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Lost Art of French Free + Falling: A Climber's Gamble

Original Post
Andy W · · Fort Collins, CO · Joined Dec 2016 · Points: 31

[edit 12/27: I added second part of title based on where I've directed the thread. Falling discussion starts towards end of page 2. click here to jump directly to it]

Inspired by personal experience and a post on another thread (copied below), I want to open the floor on the subject on the once beloved outil de Français Libre. While many (maybe most) consider the French Free poor style, I find it an indispensable tool for trad climbing especially in consideration of the alpine/remote. However, there is a cultural swing away from even using this at the crags or, at the very least, some sort of shame associated with it's use. I understand the argument that just pulling on gear won't improve technical climbing ability, but it's still no cake walk. Intermixed french and free moves done efficiently, ie as fast as a stronger climber could free climb it, is a challenge and opens doors to making free moves safely at the edge of or even pushing beyond one's ability before, between, or after french moves. It can also increase safety by keeping a climber from falling, which unquestionably is one of the leading causes of climber injury. And it translates straight into the alpine and long routes toolbox when moving quickly and efficiently is important.

Under the aged motto of "do whatever it takes to get to the top" is an assurance that style won't interfere with succeeding and thus getting home safely. I'm not saying let's go back to the medieval days of iron pounding, but surely we can have a modern French Free and be proud of it. Flame on!

Still on the subject of getting out of jams, one of the big changes in contemporary climbing is that direct aid is no longer a basic skill learned early in the process.  This is unfortunate, because if you run into difficulties that are too much for you, either because you misjudged your abilities or got off route or the conditions are poor or bad weather set in, then being able to efficiently improvise a direct aid ascent (without the paraphenalia used for big walls) is what will get [you] out of a potentially bad situation.  This is also something you can practice on small crags in non-stressful situations. 
Rich: Thank you for lighting the spark! Hope it's all good to quote you.
bus driver · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Aug 2009 · Points: 1,120

Oui oui. And it gets better with age. 

Jason Kim · · Encinitas, CA · Joined Apr 2012 · Points: 255

I occasionally pull on gear to get up a climb, usually because I am scared or I've already dogged the moves so many times that I want to keep moving and finish before my partner decides to kill me.  In those situations, I don't feel too much shame afterwards.  When I have pulled on gear during lower commitment stuff, I do feel pretty shitty about myself afterwards.  The main problem I have, is that once I start adding any french technique to the mix, I have a really hard time getting my head straight and back into the onsight or bust mentality.  A little french seems to lead to a lot of french and before you know it, I'm aiding my way up an entire pitch of something I could easily free.  So to avoid falling down that rabbit hole, I often try to avoid any french at all, if I can.  Apologies to the French.

beensandbagged · · smallest state · Joined Oct 2013 · Points: 10
Andy W wrote:  but surely we can have a modern French Free and be proud of it............. I hope not            

Stagg54 Taggart · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2006 · Points: 10

I find that often when climbing long routes in the mountains that sometimes even easy climbs are not so easy. You have to contend with altitude, carrying a pack, less than ideal footwear(ie. sometimes approach shoes or mountaineering boots), general exahaustion from a long approach or altitude, possibly being off route and other things.  Also taking a whipper high in the mountains is a much different endeavor - even a sprained ankle can be a very serious and even life threatening injury (ie. getting stuck out in a storm or something.)  And let's face it lots of mountain routes have places where you really don't want to fall.  And then there is this whole sport climbing of working moves and trying to do them over and over.  Works fine at the crag.  Not so fine when you are trying to complete 20 pitches in a day.

Due to all these reasons french freeing can be a perfectly reasonable solution.

My partner and I have a rule.  Get to a hard move or maybe a no fall area. Suss it out (ie. try the moves and downclimb if you don't like it).  After two tries, If it doesn't go grab on the gear and let's keep moving.

FrankPS · · Atascadero, CA · Joined Nov 2009 · Points: 275

It doesn't matter what others think - pull on gear or draws if you want to.

mcarizona · · Flag · Joined Feb 2007 · Points: 180

climber 1 "this sure is a tough move..,  Say is that a falcon? out there?"

climber 2 (looks out for a bird) "oh you made the ledge... good move."

Carolina · · Farmington, NC · Joined Nov 2010 · Points: 75
mcarizona wrote: climber 1 "this sure is a tough move..,  Say is that a falcon? out there?"

climber 2 (looks out for a bird) "oh you made the ledge... good move."

Lol!  I love this!

Ģnöfudør Ðrænk · · Get off my lawn. · Joined Nov 2017 · Points: 2

“For he that fights and runs away, may live to fight another day.”

Worrying about style is for kids.

Russ Keane · · Asheville, NC · Joined Feb 2013 · Points: 160

A needed skill and a great topic. 

Señor Arroz · · LA, CA · Joined Jan 2016 · Points: 10

Somewhere I have a great cheat sheet of actual French Free techniques. I never realized it could be so advanced. I'll try to dig that up, because, you know, vive la France.

M guzzy · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Apr 2018 · Points: 0

One of my climbing teachers back in the day was of French descent.. He always said proper French Free technique was to scream "Merde!" just before you pulled on your pro.

abandon moderation · · Tahoe · Joined Aug 2012 · Points: 138

I think the reason people used to learn french freeing as part of climbing is because they climbed with "the leader must not fall" mentality (and rightfully so, at the time of hemp ropes, etc)

My problem with french freeing on a single pitch, safe, route is that once people get a little scared and realize they can just pull on gear, it can become their default behaviour and they never learn to climb through fear.

