It's Important to Fall

By ERIK ORTON

I’m sitting here with a very sore left foot and a bruised knee among other injuries.  Today I went rock climbing and pushed my limits.  I’ve consistently been upping the difficulty of routes I do as I prepare for our trip this fall.  Today I reached a breaking point.

I went out with a new climbing partner, Rob.  Rob is a solid climber and makes great company.  We did a longish, easy climb to get us acquainted and physically warmed up.  We then did a short, more difficult climb at the edge of my ability.  The hardest moves were right at the beginning.  I popped off the rock, but was only 5-6 feet up.  I landed on flat ground and Rob made sure I didn’t topple backward.  With some help and encouragement I made it up the whole route, clipped into the chains at the top and repelled down.  I then tried a route that was pretty far above my pay grade.  It was a joke.  I could barely get off the ground, but I tried.  I went back and tried the opening moves I’d flubbed on the previous climb.  I nailed them.  I was getting better.  But I was also getting a little tired.

My trusty climbing harness.

My trusty climbing harness.

We gathered up our rope and gear and walked down the path to some more climbs.  I picked a long route that was again at the edge of my ability and we started up.  It was what climbers call an off-width crack: too big for hands and fingers to hold onto anything, but not wide enough to get your whole body inside and ascend using opposing pressure.  I aced the off-width section and was relieved to be at the ledge, clip into the anchor and set up my belay.  The sun came out and it started to really warm up.  My mouth was dry.

I started up the last section.  After this I knew I’d be ready for some water and lunch.  It got half way up and started to feel unsure.  The route went straight up, but there was a side step that looked like it would get me up to the same point and was a lot less strenuous.  I waffled.  I ended up stepping out to the right, leaving the vertical corner and standing on small ledges about 150’ above the ground.  Once I was out there, the side step route didn’t look so promising. 

I climbed up a bit further and stepped left back into the corner system.  All the holds felt greasy.  My hands were sweating.  Even the white chalk I carried wasn’t helping.  I clipped into a pin that someone had pounded into the crack.  It looked sketchy, so I set another cam device into the crack and clipped my rope.  I stepped up and started to pull around the rock that was jutting out from the cliff.  My hands were exhausted.  I heard my self say, “I’m going,” and then everything flashed in front of my face.  I dropped 15-20 feet before my rope pulled tight.

I hadn’t taken what rock climbers call a “lead fall” since I was 16.  I’m now 43.  Twenty-seven years is too long to between falls.

The spot where I took my first lead fall as a teenager.

The spot where I took my first lead fall as a teenager.

The sketchy pin I’d clipped had snapped.  The back-up cam I’d set held.  I’d banged my foot pretty hard, but was okay.  I could still climb.  Rob’s adrenaline was pumping but he’d aced his part too:  he’d kept me from splatting.  My mouth was a desert.  We checked in with each other.  We were both okay.  I took a breather, and then headed back up.  (Those cams are expensive, I couldn’t just leave it there.)

The cam that held my fall.

The cam that held my fall.

I climbed upward, this time staying in the corner.  I saw new holds I hadn’t seen before.  I made it past the overhang and continued upward.  I set another piece in the crack and kept moving up.  Nothing felt solid in my hands.  I was getting sewing machine leg (when you stand on a small foothold and--because your leg it exhausted--it spasms under the exertion).  I clipped another pin and set another cam.  I pulled into the overhang.  I heaved up and got my upper body almost onto the ledge.  And then I tumbled backward.  I flipped over and landed head down, my back to the cliff, facing out into the Hudson Valley.  I was spent.  I had no energy left. 

Rob checked in with me to make sure I was okay.  I was, except for my disappointment and exhaustion.  I hoisted myself upright, heaved up on the rope, got myself back to the last pin I’d clipped.  I removed my cam and lowered off.  I left one of my oldest carabiners—one I’d bought when I was fourteen—clipped to the pin.  After 200 feet, I retreated, just six feet from the top.  We repelled all the way to the ground.

Friendly reminders.

Friendly reminders.

Strangely, I was glad I’d fallen.  I was disappointed and a bit banged up, but I’d pushed myself.  I hadn’t been flagrant or glib.  I’d put all the proper safety protections in place, but I’d still failed.  That was okay.  I knew something I didn’t know before.  There was a very clear line between what I could do and what I wanted to do.  It had been twenty-seven years since I’d taken a fall.  Now I’d fallen twice in one day.  Yes, I was tired.  I probably could have completed the climb if my energy was fresh, but knowing my endurance level was important too.  Falling had helped my define my next steps.

So I’m sitting here after rubbing Arnicare on my foot and taking an Epsom salt bath.  I’m sure I’m gonna feel more pain tomorrow.  But that’s okay.  It will remind me I have work to do.


If you want to learn about how to fall safely, check out this video.  I'm not endorsing REI, but I do like to buy some of my gear from them.  Falling on bolts must be nice : )