Dr. MacLeod, or how I learnt to stop worrying and love the fall.

I wrote in typically exhaustive detail about my fear of lead climbing here. To recap, when lead climbing, you have to climb over the bolts that you periodically clip into, and at that point if you fall, you fall double the distance of however far above the bolt you climbed. Check out the picture above, where Nisse, my most daring and powerful climbing buddy, is over the bolt (just by his right foot), and is pulling out rope to clip into the penultimate bolt on this amazing route, Ignition (7a), Nacka Kvarn. If he slips now, he will easily take a four or five metre fall, but he’s a bad motherfucker who doesn’t give a shit.

This risk can be terrifying, and for mere mortals the fear of the fall means you will climb badly, without daring or confidence, ‘over-gripping’ the holds and getting exhausted. Before reading the book this post is about (‘9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes‘ by Dave MacLeod), when leading I was often terrified of doing routes that were a full two or three grades below what I could do when fearless top-rope climbing (where you can’t fall at all, and so a measure of physical capability without any reckoning of mental ability). However this book changed everything. Like when Lordi won Eurovision. Or like when I totally fucked my ankle up two months ago which is why I’ve been doing fuck all hiking lately (lots of reading though!).

There are a lot of books about climbing, with how-to’s and (1), (2), (3) figures showing stick figures doing heal hooks and figure fours and so on. This abundance of self-help books is part of the problem according to MacLeod. His book stands out markedly from the competition with its figure-free text and direct, almost accusing tone smacking you in the face like an angry wet fish. I have a little collection of climbing books, and people always flick through them, ignore ‘9 out of 10 climbers…’ and borrow the superficially more interesting and colourful ‘Freedom of the Hills’, ‘Extreme Alpinism’ or ‘The self-coached climber’. Those books sluttishly gave up their stock of goods early, whereas ‘9 out of 10 climbers…’ just keeps on giving, repaying whatever work you put into it with a rich harvest of improved technique and self-examination (like my wife). MacLeod obviously has a knack for coaching (he runs a superb coaching blog thing here), and this translates very well to the book.

You can almost appreciate that just from the section headings, listed on MacLeod’s website. Every section is precise, succinct and holds a single focused idea, jagged and sharp like a shard of glass. These ideas are obviously the results of years of experience and thought, often at once obvious, and yet also revelational. Sometimes they are something I have been thinking about, an idea that I had glimpsed a vague ghost of, but was now suddenly presented to me in a clear and eloquent form. And sometimes the ideas just feel totally novel, invigorating and fresh, a blast of new thought instantly blowing away old conceptions and revealing a new perception, like that moment when a magic-eye picture suddenly swims into focus. If anything the book is too dense, there is so much to take in that a single read just leaves an impression of the details. Getting your copy underlined and note-filled, dipping into it as you progress is a very rewarding process, and today my copy is as stained, worn and well-thumbed as a porn mag before the internet.

One repeated admonishment from MacLeod is the idea of overcoming the fear of falling. To do this by learning to fall, to practise falling in the gym, a little higher every time, and then in time to practise outdoors, until the bodies natural fear of falling is overridden. This is the advice that I feel has had the most obvious impact on my climbing. A few dozen evenings of falling practise indoors and I found myself seeing deep, coherent improvements in my leading.

The fear of falling is still there, I get a floaty feeling in my feet, and sweaty palms just thinking about going over the crux bolt on a recent awesome hangdogged climb (Wild Kids at Vistingeklippan, being climbed by beautiful Sandra above). The cliff was over-hanging, a ledge was the next step, it had to be heel hooked and half-mantled to get onto. And yet the overhang meant that my body had to really hang out over the full exposure, with only a very dodgy sloper for one hand and the half-promise of a crimp for my left when I stood up for the next clip. It was terrifying, and I yelled out a lot to distract myself from the fear, but I think the key in being able to get to the next clip was the fall practise. I don’t do it as much as I should, I haven’t started falling outside yet, but already, just around 50 practise falls in, I know the only route upwards is to ignore everything but breathing and making the moves you have to make. I climbed ugly, but I kept moving up, and a ghostly floating Dave MacLeod head over my shoulder urged me on the whole way like an Episode VI Ben Kenobi. It’s actually embarrassing to consider that a scary fall, when you look at the kind of fall Dave takes in the video below (whatever happened to his poor hat?).

