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Gear Guy

Should You Be Allowed to Practice Lead Falls in the Gym?

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I climb at a gym in the Midwest that has implemented a policy of “no intentional lead falls.” This is frustrating, since my partner and I have gone there for over a year to practice lead falls, after a suggestion from a Dave MacLeod training book for overcoming the fear of falling. This has been a great training technique, with a noticeable positive effect on our rare and coveted trips to outdoor crags.

But the gym says that intentionally falling and taking victory whips from the top anchor cause rope damage. To be clear: The gym provides the ropes, but won’t even let us fall on our own ropes, saying that would set a bad example. We do try to be responsible. We rest the rope between falls, swap ends, try to give soft catches, and make sure not to fall low on the route where the fall factor is high.

Am I completely off base here? We are taking multiple lead falls up to fall factor 0.3, but I think there’s something to be said for learning to fall confidently and safely. Short of driving six hours to the Red every time I want to clip bolts, what should I do?

—Skyler Degenkolb, via

That gym is raining on all the fun. Imagine how swell it
would be if you took a massive victory whip—our version of the Blue Angels’ barrel roll—and your belayer got his beard caught in the device,
and you hit the floor from 45 feet. Such good practice for the real thing out at the Red.

The gym has a valid point: Falling on a rope will accelerate wear. You are doing all the right things by resting the rope, etc., but intentionally falling
on a rope is dollars out the door for the gym owner. A rope only has a capacity of X for absorbing energy, and every time it catches a fall, a bit
of that capacity diminishes. This is true even for low-factor falls.

Gym management is also correct about setting a bad example when you bring your own rope and purposely fall on it. You and the staff know the rope is yours,
but no one else does. The other climbers in the gym will see you, and due to the Hundredth Monkey Effect, mimic your behavior.

The other issue, the one that has gone unsaid, is that of insurance ramifications. To qualify for insurance or an affordable rate, a gym has to minimize
risk. Since most bean counters believe that falling is risky—hard to argue, since most rock-climbing injuries are gravity-related—they’d
take a dim view of a gym that lets people fall for fun or training.

I can agree that practicing falling can habituate you to an otherwise frightening experience. When you repeatedly fall without injury, you engage in non-associative
learning. Instead of white-knuckling every hold, you become calm, improving your lead ability. A similar process is observed in sea slugs. But, since
you live in Chicago or somewhere near there, you’ll just have to give up on this type of indoor conditioning, bite the bullet and climb at the Red.
That’s not so bad, is it? Next!

Feature Image: Photo: Tempura / Getty Images.

This article originally appeared in Rock and Ice issue 229 (September 2015).

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