I've talked the talk about learning to fall on gear since I started this trad climbing business, but the lowly three falls I've taken thus far show I haven't really walked the walk.
This has to change, a fact that was brought sharply into focus by my first lead this weekend. Between the sport climbing trip to italy, bad weather, and unreliable partners, it had been a while since I'd done any trad. With Ramon back from Spain and the weather looking good, we headed off to Pembroke on Friday night pretty psyched. Ramon took the first lead, then I got onto the classic crack climb First Blood (E2 5c). By the time I had climbed the juggy start and placed my first three pieces of gear, my calves were pumped - I was clearly stressing pretty bad and standing right up on my tiptoes. I had a good rest position so I took some time to compose myself and then headed up into the crack. I came to the first hard move, and found myself totally gripped - the hold I needed was right there, but my position felt a little tenuous and I couldn't bring myself to take my hand off the rock to go for it. I backed down a couple of moves to give myself a talking to. The gear was good but I'd been afraid to commit, so there was only one thing to do - climb back up and jump off. This settled me a bit, but I knew I needed to go further this time so I took another two falls, getting progressively longer, and then cruised up the rest of the line pretty relaxed. I took another lob nearer the top for the sake of falling on a different bit of gear.
Next, Ramon went for Brave New World (E4 6a). There was a soaking wet, unprotected off-width to start, leading into a nice safe stance under a roof to arrange good protection, then round the roof onto a well protected crack line. As I watched him climb, I could see the same blind terror stopping him as I'd felt half an hour before. He arranged, then rearranged his gear at the stance. And again - taking an age to commit to the roof. Once out onto the face, he got two bomber wires in place, but couldn't commit to the crack. Slumping onto the rope, he looked down and asked "do you mind if we leave the gear here and come back for it tomorrow?". With the rising tide about to cut us off I had a decision to make - relaxed from my falling practice it took about 10 seconds to make it. "I'll lead us out"
I left the ropes up so the wet off-width was on top rope, and proceeded round the roof onto the face. I ended up getting stupidly pumped sorting out a couple of runners below the crux, so as I went for it my fingers gave out and off I came. After a bit of a rest, I cruised up the main crack, feeling really good about my climbing and the situation. From unable to commit to the crux of an E2 to relaxed on an E4 in one easy step. Proof, if proof were needed, that falling practice not only works but can give very quick results.
As we discussed the days events over a pint of seafarers, we came to the conclusion that falling practice on the first route of the day, every trad day till it's comfortable, should be the way forward. We didn't discuss it again in the morning, so as Ramon headed up his first lead, I wondered if he was going to go for it - he's not as comfortable falling on bolts as I am, so if it's hard for me on gear, it must be torture for him. Half way up, he stopped and spent some time looking out to sea, so I knew he was psyching himself up. A couple of (I presume) catalan swearwords came out, and then he threw himself off. Another three of four falls followed, none of them looking very happy, but the proof of the pudding would come a bit later, as I knew he was going for another crack at Brave New World.
This time he breezed up it - no shaking, no stressing, and no backing down. He then followed up with an arguably even more impressive onsight of Howling Gale (E3 6a) - making several meters of tenuous moves past an old rotting peg to reach the easier ground at the top, which I almost came off on second.
Significant progress for both of us then, and all it took was a bit of commitment to the brave new world of falling on gear.