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In the gym... and a fear of falling update...

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
5 min read

So, my March has been unusually light on outdoor climbing. I think partly, I was spoiled rotten to get to go to Red Rock once in January and again the first weekend in March (which is usually my season opener at Vantage or Smith) so my trip rhythm is just a little bit off. Combine that with work stress, and the more-than-usual recovery I needed after my second Red Rock trip, and I’ve been a mostly indoor climber lately.

Usually when I get back from a trip, the gym is a necessary evil. I know I need to do it, but the last thing I want to do is pull on plastic. I usually spend my first day back in the gym on the cracks, since they’re at least a little bit like climbing outside. I ease myself back onto routes, usually climbing a level or two below what I did before my trip and recovery, then work my way back up to climbing at max. I also keep up with my antagonist muscle training (dips, bench, push-ups) and abs, which I never bother to do when I’m actually on trips. That’s been the rhythm that’s kept me from getting frustrated, and kept me making forward progress, for the last two seasons or so.

Lately, though, I’ve been having an unusual amount of fun in the gym. It all started with a whipper…

I was in the gym with Climbing Partner… we’ve been making an effort to lead in the gym more than we had through the winter, to work on our lead heads for the outdoor season. The gym doesn’t directly translate, since the bolts are SO close together compared to outside, but still — it’s better than nothing. We had gotten in a good warm-up, and I’d just started doing sets of leads at about my lead onsight level, and some a bit harder. I hopped on a route at a grade that would typically be difficult but do-able for me with maybe one take; I made it two bolts, got scared, wasn’t feeling it, and lowered off. I cursed the route (“that’s no fun! It’s just stupid, and scary!”) indulged in a momentary bad attitude about it, then had a drink of water, had a snack, belayed my partner, and tied back in and sent the route. It wasn’t pretty — I was scared, and nervous, but stubborn, and I knew I had to reset my head, so I went at it. Afterward I felt proud of myself for turning it around, but I knew I needed to relax and work on my flow, so that I wasn’t just panic-ing my way up routes the rest of the night.

I got on to lead a known, trusted route one tick easier that I’ve toproped about three hundred times. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s a route I’ve done a bunch. I started up, feeling good, relaxed, having fun. I flowed, I climbed, I clipped bolts, and then, about a bolt from the top…


I don’t remember this…


wow, I’m unbelievably pumped…”

I moved out right to a slopey envelope slot, but my feet just felt off. I downclimbed a move to an easier rest, and tried again. My feet were still off. If I trusted the envelope slot, and got my other hand up to the next good edge, I’d make a clip off that edge. I was way too pumped to try to clip off the envelope slot, so if I trusted it to move up, I was risking a few-foot lead fall since I was just above the bolt. I decided I’d rather try than take, thinking that usually when I try I stick it and the risk is worth it, and plus – my belayer will catch me… so I moved out to the envelope slot, tried to push up with my still-not-right feet and I fell.

I fell so fast, and with so much surprise (even though I should have seen it coming) that I didn’t even get a warning out to my belayer. He caught me, surprised himself since we’ve been climbing together for a year plus and I’m not sure I’ve ever taken a real lead fall on him before. I climbed up to my high point and tried it again, and fell again. By that point, I was STOKED. Two lead falls, not scared, still relaxed, still having fun, and ready for more. I figured out the footwork (I was missing a hold entirely) and finished the route.

It was awesome.

I have always struggled with my fear of falling. I’ve done test falls, which actually haven’t helped a whole lot… yes, I gain the muscle memory that falls can be safe, but for some reason, test falls don’t help my head. They make me scared. That night in the gym was a breakthrough for me… real training falls, caught by my belayer, were what I needed in order to be less afraid and to more accurately calculate my risk in a given situation.

The very next time I went into the gym, a Girl Scout group was there for an intro class. One of my friends asked if I’d do a lead climb demonstration and take a lead fall for the girls… I was stoked to get to do both. I didn’t get in a solid warmup… just one route at way sub-max… and then tied in for a climb I’d onsighted on toprope before and climbed many times on toprope since. I started up the route, plan in place with my trusty belayer that I’d get to a safe high spot then fall at the last clip before the anchors… it would be a nice dramatic fall on safe terrain for the girls to see. I clipped the first, then second bolt, and worked my way up, feeling that I wasn’t warm, and getting a bit pumpy, but staying calm and having fun. I got about 2/3 of the way up and realized… um… I’ve toproped this a bunch of times, but never lead it. And, it’s HARD.

I made it up to just below where I’d planned to take a fall, and I was so pumped I could hardly hold on. I had to make a dynamic move up to the next hold, and I went for it and again — fell with so much surprise that I don’t think I got a “falling” out, but I do think I made a little “peep” of surprise. My belayer caught me, I smiled broadly and shook out my arms, then got back on and finished after de-pumping just enough to pull the move. When I got to the ground, some of the Girl Scouts were shaking their heads, “I’ll NEVER do that, how scary!” (things I used to say, myself but don’t bother with any more)… but I saw a handful of shining, smiling faces, bright-eyed girls, who you could see by the look on their faces were thinking, “I can’t WAIT to do that.”

It was so satisfying that things fell into place for me to be able to do that. Those Girl Scouts (and, the friend who asked me to do the demo) had no idea what a big deal it was for me. But, now I’m having fun on lead in the gym, and am pushing my limits and taking falls, finally. I’m getting on hard projects onsight, and I can feel that it’s going to make me stronger physically and mentally. It’s been good for my trust in my climbing partners, and plus, it’s just so much FUN. I can’t wait to see how I feel outside… I’m not going to go purposely signing up for any whippers, but I do look forward to pushing my limits just a bit more than I have been up until now.

How is your gym training going this season? If you’re a “faller,” how did you get there? If you’re not yet, what are the challenges you’re dealing with? Please join in, in the comments!

Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.