How to sport climb safely: Lessons learned from falling headfirst

Ian Carroll
 
A helmet is one of the most important pieces of gear you own.

I was definitely falling. What I saw was most definitely down. Slowed, slowed down until I could feel the fibers of the rope running over my ankle. I hit the rock once, twice. But was still falling straight down.

Rock climbing isn’t all about risk, but it’s a big part of the game. When we tie in, we double check our knots and each other because we know this stuff is dangerous. But this is not what we prepare for. When we say “on belay”, this is definitely not what we’re talking about. Am I still on belay? Will I ever feel the rope catch me?

It’s not the first time my life has flashed before my eyes this year. Hoping it’s going to be the last.

how to sport climb

Climbing on the sharp end can be a lonely place.

But long moments falling headfirst down the rock forces even the most level headed to reexamine the risks. This is what ‘on belay’ really means. It’s a silent prayer somewhere in mid-air that your partner was paying attention, that the rope holds, that the piece doesn’t blow. That’s when the belay is really on.

I mean, how do you even get here, falling headfirst to your death? We went out to have a fun day blasting up Toro in the newly returned sunshine. Instead, I feel the rope wrap around my ankle, flip me over again and slam my back into the rock. But I don’t stop. Again I freefall, until finally the rope pulls my harness upright. I take one more twist as I skid down the last few feet of rock. I’m almost at the bottom of the pitch, facing straight down.

It’s not sunny, it’s not even warm. Somewhere, I definitely went way off piste. I’m lost somewhere in that terrifying moment after an accident when you think you’re fine, but you know you’re not. Hanging by Chris’ new blue rope. It’s so cold.

Life lessons

In life, the only true failure is the failure to learn from your mistakes. And I had made several that morning and in the preceding weeks that led to my current predicament. My life literally hanging from a proverbial thread. So now that I’m sitting here reflecting on what happened, it’s high time that I learned from some of my mistakes.

 

Why do we do this? Why are we out here?

In what follows, you’re going to hear a lot of excuses. The rock was too cold, the shoes were too new, the bolts were too spaced. I mean, you’ve probably heard them all. I don’t note these factors to excuse the fact that I definitely got myself here by my own folly. This is just an examination of the oversights I made on the way to a really bad place.

Hopefully, sharing some of the minor and major errors that led me here will help you to learn from my mistakes. Theoretically, before you’re falling headfirst towards your presumed death.

My perceptions vs. reality

Perhaps the biggest, if most subtle, mistake that I made was to hold a false perception of my own abilities. I came to this sport climbing paradise a couple of weeks ago. However, snow and rain have kept us inside much of the time. Snow! In Mexico!

 

The dynamic styles and different strengths of sport climbing require a unique type of strength.

Besides, I’m no sport climber to begin with. Although I started climbing in a bouldering gym and used to be quite strong, this is not my jam, so to speak. I’m primarily a crack climber

Furthermore, the weeks of rest leading me here and the vastly different style of climbing my body had become conditioned to in Indian Creek all added up to a rift in my perceptions. I will never be the best, but I see myself as a strong climber. I can certainly lead 5.10 confidently. Besides, everyone knows that sport climbing is easier than trad climbing.

You may have noticed the multiple ways that I was letting my ego get in the way of reality. My body was in poor shape. I’d been smoking too many cigarettes and spending too much time working in front of a computer. Who I saw myself as, was not who showed up to the crag to climb today.

I should have had the humility to ask someone else to lead the hard pitches while I got my strength back for a couple of days. But I didn’t.

Poor preparation

As I mentioned before, I hadn’t been climbing as much as I’d have liked to. The first snow in twenty years and a subsequent rainstorm had kept us pretty stationary. I hadn’t been doing as much yoga as I should have and I didn’t go on any runs. When you live an active lifestyle, it’s easy to forget that fitness doesn’t make itself. If you want to be a strong climber, preparation of your body is number one. If I’d been stronger, I wouldn’t be hanging forty feet below my bolt.

I should have been spending my rest days sweating. Pull ups, push ups, running, anything.

sport climbing running

Strapping on your running shoes is one of the best ways to snap back into shape.

It’s easy to relax and pretend you’re strong. But putting yourself hundreds of feet up a rock face with only one way up and down is a great way to call that bluff. Unfortunately, I had been bluffing, I wasn’t that strong.

Besides weeks of downtime, we were also up so early that it was cold. Really cold. And the rock was wet.

I can think of a number of ways that I could have warmed myself up more for the first pitch. Yet, unaccustomed to cold sport climbing, as I started climbing this morning, I was unaware that soon my tips would be completely numb.

Rock climbing chalk hands

When you climb, your hands are your primary connection to the rock. If you can’t feel your fingers, you’re in for a world of hurt.

