Climb Hard, Fall Safely! Tips from the Philadelphia Rock Gyms

I get a monthly newsletter from the Philadelphia Rock Gyms (PRG), and thought a piece of this month's newsletter was definitely worth sharing. I went bouldering at PRG Oaks on Monday night, still itching to climb after the Earth Treks Roc Comp, and tweaked my ankle falling in between two pads. It was a reminder that we've really got to be careful out there! My ankle's 100% better now, luckily, but it could've been a lot worse! So, read on for tips on how to fall safely in bouldering.

Bouldering 102 - Climb Hard, Fall Safely!
From the Philadelphia Rock Gyms Newsletter #2.5, May 2010

In every other sport where safe landings are important--martial arts, gymnastics, sky-diving--athletes consider falling to be a skill and spend the requisite number of training hours practicing their landings. Every sport, it seems, except bouldering.

For a variety of reasons, many boulderers seem to have an attitude of, "Practice? We don't need no stinking practice!" when it comes to taking falls, assuming, perhaps, that falls are such a natural thing that anyone will adopt the proper attitude as a matter of course, landing nice and safe from fall one.

Sadly, the number of ankle and wrist injuries I have witnessed over the years would indicate that this assumption is faulty. So, today we will discuss some of the elements involved in falling safely from your favorite boulder problems. Well, in fact we are going to start with spotting, but it will all make sense in the end...

Spotting 0.1: Know your climber!
In steep bouldering, the spotter's primary job is to protect the climber's head, neck and back. In this, the spotter--like a belayer--enters into an implicit contract with his climber. The spotter agrees to do everything within her power to keep the climber out of the hospital. In return, the climber agrees not to do something silly, like jam his index finger into his spotter's eye socket. Unfortunately, it is here where the spotter/climber relationship often breaks down before it has fairly begun.

I'll say it: Most boulderers don't know how to fall. Take, for example, Billy, your average 185 lb, ex-body-builder who has recently taken up the "extreme" sport of bouldering. On a bright, Sunday afternoon in the Gunks, Billy thrutches up the steep, opening moves of the Gill Egg, only to get a little sketched, as usual, on the dyno at the lip. Placing both feet on the lower boulder, he pumps his legs a few times, getting psyched. A small crowd has gathered around Billy, drawn by his punctuated wheezing, breath whistling through clenched teeth as though he were about to give birth to the mother of all throws. Then he launches for the finishing jug...and comes up short. Not so short that he misses the hold, but short enough that the longer he holds on, the further he'll be going into the woods when he peels. Not the kind to give up and take a fall--or anything else--gracefully, Billy cranks like a disease on that last hold, letting his feet sweep out an arc of black, sticky pain to anyone within their reach.

One person within reach is Darryl, Billy's faithful partner. Darryl, a competent spotter, is dutifully watching his climber's hips, ready for the catch at any instant. As a result, he is not watching the instep of Billy's size 13 Moccasym as it comes whistling over his right shoulder, ready to slam into Darryl's left temple and tear off his head, lofting it high over the Carriage Road. Billy, oblivious to his spotter's predicament, gets his last glimpse of Darryl's face as it rolls to a stop a few feet to the right of the crash pad. Right where, an instant later, Billy does a face plant.

A bit graphic, perhaps, but it illustrates one of the biggest problems in bouldering. Most spotters are more concerned about getting kicked in the head than they are about giving a good spot. Climbers must be aware that their flailing habits--whether it be hands or feet--have a great impact on the quality of spot they get. As a result, practicing safe falling will not only reduce your injury rate, it will reduce it for your partners as well!

Safe Falls: Practicing Relaxation
In a perfect world, all climbers would pass out an instant after popping off and collapse peacefully to their pads like little piles of moist seaweed. Which brings me to my first postulate: It is not what we do during a fall that is most important; rather, it is what we don't do. Climbing falls are not always predictable. In cases, there is a very narrow window of time to determine how best to take the fall. During this window, climbers can react in quite natural ways, which, nonetheless can easily lead to injury. Here are some of the most common "don'ts":

Don't tense up.
The first thing that all climbers must learn is to relax during a fall. A tense body will transfer more force to the point of impact-in bouldering that is most likely to be your feet, or the base of your spine! A relaxed body is better able to spread the impact force over a larger area.

Don't try to stop your fall with your hands.
I am amazed at how many climber's first reaction during a fall is to put their hands down. Your arms and wrists were not designed to take that kind of weight. In addition, a bent wrist is easier to break.

Don't try to stay standing up.
Perhaps the single biggest mistake boulderers make. Trying too hard to keep your balance can result in over-compensating, generally to the rear. These leads to "back-pedaling" into whatever bodies or objects happen to be behind you. If you can stay standing up easily, fine. If, however, you feel that you may fall over-do it! Better the ground that you know, than the tree that you don't.

Don't try to "control" the fall.
This concept shows up in many ways-pushing away from the wall with hands or feet, grabbing holds on the way down to stop or "slow" the fall, even trying to aim for the pad. Basically, in a battle between you and gravity, gravity will win. Actions intended to overtly control a fall, almost invariably lead to disaster-pushing away from the wall will send you flying into the lockers, grabbing holds will lead to hurt fingers and hands (not to mention face plants), aiming for the pad after an unexpected fall will probably land you on your spotter's head.

Don't climb beyond your fall tolerance (maximum deck clearance)
A climbers fall tolerance can be simply defined as the height from which they are comfortable falling. I chose the word comfortable on purpose, as opposed to safe. In bouldering there are no completely safe falls--people have broken ankles and wrists from falls as low as two feet--it is important not to have the illusion that we can judge, in a black and white manner, the difference between a "safe" fall and its implied counter-part, an "un-safe" fall.

But, comfort level is something that you have constant access to, and which directly affects your ability to relax into a fall. Moreover, comfort level is not merely dependent on height. Difficulty, landing zone, steepness, conditions, all these and more will go into how comfortable you feel risking any kind of fall.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good start. Which brings us to the "do's".

On the ground, this seems obvious. But, on the wall, generally in unexpected falls, the body's natural reaction is to tense up. Bad idea.

Do know when to let go.
Sending your project is a proud accomplishment, but is it worth a broken ankle? Many of the worst falls I have seen have come as a result of a climber holding on well beyond the point at which he has a chance of staying on the problem. These sorts of situations often result in a "hands first" fall, where the hands pop before the feet. These can be dangerous falls, because it takes longer for the feet to come under the hips, and can result in climbers turning at weird angles. In cases where landings are relatively safe, flat and padded, this sort of pop may be reasonably casual. But, if the landing is bad, holding on with everything you have could result in a poor fall and a busted something or other.

Practice helps eliminate uncertainty which leads to a higher comfort level. If you are more comfortable falling, you will be more relaxed, hence safer...Q.E.D. Indoor climbing provides a more cotrolled environment and better padding. As a result it is a great place to practice falling in different ways, from different heights, etc. Don't wait for your first highball or landing covered in talus to find out how you will react if you slip off. Check your pads and get comfortable in the air at the gym. Your wrists and ankles will thank you for it.


nahson said…
worst blog spot ever