Learning to Fall

How Climbers Cope with  Failure – Even in the Face of Death

No one likes to fail, but failure is often inevitable in activities that require physical performance. Working to failure allows the body and the mind to go stronger through experience. But what happens when that failure doesn’t only damage your ego but could take your life?
Rock climbers experience this reality every day. They need to make mistakes in order to learn, but the smallest mistake could cost them their lives. That is why they have developed a coping mechanism – strategies and training programs to help practice falling in a safe and controlled environment.


Seasoned climbers like Lead Climbing Instructor Alex Nadolishny, lead novice climbers through the technical basics. Then they set up a system of ropes which allows them to practice handling their equipment and taking falls -- but with a backup mechanism to catch them -- just in case.

In spite of the safety that comes with redundancy within their ropes, there is no backup mechanism to keep them from the portion of their mind that the will inevitably enter when fear overtakes them at the top of the wall as the instructor calls out: “Let Go”. For that, there is only a deep breath, a leap of faith, and a simple promise:

 “It will get easier, but it will never not suck.” – Alex Nadolishny, Climbing instructor at Philadelphia Rock Gyms

So what happens when the fall is over? Some students laugh. Some cry. Some collapse in a heap of emotion. No matter if experience exhilarates them, or shakes them to their core, every climber is compelled to try again. This is because falling does not only represent a physical risk, it also represents a loss of progress.

“Failures show your weaknesses, they show you where the gaps are in your skills are. And your strengths. If you never fail, then that means that you have never really challenged yourself, and you’ve never pushed beyond the pale of what you can do.“ - Alex Nadolishny

Kelly Meissner