When you’re climbing crack, that’s not such a big deal. But on limestone, you might be cutting your fingers open and you wouldn’t feel it. It was like my fingers were reaching into blank space. The hold might be huge, or it might only touch my first pads, I wouldn’t have known.

I was at the last crux up high on our first pitch of almost sixty meters. It was actually a 5.9 linked into a 5.10b. I had virtually no sensation past my palms. Only my eyes told me what my fingers were doing.

Consequently, my head game wasn’t doing so hot.

A mentality of fear

It’s time to divert for a minute to the last time I almost died this year. Three bolts up my sport project, I couldn’t get a clip and fell. An inattentive belay was enough to put me all the way down on the deck. I never felt the rope.

I tell myself that years of skateboarding prepared me well for falling from high places onto hard ground. After all, that’s basically all I did with my free time when I was a kid.

In this instance, I walked away from a thirty foot groundfall and only broke a tiny tip off of my talus (the top bone in your ankle). I was back on the rock the next week.

That experience carried it’s own lessons as well. Check your belayer, if you can, and check your fall before you take it. Don’t have blind faith that you’re going to be fine.

 

When you’re on lead, you need a bombproof mentality, completely unshakable. – Author: tpuyol – CC BY 2.0

However, those lessons can get in your head in a dangerous way. An overwhelming fear of falling follows an experience like that if you’re not careful. When the climbing is easy, it’s no big deal. But when I start cruxing, my mind is not clear like it used to be.

Back to today – Before I even stepped out onto the final sequence of the route, I knew it was the crux. I knew it was going to be hard. It was cold, the rock was seeping. I was scared that I couldn’t do it. That was the first mistake.

Where it all went wrong

Now, I’m not proud of what happened next. In fact, it’s pretty embarrassing. From here on in, this is definitely not how rock climbing is meant to be done.

I had been climbing pretty well, despite being below peak fitness, poorly prepared, cold. I stepped out carefully between bad holds, switched my feet. The jug for the clip was a few feet off for my right hand, my last bolt was a ways down. Definitely not looking down there right now.

Slowly, carefully, I shift my weight onto feet smeared on blank rock. This is where you fall. No hands to catch you, feet on nothing. “Watch me Mark!” I shout down, certain they can hear me.

I put my body under tension, then I carefully move my right hand, up, up. Got it, thank god. I shift my feet, look at the clip in front of me. The hold’s not actually that good, kind of sloped.

Quickly a conversation flashes through my mind.

How to lead climb safely

Just the night before, Mark and I had been doing math. We were examining the common awareness among climbers that it’s safer to climb and clip at your waist than it is to pull up rope and reach from below.

If you really do the math, it’s interesting, but either way, you actually take the same length of fall. But if you climb up, you’ll start and end that fall at higher points. It’s tough to explain, you’ll have to get out a rope and work it out yourself. But it’s true. It is usually safer to climb up to your clip.

The more rope you have to pull up to make the clip, the more you extend your fall.

The conversation quickly ran through my awareness. Do I pull this mantle, or do I clip from here, below the bolt? I’m pretty high up. Oh scary,

I try the mantle. But it is hard, unexpectedly so, and I realize it right away. I’ve already wasted some energy so I drop back down and grab a draw. The lifesaving sound of it clicking into it’s bolt. Good.

Now I’m not sure if I should have made that mantel or not, I almost certainly would have fallen, but that fall would have been nothing compared to what actually happened.

How to sport climb safely lesson #1: Climb to your clip

When you’re climbing, it’s safer to climb and take a whip, than to hold on to a bad hold, scared, and pull up extra rope. Never pull up rope when you’re scared and tired, ever.

If you’re not at a good stance, you’re either not to the right place to clip yet or you’re probably on a climb that’s too hard for you in the first place. This is not how clipping should feel.

If you’re shaking, or unsure, it’s not a good time to clip.

Now, I’ve learned this lesson before, but it’s not as easy as that. I think I had the strength, or I certainly thought that I did, and I was damn well going to try.

I reached between my legs, pulled against about fifty-five meters of rope drag and bit down on what I had gathered. Oh damn, my hand is tired though. I grab a bit more rope and reach for the clip, straining against my slipping hand hold.

By now, I’m well past the first rule and quickly learning the second rule of sport climbing.

How to sport climb safely lesson #2: Don’t panic

It’s easily said, much harder to do.

Your mentality is the most important thing you take up a climb with you.

By now, I’m freaking out. I’m reaching for the rope, but my mind is focused on a giant expletive, screaming out inside of me. This is so messed up! Two fingers that I can’t feel touch the clip, I strain to push the rope through. And I miss.

That was a critical mistake. Now things are getting really bad, I’m about to fall, I’ve got all this rope out, and I need to decide – do I try again, or do I shout “take”?