If the fall is safe, I think people should take the fall instead of grabbing gear. Otherwise they go through their climbing careers afraid to push limits and not realizing that falling on gear is perfectly safe if you've done a good job protecting it (and let's be honest, almost any time you can french free, there's good gear).

I usually reserve french freeing for long routes where I need to get to the top or it's bad. Or on routes where there's a lot of pitches of really cool free climbing, and a few hard pitches out of my grade.

I do agree that there is a certain skill to french freeing though; especially mentally once you've pulled on gear for a few moves and have to switch back to hard "I might fall" free climbing. If someone wants to "practice" french freeing at a crag by all means do it, but I wouldn't incorporate it into every climb.

Andy W · · Fort Collins, CO · Joined Dec 2016 · Points: 31
Señor Arroz wrote: Somewhere I have a great cheat sheet of actual French Free techniques. I never realized it could be so advanced. I'll try to dig that up, because, you know, vive la France. 

I would enjoy checking this out if you happen unearth it!

Jaren Watson · · Idaho · Joined May 2010 · Points: 2,346
Andy W wrote:

I would enjoy checking this out if you happen unearth it!

Me too!

Andy W · · Fort Collins, CO · Joined Dec 2016 · Points: 31
abandon moderation wrote: (and let's be honest, almost any time you can french free, there's good gear).

This is not true. French freeing can involve just as delicate placements as any scary and tenuous aid line. Pulling on gear, especially if done well with good footwork, exerts very small and nearly static loads that are far below falling protection standards.

Perhaps we consider an extreme situation where the footholds are poor and the other handhold is only good laterally so that we are placing the biggest force possible on the french free piece. Considering I can not do a free hanging one arm pull up and can pull the move as described, the load would be less than my body weight of 160 pounds. Maybe 100 pounds, but probably less because I'm weak. Even then if we use a safety factor of two, the piece only needs to hold 200 pounds or not even 1KN (that math is not quite 1:1 due to the difference of pound vs pound force). But I can attest from personal experience, very questionable placements that I would never fall on can hold body weight and be very effective for french freeing; everything from a 2-lobe #2 C4 to a #4 Peanut placed behind an equally thin and flexing flake. It's these situations on multi-pitch in particular where I've been most appreciative of having this skill well rehearsed.

Andy W · · Fort Collins, CO · Joined Dec 2016 · Points: 31

Let's further distinguish french freeing into two categories: Controlled vs Desperate. The former being a fluid continuous upward movement, often anticipated and not unlike free climbing, at a similar pace and with equal or less energy expended. The latter is really anything less, typically unanticipated and forced due to fear.

The predominate argument against using the french free seems to focus on potential cyclical traps of the "Desperate" variety, which I argue is all the more reason to incorporate it into regular climbing. Complete avoidance, of any skill, will not teach technique or control. So avoiding the french free until yielding in desperation develops a mental connection of: when scared pull, and thus, if I’m pulling on gear then I must be scared. This compounds the challenge of shaking the scare and resuming normal climbing. Alternatively, if it is practiced within easy safe environments (the crag), and even more so if used within everyday practice, the transition to and from becomes natural and seamless. Practice leads to proficiency which leads to efficiency, and then the move can be chosen rather than dictated. When it is completely within our control of how and when it’s deployed, it becomes mentally associated with confidence rather than fear.

For me the crag is the gym for bigger objectives, and every pitch is practice for a necessary skill. Certain pitches that are known to have great gear and a clean fall, I will agree, are a good place to push the limit and take the fall -- good for instilling trust in gear and developing mental and physical perseverance. But honestly how many moderate trad pitches are like that, especially multi pitch (my preferred medium)? I would venture to guess on my limited tick list less than 20% would have undoubtedly green light safe falls at any point. Even then, considering the X variable of even well placed gear by pro’s sure of its bomberness still sometimes blow, I believe almost no fall is guaranteed safe. So converse to what seems popular opinion, I keep the Controlled french free tool available the majority of the time because the majority of falls are not guaranteed safe. Plus I like climbing beyond the narrow scope of my free climbing ability and simply want to roll the Falling-What-Ifs’ dice as few times possible.

Healyje · · PDX · Joined Jan 2006 · Points: 456

FF was long ago relegated to its last bastion - speed climbing (where it belongs), otherwise, its just aid climbing no matter how you attempt to rationalize it within the context of free climbing.

Kedron Silsbee · · Munich · Joined Aug 2013 · Points: 0

I'll confess to a bit of skepticism about this idea that it's often safer to French-free.  Obviously are situations in which it is...mediocre gear, and climbing that you will almost certainly fall on if you try to free climb, and some reason you really don't want to or can't downclimb and bail.  I've done it for those reasons, but I wouldn't want to make a habit of it, and I'm not convinced it takes any particular skill that's worth practicing.  It feels a lot safer to me to stick to routes that are either well-protected (and there are many multi-pitch trad routes where the cruxes are well-protected), or easy enough that falling is extremely unlikely (much more unlikely than me mis-judging some piece of marginal gear that I'm yarding on.   

jay2718 · · Unknown Hometown · Joined May 2009 · Points: 5

When in doubt, aid it out.

Señor Arroz · · LA, CA · Joined Jan 2016 · Points: 10
Andy W wrote:

I would enjoy checking this out if you happen unearth it!

It's here.

Scroll down to Chapter 11. It's there in both html and pdf formats. 

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

Trad Climbing
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