Thursday, February 21, 2008


I was 30 feet up, clinging to the wall with only my fingertips, my toes jammed into a couple of crevices just big enough to accommodate them. There was nothing between me and the floor but thin air. A spider girl, I had scuttled up to my perch using all my cunning and all my strength. The hard part was done. Now all I had to do was let go, and fall.

A crowd of people were gathered around to watch. This was a rite of passage at the climbing gym. It was the end of the Lead Climbing course, where every student must practice falling. Twice.

Yes, the floor was padded. Sure, I was wearing a harness. But the rope from my harness was slack, and the last clip that it passed through, attached to the wall, was several feet below me. In Sport Climbing, the safety rope runs through an anchor on the ceiling, so that the climber is like a yo-yo on a string. You can go up and down, but as long as your partner has diligently taken up all the slack in the rope, you can let go of the wall and sit dangling in your harness anytime you like.

I trusted my harness and my climbing partners so much by this point that it was nothing for me to take a rest at the top of the highest climb, swaying 60 feet up above the floor.

Lead Climbing is a different story. You bring the rope up with you, "clipping in" to anchors on the wall as you climb. If you're five feet above your last anchor when you fall, you'll drop ten feet before the rope catches you. That's a long way. Picture the yo-yo, suspended five inches above the finger it's tied to. Now drop it. See how it falls? See it swing?

And that's why you have to practice falling. An inexperienced climber will instinctively push themselves away from the rock as they fall, but the problem is that the rope will pull them back in again on the downswing. When you're swinging back in towards the wall, your next instinct will be to put out a hand or foot to slow yourself down. Lots of climbers get broken wrists and injured ankles that way.

You have to be able to just... let go. Without panic. Without pushing away. Just let go. And fall straight down.

How much did I trust the instructor who was holding the other end of my safety rope? At that moment, I had to trust him with my life.

As you're letting go, you yell out "FALLING!", to give your partner some slight warning that you need a catch.

I'd watched the Lead Climbing course many times before I took it myself. Here's how it usually played out. One by one, the participants would chalk their sweating hands, and climb with rubber legs up to the 30 foot mark. They all tried to look brave, especially the guys, but you could tell they were scared shitless. Then they'd stick to that wall like glue. It was so hard to let go. Some would yell FALLING! and then there would be a loooong delay, before they could actually uncurl their frightened fingers from the rock. The crowd below savoured every moment of suspense.

As I prepared for the course, I swore that I would not get myself glued to the wall. I would not show fear. I would go balls out. I wanted to out-jock the cockiest jocks in the gym.

During the weeks leading up to the course, I visualized the moment of falling over and over. I visualized it as I fell asleep at night. I already knew how it would feel when my hands relaxed and let go of the rock. I felt the harness catch me again and again. I knew I was safe.

I was 30 feet up in the air, with nothing beneath me but the floor, and a circle of faces, watching gleefully. I looked straight ahead, at my hands. I called FALLING!, and as my teeth closed on the back edge of the "G", I dropped.

The 20 feet of free-fall put every roller coaster I've ever ridden to shame. In the last ten feet, the instructor executed a perfectly controlled catch, slowing me until I stopped with my toes two inches above the mats.

Then he sent me back up the wall to do it again.


Aurora said...

Holy shit. I'm scared just reading it. Congrats on falling. (Sounds unusual--usually we're saying, congrats on having climbed so high.)

Leighann said...

Wow, kudos to you! I think I'll stay on the ground!

Warped Mind of Ron said...

I've got no problems with that macho thing I would be crying and pissing myself at the same time :)

Sparkling Red said...

Aurora: Thanks. That's one reason why I like that story so much - it flies in the face of standard definitions of courage.

Leighann: Thanks! Yes, this is kind of a bragging post. I am still proud of what I did, and I like to savour the memory. :-)

Warped Mind of Ron: Well, it's good to know that you're... um... comfortable with your "sensitive side". No climbing for you! ;-)

Karen said...

You have got more gusto than me. I wouldn't even climb the wall never mind free fall. Way to go.

PixieVonAzia said...

Nope not me. Your one brave lady! Not even if I knew the net was behind me would I let myself fall =) Congrats on your achievement =)

R.E.H. said...


I'd be holding on for dear life up there... screaming at the top of my lungs for someone to please get me down from here!

But, then again - I have a tremendous fear of hights.

Sparkling Red said...

Karen: Thanks! I don't know if I'd still have it in me to do that today. I was in a rebellious phase at the time.

Pixie Von Azia: Thank you!

R.E.H.: Yeah, I think that particular challenge might be a bit too far outside your comfort zone. But to put it in perspective, anyone who drives is braver than me. I have plenty of my own anxieties. :-)

jameil1922 said...


i'll climb and i like the bouncing down thing but falling. no, no no no and never. i don't like heights and i don't like roller coasters.

Anonymous said...

Good job Super Girl! I don't know if I'd be able to do such a thing. I am okay with heights but falling from them is a whole other story.

Sparkling Red said...

Jameil: I don't much like roller coasters either. I don't like being spun in spirals, and I really don't like being flipped upside-down. Old-fashioned coasters that only go up and down hills are OK, but who has those anymore?

1218blog: Thanks! I did feel invicible that day.

Nicole said...

That sounds scary.
Nothing for me ;)