And what do I do? I break the second rule of sport climbing, and I panic. Damn! I grab the quickdraw with my rope hand. It’s so inviting to think it would make a good hold, you can just grab it and clip. This is something that is easy to think when you panic.

Unfortunately, you’re wrong.

How to sport climb safely lesson #3: Never grab a quickdraw when you’re about to fall

Hell, never grab a quickdraw, period. Now, I’m really screwed. I’m committed to trying to clip in my mind, I have rope pulled up, I’m losing all my strength, and I’m trying to grab a slippery little quickdraw. I reposition my legs. I try to get up, try to get the rope in. Anything. I remember using my teeth briefly to relieve the rope drag.

But nothing worked. It seemed to go on forever. Pure agony and escalating panic. I couldn’t feel my hands at all. By now I am so far from the ego driven hot shot that thought he could crush this 5.10.

The terrible fact that I knew, as soon as I grabbed the quickdraw, is that they are not easy to hold onto when you’re pumped. Looping your fingers through them is not going to save you from your stupidity, or in this case, save me from my stupidity.

I was staring at my fingers as it happened, although I’m not sure what it was. It might have been a foot slip, it might have been my subconscious saving me from further idiocy. But I came off with one, primal, blood curdling scream.

There were about a thousand ways I could have lost my fingers to that quickdraw. However, I didn’t have time to think about that because I suddenly felt the rope reach around my thigh and ankle and flip me upside down. It was about the same time I first hit the rock.

How to sport climb safely lesson #4: Never lead with your body in front of the rope

If you fall on lead and the rope is behind your legs, it will flip you upside down violently. Often, it will also throw you into the wall. It’s the most common mistake I see at the crag. Usually, quickly corrected by shifting your foot to run in front of the rope.

How to sport climb safely

When the rope is in front of your body, you won’t be at risk of getting flipped if you fall.

I’m not really sure if I made this mistake, honestly. I think my foot got tangled in the extra rope that dropped from my hand. But there’s no way to be sure.

Either way, always be attentive to your falls when you climb and be careful where your rope is when you’re on lead.

So, what happened?

I let my ego cloud my judgement. I let my fitness slip without adjusting my grade. Then, I got on a climb in unfamiliar conditions with a fractured mentality, and I let myself get pumped. Last, I panicked and escalated the risks until they were way beyond the line.

This isn’t why I climb. I hate being scared. I don’t want to die. In the brief moment at the bottom of the fall I processed what had just happened. I fell so far. Based on how long it had taken, I must be down more than thirty feet, maybe forty. Hadn’t hit the belay ledge at the bottom of the pitch, though.

I could feel my body, could feel where my hip had slammed into the rock. Looked at my hands, reassured to see that I still had my fingers, although they were bloody. I was reeling, wanted to scream and puke and cry all at once. Being this close to death is a disgusting feeling.

Maybe I was bold, maybe I had my head so far in the game that I made a brave move and took a huge whip. Maybe that makes me hard-core. That’s what one guy said when I came down.

But he was wrong.

This wasn’t bold, this was stupid. This was irresponsible and dangerous. My head wasn’t in the game, it was so far up my own ass that I put everyone at risk, myself most of all. Had I hit my head or broken a bone, my friends would have spent their morning doing an emergency rescue. I felt terrible. I couldn’t even untie my knots, I just sat there.

Lessons learned head first

How do you wrap your head around going back up after something like that? How do you avoid these situations? I mean, this didn’t happen in the alpine, this happened right by the road on a bolted sport climb. I had even done the pitch before, onsight, with this same partner.

Why do we risk our lives in the mountains like this? Why are we here?

But the fact of the matter is that sometimes, when you climb, you get into positions where you’re going to fall, you’re going to be scared, you’re going to be at risk. I know I can’t avoid situations like this altogether if I rock climb. What force is it that makes so many people come back to this sport after life-shattering injury?

I sat there asking myself that question, and I got away clean. I wasn’t even seriously injured like some of the people that still climb today. Once again, my skill as a freestyle faller overcame my stupidity as a rock climber and I was ok. But how many chances do you get? Is this all worth it?

I don’t have those answers for you. I certainly won’t have them for myself for quite some time. What I do know is that safety is a thing of approximate margins. You don’t always have control. But sometimes, you just have to cut your losses and take a whipper.

You have to go on your own adventures, for your own reasons.

The most important lesson life teaches us over and over again is that you’ve got to do it for your own reasons. If you live, or climb, on someone else’s terms, you’ll wind up on someone else’s trail and arrive at someone else’s destination.

Practice safe climbing. Be careful of your ego telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. Climb for your own reasons and listen to your own instincts. Never lead unless you’re prepared to fall. And if you can’t make the move, cut your losses and take the whip, but never grab the clip.

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