dumbfounded above a stunned, hushed crowd, painfully aware of my big-ass bruises, ass and ego included. Talk about skin in the game.

Some climbers know intuitively how to fall. Clearly I am not one of them. But also not one to pass up a proper analysis. As in, WTF? The rope was not behind my leg, which is the usual culprit for a flip. Seconds before the drop, I think telling myself ‘oh just relax and let it happen’ may have caused me to lean back and go limp, like a fish caught on a line. And perhaps the catch for this fish was too hard, it’s hard to know. Mix in a too-long fall for a nervous beginner and there you have it, my personal recipe for an inverted body-slam.

Down on the floor, shaking and fighting off tears, a friend bee-lined over to fist-bump me and tell me That was AWESOME! He offered me veggie chips. Others chimed in, it’s ok. It’s scary. You’ll be ok. They gave me ice. They gave me space. 

I watched my much-younger, stronger classmates do their falling the right way. Nobody dared tell me to get back on that proverbial horse before calling it a night. Except me, quivering mess that I was. I tied my rope and concocted another recipe of adrenaline, stubborn pride, and putting my hands on any damn hold I pleased to get up there. Then managed a more controlled, smaller fall. I was nervous, it wasn’t pretty, but my head was (literally) in the right place. I must have known I’d be hobbling around my house like a rusty tin-man for days, and that this was my chance to shave an edge off the trauma.

As my bruises healed I had a lot to think about. In Chris Noble’s book Why We Climb, Doug Robinson says climbing ‘gets you in touch with parts of yourself you didn’t know were there, but that maybe you’re curious about—like fear.’ Turns out the fear I thought I knew was but the tip of a monster iceberg. Which could be the root of my avoidance of lead climbing and that dang test all this time. Hmm. What else in my life am I more afraid of than I think? We can all replace the word ‘climbing’ with any other pursuit of our choosing, and ask ourselves: what holds us back?


Climbing is an obvious, visceral metaphor for making the hard life-stuff work. Relationships. Parenting. Leadership. There is the dance of giving or taking of slack, yelling ‘you got this’ while staying ready to catch a fall as softly as possible. And there are the cruxes—defining moves that call for trust, trying harder, and… letting go. Easier said than done, those are some damn big walls. 

In one instant, with a bruising smack, a person’s whole world can flip upside down. It happens to everyone, one way or another. But in recovery we meet our own self face-to-face, like in one of those mind-bending time-travel movies. Where there is no choice but to unpack and problem-solve, reflecting on what it is we really want. We listen to which routes call out the loudest: forget that, try this! Or, try this again, but this way! Sometimes the hardest falls are the greatest gifts in disguise. Sometimes it just hurts. For a while.

I will not be jumping out of planes or auditioning for Cirque de Soleil. Ever. But to be able to lead-climb? Still the goal, however long it may take. And how will I learn how to fall? Tiny free falls. Bold baby steps. Persistently inching forward, a little less afraid each time. It’s that simple. It means accepting risk relative to how I manage my fear, which will evolve. This applies to being boldly creative. Boldly vulnerable. Boldly letting go of the need to worry about things I can’t do anything about. For all of us, there are all kinds of boldness-training opportunities in every nook and cranny of our days.

Tommy Caldwell, one of the bravest climbers on the planet, says: ‘Hardship is inevitable, so put your goggles on and face into the wind’. And here I sit at my Wordpress dashboard, ready for a bit of wind and a tiny free fall… that ‘publish’ button over on the right. And… go!

More to come around the bend…

12 Responses to “Climbing: Learning How to Fall

  • Melinda
    5 years ago

    Saved this as the much-awaited follow-up to my much-awaited Xmas letter from the Violas…always the BEST writing I receive all year, about the most IMPORTANT passages we travel… or bump along, as would describe most of my travel. Still: we do arrive, maybe limping, maybe a tad late, at our intended destination. I always share with my kids all my worst falls and face-plants, to remind them that the LIKELY byproduct of pushing one’s limits is, in fact, shame, humiliation, pain, injury…and insight if not triumph eventually. I don’t know why we try to make others think we learned without sustaining anything unpleasant. That’s the price, sweet to pay because we will have mastered something worth paying for.

    • Yes! It sure seems things learned the hard way stick with us the most. Like true friends. I so appreciate your comment. 🙂 Thank-you!!

  • Peter Southam
    6 years ago

    Amazing blog on this topic!! I felt I was right there, but glad I didn’t have to witness our daughter’s “accident-on-purpose”! Some day, when you find time, write a whole book!

    That’s how involved we were, watching the competition, with all those climbers, both men and women — totally involving and nerve-wracking!

    Sort of missed the loud, raunchy music, though!

  • Elsa Southam
    6 years ago

    Life journeys take us on many falls, but hopefully no more BAD lead-rope climbing ones for you!! Reminds me of General George A. Custer’s quote”. It’s not how many times you get knocked down that count, but how many times you get back up”! Your blog is incredible and you continue to inspire us all, Mummeth, Dad, David ❤️??

  • Philip Viola
    6 years ago

    Does face-planting in the Whites count as learning how to fall?

  • Francia
    6 years ago

    You are very brave! ?

  • Dave Southam
    6 years ago

    What a beautiful description of an amazing subculture! I had flagged this in my inbox as “unread” but curiosity got the better of me and I read it tonight. I’m so glad I did! It was very moving and can be applied to different areas of all of our lives as we all struggle to keep climbing after we fall. Keep it up!

    • David, well I am sure glad you did, too. And grateful for your thoughtful comment. Climb on!


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