My last couple posts about the mental game were things I’ve been thinking about for a while, and while I hope to develop those thoughts further, they felt as fully-distilled as I know how to make them at present. This post isn’t that. This post is a rant. It’s a rant that’s been fermenting in my head for a while, but it hasn’t distilled yet. Let’s see what comes of it. Think critically for me as you read. I’d love to hear your feedback, especially if you think I got something dead-wrong, or I failed to speak clearly! I think this post might eventually distil into a couple of different clear thoughts that each need their own discussion later on. What bits resonate the best with your personal experience?
How we define success:
What defines success in your climbing? Sending your latest project? Onsighting a new personal best? I know those things sure feel great, but they’re only the beginning of the story. Success for me is diving full-tilt boogie in a full-on effort and falling the farq off!
Disclaimer: I’m not a badass, and I fall off of climbs frequently. (That’s what the rope is for, it’s like a video game. You get a do-over). Given that I’m a regular punter, why would I consider an everyday occurrence to be a success?
I’ve got a lot of rambling philosophy about climbing that’ll usually come out over a campfire with a generous serving of whiskey, but one thing I’ve always been adamant about is this: When you show up to the climbing gym, you have two choices. Either you can send stuff, or you can get better at climbing.
Sending does not make you better at climbing. You sent because you were already better at climbing. Bagging a successful ascent does not inherently build new skills for you as a climber, rather it’s a demonstration of skills and abilities you already possess. In other words, you were already awesome on the ground before you even tied in and started up the route.
Falling off of a route gives you an enormous opportunity. You get the chance to ask yourself: why? Why didn’t I send this line? And if you fall off enough, you have an opportunity to think about the big picture. What patterns do I see in my failed attempts? If you fall often enough, you’ll start to notice recurring limitations. Perhaps you feel your forearms are often pumped, or you frequently become stymied by extreme crux-moves. Perhaps you wasted energy through anxiety over falling, or your fears prevented you from pushing to your full capacity.
If you push hard against your limits, you will often fall. But it’s like the pressure building within a balloon, as the air molecules push harder and harder against the surface it expands. As you push against your limits over and over, they too will expand from the force of your determination, it’s physics. Or metaphysics. Or, if you fall often enough, meta-analysis!
Well, not quite meta-analysis, we only have one case study. But you clearly have the opportunity for ordinary analysis on yourself. Any good study requires a large number of data-points, right? Every fall happens for some reason, and that’s useful information. If you don’t fall off, you don’t gather any data for self-study; however, if you fall off all over the place, you gather TONS of information about your limits, and that mass of information tells you how to progress!
In Dave McLeod’s book “9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes” he says (and I’m paraphrasing very loosely here) that the difference between the pros and us is likely only 4%. Now, I know what you’re thinking. The difference between 5.15 and my current level probably isn’t 4% more bicep strength. But these guys at the top of the game, they’re dedicated. They try 4% harder in every session. They hold on 4% longer through every fingerboard set. They get 4% more back at that crucial rest before surging forward; they push 4% harder in every training session, and they believe 4% harder on every redpoint attempt. That doesn’t add up to much today, but over a year, or a career, that adds up to quite a bit.
Many climbers view falling as failing, but it’s my belief that failing often is the only real path to success. So what’s it going to be? Will you go to the gym, fall, collect your data points and get your 4% today? Next time you go to the climbing gym, think about it. Will you send things, or grow as a climber? You don’t need to believe you can do it right now, but you need to try with everything you have. That’s the experiment. See, none of us really know how much we are capable of, we limit ourselves reflexively for fear of failure or fear of falling. We think, “there’s no way I can make this move” and we let go. Fuck that. Try it. Try it as hard as you can try, for science. Just tie in, and see what happens, over and over again.
Approach the wall with curiosity. You may think the sequences look hard, or awkward, or even impossible. That’s okay to think, our brains are made for thinking, just don’t get hooked on those particular thoughts, those thoughts act like you can know what’s going to happen from the ground, and it’s never that easy. You stare up and see smaller and larger holds, perhaps they’re positive, or not. Take it all in, make a guess at how the moves would go, then get curious. You have an idea, let’s see if it works!
You formed a hypothesis; the route appears extremely difficult. Now for the experiment. Saddle up and apply everything you have to test your hypothesis rigorously. What’s the conclusion? Knowledge. And knowledge is power. You have everything to gain!
