Building Landings & Failing With Skill

A huge piece of rock fell from a cliff and split in half. That is what this is.

When You Fall, Fall On Something Flat

I want to explain the process that we go through when building landings. Also, I guess I should explain what I mean by "building landings."

When exploring fields of talus for boulders to climb, the chances of finding perfect landings on which to lay one's crash pads are virtually zero. Therefore, constructing a suitably flat surface to land on is necessary – not only for safety in the present moment, but for the safety of those to come in the future. In a talus field, this consists of moving around smaller rocks to fit together in a relatively flat plane. It's like a puzzle...with 30-pound puzzle pieces.

(There's an ethical argument to be made against altering the landscape for recreational purposes, but I'll leave that debate for another post.)

Anyway, the landing-building process goes something like this:

  • Find a line that makes us say, "Damn dude! Come look at this bro, it's so sick man! Bro!"
  • Consider the pre-existing landing situation. Are there deep pits? Are there large back-breaker rocks beneath the desired climb? Is the construction going to take more work than it's worth?
  • If the crew likes what it sees, we start tossing rocks around. We start by placing large rocks first, then evening everything out with smaller ones.

A properly built landing is a transformational creation. It can make a climb that appeared horrifying and impossible ten minutes ago seem safe and casual. It gives you the confidence you need to commit to hard moves and failure. It opens doors. It's simple, it's powerful, it's important. It prepares you for what's to come: a big pile of failure.

Wes Walker climbing on a project in the wilderness, over an unseen but nicely built landing that we fell on many times. Wes is one of the greatest and most enthusiastic landing builders I know.

Failing Is What We Do

Organizing a pile of rocks underneath a boulder is not a complex task. It's easier than solving a calculus problem, writing a novel, or painting a masterpiece. But it's not a mindless task either – it takes careful crafting and placement. It takes forethought.

It's the building block for something greater. Before you can climb the rock, you need to create a safety net for when you fall. And you will fall.

Any person who's rock climbed for five seconds can tell you that falling – i.e. failing – is 90% of the game. This is not a fresh revelation for anyone reading this. Over time you can develop techniques and skills that allow you to fall less often, but even the most efficient climbers still spend a lot more time on the ground than at the top.

Eventually you may find yourself becoming well versed in the art of failure. You can plan your climbing around the knowledge that you will fail; it becomes a skill, a muscled reflex that you get to know very well. Failure becomes an old friend, one you've always clashed with, but who you love unconditionally regardless.

Ty Fuller, a V10 climber, falling off of Circus Trick, a V4 in Moab, Utah. Failure is inevitable and abundant. Use it wisely.

Ever heard of Seth Godin? He's an entrepreneur, blogger, speaker, blah blah blah; essentially, he's a brilliant, wise, successful person with an unlimited supply of advice that he gives away on his blog. If you're hungry, consume what he offers. It's free food.

In this article written by Laura Entis for, Godin doles out some choice words about failure. According to him, there is a fine line between failing completely (after which there is no return to the playing field) and never failing at all. There's a balance in between the two, a fulcrum that you have to find and adapt to. If you never fail, you won't learn anything useful. If you fail in a huge way, you don't get a chance to try again.

In other words, Entis writes, "while the ability to risk failure is essential in the pursuit of greatness, it doesn't hurt to stack the deck in your favor and be strategic in your approach."

As rock climbers, we have the opportunity to stack a thousand little failures on top of each other. We're lucky enough to fail so many times that we unconsciously adapt to it. Most of us don't seem to recognize the serendipity of our situation. In virtually all cases (barring catastrophic injury or death) we're lucky enough to get our asses off the crash pad and try again. We learn.

Be A Great Failure

Carlo Traversi climbs V15. But even he fails all the time. The difference between Carlo and most climbers is he never stops using his failures to improve – and eventually succeed.

Remember: when you're building a landing to fall on, you're preparing yourself for the inevitable. Each time you fall off your project, don't scream and thrash about in uncontrollable rage. Absorb the information you just received and build upon it.

The sooner you realize that you're not very good at rock climbing, the faster you'll find yourself adapting. You'll get better. But the only way to actually improve is to fail over and over and over.

Now go out and fail, you big failure.

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