Wild Kids was a climb that was absolutely at the bitter end of my physical and mental limits, however the book and its lessons have also allowed me to lead easier routes with the same relaxed technical efficiency that I would previously only have been able to do when top-roping. What I can lead has really caught up to what I can toprope, but all my climbing has improved. The rising tide has lifted all the boats. The pie has been made higher. I’m eating my cake, lying in the bed that I made with two birds in my hand.

The falling thing is just one premise out of dozens explored in the book, I just focus on it to pique your interest and whet your appetite. This tiny, flexible little paperback is packed with nuggets of philosophy. ‘If you know the Way broadly you will see it in everything’ is a quote by Japanese Samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, and this applies to MacLeods book nicely. His insights are occasionally so abstract and general, and yet focused on overcoming the mental problems that hold climbers back, that they don’t just apply to climbers. A lot of his advice (‘What you do, you become’) strikes me as equally valuable to my BJJ, or even my job. This is something that I picked up from the seminal ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance‘, that problems/distractions/mindsets or attitudes that you have in any one area of your life, you will tend to have in other areas. And equally, tactics you use to overcome them in any one area will change yourself in other areas of your life. I can’t help but see that pedantic, autistic way I force myself to set-up my anchors or rappel in order not to die, has started to infiltrate into my work life, letting me attack large, complex projects with a fastidiousness that surprises me.

Here’s to the hope that all the self-improvements from ‘9 out of 10 climbers…’ also cross over from climbing to the rest of my life. And here’s to Dave MacLeod, great climber, great writer. I can’t just recommend his book, after all I recommend the other climbing books I mentioned too, they’re great, but they haven’t (and many other good books haven’t) given me such a book-boner as this one has. ‘9 out of 10 climbers…’ gets a strong, underlined recommendation. Go buy this book!

2 thoughts on “Dr. MacLeod, or how I learnt to stop worrying and love the fall.

  • August 10, 2012 at 8:08 am

    Like the cheapskate i am, i borrowed this book, it was the first climbing book i ever had the pleasure of reading and it was glorious. He talks a lot of the fear of falling in the book, how it affects you, how it makes you stick to the things you know.

    I’ve never really felt fear on the wall, excitment sure, frustration, no doubt, joy of reaching that grip that saves the day, who wasn’t. But real fear, no, to be fair, the leads or climbs that i have been doing haven’t been all that hard, so maybe that prick of fear, that tingling in the gut that makes you question the move you are about to make, maybe all of that is in a future I’ve yet to encounter. I hope so, because i think I’m worse for wear for not having experienced this fear, I’m afraid it is going to make me reckless, or more reckless and that one day I’m going to fuck up in a truly stupendous way.

    But the book “9 out of 10 climbers…”, it resonated(jesus, that is a fancy word) with me on how i lived my own life. As i said, it was the first book i read and I’m grateful for that, you won’t learn the 51 different ways to heel hook or to be mindful of your centre of gravity, but you will learn something about why you are climbing the way you are climbing and that is something that is far more precious than a heel hook(not knocking heel hooks mind you, they are awesome and make your ass look really nice). So buy the book, i know i just did.

    Now if you will excuse me, i have “The self coached climber” to get thru, i have reached the illustration were i think someone is having sex with the cliff, not sure when that move will come in handy…

  • October 15, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    So you're the one who have my book!! Damn, it took me like a year to track you down you culprit, surfed through the entire Internet twice before getting here… I guess it's really Emelie who needs to get spanked for this, denying any knowledge of the Macleod masterpiece whatsoever. I liked the post on the OM-D, I got one myself and it's a beauty. Climb hard, see you in the mountains.


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