Falling the Warriors Way
“I want you to focus on your breath. Return everything back to the breath.” This was the first instruction Jeff gave me. “What does that even mean?” I thought to myself. His calm demeanor was reassuring, but on the inside, I was definitely shitting myself.
It’s no secret that my trad climbing is very weak. Last Fall, I dedicated to climbing some more easy gear lines in an attempt to work on my fear of placing and falling on trad gear. I place gear well, but I don’t spend a lot of time on it and have never really whipped on gear, so the irrational fear is there. My friend Chris wanted to test our friendship (only half joking) so he asked Jeff of New River Mountain Guides to give me an abridged clinic that they do with the Warriors Way on falling and trad climbing. Jeff was looking for more experience teaching this clinic so he can be an instructor for the clinic series, so he happily took me on to be a Guinea pig for his teaching. Let me say first that Jeff is an outstanding instructor. His patience and calmness is exactly what a Warriors Way class requires. New River Mountain Guides is a top notch guiding outfit out of the New River Gorge and if you ever need any type of instruction, I highly recommend them.
We started the day with a top rope lap on Zag, a perfect 5.8 crack at Bridge Buttress. Jeff instructed me to focus on breathing more than anything else. This would help me stay relaxed in the future laps I would take on the route while placing my own gear. I’m not too great at jamming, but I quickly made my way up the route, getting use to the sequence and movement that felt foreign compared to hard sport climbing on faces. Lowing down, Jeff was confident in me, which was great because my confidence was low when it came to the whole experience. Even though I didn’t feel ready, Jeff could tell I was ready to push a little bit. I racked up and began to lead the route. After the blocky start, the first bit of real crack climbing is the crux of the route. The first 15 feet is the meat and then it eases up quite a bit. I started to jam my way up and as soon as I had my feet onto the face, moving off the blocky ledge, I could feel the panic setting in. The completely irrational fear felt difficult to control but I did my best to focus on the breath. I placed a cam, took a step upward, and placed another cam. Jeff asked me how they looked as he belayed me from the ground. I relayed that they looked fine, but I was scared. He remained calm, encouraging me to relax and breath, and reminded me that there was no reason for my fear if the gear was good and the fall was clean, which it was. I made it through the crux, placing another cam, and made my way up to the good jug. A safe distance from the start, Jeff had me place a couple cams right next to each other. From here, our exercises began.
We started by just weighting the pieces. Jeff took the rope tight, and I sat back. Of course this was quite anti climactic. Nothing happened. The cams never shifted or moved in the bullet hard sandstone. However, my mind was completely relieved. They held! Miracle! I didn’t pull the entire Bridge Buttress down on top of myself! Jeff lowered me slightly below the two weighted cams. Next, I kicked off the wall, swinging around to show myself that they would hold with a slightly dynamic load. I started slow, feeling uneasy, but then found myself kicking as far out as I could. Chris was at the top of the route looking down, and said how he could see me smile, and see all the fear begin to melt away. The next step was to take some falls while the gear was still above me. I climbed up, and before I reached the cams, I would let go and take the small fall. Every time I took the fall, Jeff instructed to exhale loudly. This would help my body relax and not get tight.
One very important teaching point was to look down while falling and hold my arms and legs out, remaining ready to absorb the impact. Jeff told me that many people stiffen up when falling, which is definitely not what you want to do. Look down, arms out, legs soft. Got it coach! After a few top rope falls, we began to slowly progress to taking larger falls. I would climb up to the gear until it was at my chest, then harness, then later thighs, and finally feet. After every fall Jeff asked me how I was doing, what did I feel, how was the fall, what was the fear. For most people, this is difficult to admit. It’s hard to admit or put into words why you are irrationally afraid of something. The fear is just there! But what I didn’t know was how helpful it was to verbalize this. Explaining to Jeff what I was feeling made me feel less afraid. When I explained to him, “The gear is good, there is nothing to be afraid of, but I’m still a little uneasy”. “Good,” he said, “Let’s do it again.” This slow repetition with gradual progress was the perfect way to move forward.
After many repetitions, feeling the confidence build and fear melt away, Jeff had me finish the route, and clean it. The next step for me was to mock lead a more difficult route and fall on every piece of gear.
We went over to Chockstone, a 5.9 that starts on a face, moves up to a corner, and finishes with layback and stem moves up to easier terrain. Jeff had me on a loose top rope backup and Chris belayed me on lead. Stepping off the ground I already felt like a brand new climber with less fear and more confidence. After some crimpy moves, I placed a small cam, stepped up, and took a fall. It held! Amazing! I climbed up some more, passing the first piece and placed another, then repeated the process. I ended up stitching the route up quite a bit, placing lots of gear and taking a fall at each piece. Some of it looked bomber to me, while some of it looked a bit marginal, but all of it held with out even shifting, which was a huge confidence booster to me on my placements and how strong the gear actually is. Every fall helped build more and more confidence. By the top, I was almost jumping up to cause a bigger fall and really test the gear.
I reached the top and reflected on the morning. It was amazing how the teaching strategies of the Warriors Way allowed me to progress so quickly but never feeling pushed too hard or rushed. I was extremely impressed with Jeff and his teaching. As I said, I highly recommend him and New River Mountain Guides for the Warriors Way classes or any other guiding. The few hours I spent will pay huge dividends in the future for me and my trad climbing. It was a huge confidence boost and I learned valuable tools to keep my mind in check when placing gear.