I'm a 36 your old guy, I've been climbing for a few years and up to now I've been progressing at a speed I'm happy with really. The problem I have is that I tend to climb in a very measured fashion which I think is holding me back. When I was seconding everything, early on, I tried to climb as if I was leading. Not jumping for holds or anything like that. Now that I am leading more that has translated to me being particularly cautious and consequently I have never taken a proper lead fall. I am assured by my seconds that my pro is well placed and that I could confidently fall on to it and be fine. Until that happens though, I feel this is really holding me back, stopping me cutting lose a bit and trying harder stuff. What do you think, do you think a lead fall is essential or do I need to build my confidence and skill by seconding harder routes ? Thanks very much.
A leader fall is only essential, if you can’t hold on anymore! If you are always climbing within your grade or backing off things when they start getting tricky, then you will never experience that sensation of pushing yourself to your physical and mental limit. Unfortunately, to progress at anything, this is what you need to do. This doesn’t mean it’s dangerous or you will hurt yourself but you will find yourself experiencing feelings that are new and need to be dealt with.
So, how do you build up to that? I am assuming you are just talking about falling outside on trad routes and you are already falling on lead indoors. If you aren’t then you could definitely start here, to progress outside; by taking some easy leader falls on steep ground making sure your belayer knows how to give a dynamic belay. But I will talk about falling for trad routes. There is nothing wrong with climbing cautiously on trad but you need to strike a balance between caution and knowing when to go for it…. So, to help you go for it on harder moves you need to trust your gear 100% and this means testing it. Most people test it early on by having random falls and it all stays in or maybe some comes out. But most people get away with a few bits falling out and soon learn to make sure they put their gear in a better. But because you haven’t gone through this process, you’ll need to replicate it safely. So with two patient belayers, find a climb that is accessible and easy to mess about on and takes plenty of different types of gear. You’ll set up a top rope on it for safety and then you’ll lead the route as you normally would. It doesn’t have to be a hard route, it’s up to you how you want to play it but the crux is that you will make yourself fall off onto your gear in various places. You can start on a route you’ve done before and then progress to an onsight (still with the top rope).
So, the person belaying the top rope will keep it a little slack, so that the top rope doesn’t take your weight when you fall. Then at your discretion, you’ll climb the route as you normally would in a lead scenario, putting in gear and then you’ll take a few different falls on the route. The falls do not need to be big whoppers, the idea of this exercise is to test your gear out so that you really know you can fall onto it and it is solid. So if you have put pieces in that you think are a bit iffy, then this is a great scenario to experiment with them and see what they can take. When you have this knowledge of your gear placements, you will definitely find it easier to push yourself and climb further between pieces. Hopefully, it will also help with judgment of when it’s appropriate to go for it and when caution is best applied. When you get really good at this, you’ll be able to push yourself, even when you aren’t totally sure about the gear. Also, it may be that you need to learn to go for it more quickly on crux sections, if you climb cautiously here (unless you have incredible amounts of stamina), the usual result is getting very pumped and failing on the hardest move or giving up because you know you’ve got no juice left. So practicing climbing quickly, positively and confidently on cruxes maybe down the wall should help to give you more scope. Also, remembering the crucial technique of down climbing if you get pumped, to allow yourself to recover rather than taking on the rope. It is a good idea to second hard routes but the only reason is that it prepares you for hard moves…but crucially only on top rope. So although you may have experienced these hard moves seconding, at some point you need to take the plunge and try and lead some of these routes.
Lastly, it is better to try a route and fall off, than to never get on it- even though it can feel gutting at the time. So if you are trying something at your limit don’t be afraid about the possibility of a fall and if it does happen DO NOT grab the gear or climb down and shout “take”- take the fall, even if it’s only a few inches. This will get you out of the mentality of giving up and using the get out clauses I’ve just mentioned.