Sometimes, when you look up from the ground, sequences seem utterly impossible. But as you climb, and sink your fingers into the problem, your body feels it’s way through, and suddenly you’re gliding through the moves! We feel that we “know” how hard a climb is when we’re looking at it from the ground, because the holds look a certain way to us, but often that intuition is dead wrong. Have you ever looked up at a climb and thought it was easy, only to be tossed off unsuspecting? It works the other way too; I’ve seen folks declare a climb to be “impossible” only to flash it moments later. Moral of the story: don’t fixate on thoughts of the climb as hard or easy, go and find out! Every single day and every single route are just opportunities for curiosity and inspection. It’s never as simple as “this is too hard” or “this should be easy”, each climb is a question: “I wonder how this will feel today?” You never quite know until you try it!
Savor your airtime, it’s what makes you grow. Every failure is just another data point adding up to that moment on the ground, right before you tie in and start climbing. At that moment, you already are anything you can be, you are the sum total of every 4% you’ve tried to earn, and you carry with you the lessons learned from every time you’ve ever fallen off of a route.
There are a lot of lessons from climbing that immediately transfer off the wall and into your daily life, and this really is one of them. Look back and think, every time you’ve ever failed led up to right now. Every single one of those intense learning experiences has made you the incredible human that you are today. There is a quote attributed to Thomas Edison that “[he] did not fail 1,000 times before creating the lightbulb, but rather the lightbulb had 1,001 steps in its creation.” I can’t verify if he said it, but I love the sentiment. 1,000 failed lightbulbs were just data-points and opportunities to learn on the path toward invention.
Back to the wall. The climbing gym is a safe space where we’ve made every attempt possible to create safety and reduce risk. Unlike the rest of life, the climbing gym offers a laboratory where we’re free to fail our way to success without worrying about the “bad stuff” that could happen, so go out, get your 4%, and smile with success every time you take a fall! Sending doesn’t teach you anything new, but falling? That’s the biggest success I’ve ever found!
Bonus Mojo: If you’ve ever been angry or disappointed after falling off a climb, this philosophy gives you free-license to be happy about it instead and laugh all the way to the ground as you lower off satisfied…. because learning is always cause for celebration!
In my last post about mental training, I discussed the notion of fear of falling in safe terrain and the ways that phobia can sap performance and lead to poor decisions. Speaking of which, if you need a guide to figuring out your fear of falling that actually works, click here! But let’s not kid ourselves, climbing isn’t always safe. If you genuinely wish to deepen your mental strength, we have to address the full spectrum, not just one particular metric. Mental strength is much more than just conquering your fear of falling. Trusting the system is great, but what do you do when the only thing you can trust is yourself?
I’ve had friends ask me for tips on mental training and how to overcome a fear of falling based on the fact that I am a free-soloist. It seems the climbing community has built a myth that soloists possess superior mental strength. I don’t believe that’s necessarily true. For example, soloists are not the people I would think to ask about learning to fall. By definition, falling is the worst thing that can happen to a soloist, so we avoid it at all costs. For a week or two after an extended soloing trip, I turn into a HUGE chicken on a rope. So it got me thinking: If overcoming your fear of falling is a sign of mental strength, and climbers view soloists as mentally deranged strong what is the link we are missing? What more is there to mental fitness?
I covered how to work with fear of falling in the last article, but there’s more to mental strength than learning to fall. How do bold climbers hold it together in hazardous situations?
Just Breathe: You’re a little farther above that last bolt than you’d like, and you start thinking about the poor condition of it’s rusty hanger. Will that thing even hold a fall? It looked like something you saw on sale at Home Depot over ten years ago. You start thinking about the pump in your forearms and the fact that your footholds don’t inspire confidence. As you think about the consequences, you can’t help but thinking you’re not sure how pretty the fall would be. You’ve stepped just slightly over your head, and you’re starting to come unglued, so what do you do?
Stop. Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re thinking, STOP. It’s not helping. Sure, it’s scary, sure you’re pumped, but those thoughts aren’t helping anyone to survive. The difference between a survivor and the first one to be eaten by zombies in the apocalypse comes down to one thing: How well can you accept and focus on the details that matter?
Stop. Breathe. Clear your head. THINK. For the sake of all that’s holy don’t just react, THINK! Okay, you’ve stopped, you’re breathing. Feel the breath enter your lungs, clean air comes in, byproducts of metabolism flow out. Try to calm yourself, focus on the breath and lower your heart rate.
Think of the things that matter, these handholds are good enough (you’ve hung on them this long right?), these footholds are good enough (you’re not slipping off immediately are you?). Breathe. Take it in. You’ve got a set of handholds and a set of footholds you’re using to adhere to the wall. Where do you go next? What’s it take to get to the next bolt? That island of safety is all that matters. Has your heart rate lowered yet?
Surges of adrenaline alter the body’s metabolic state and cause lactic acid to pool in your forearms without any hope of reducing the pump. Desperately you try to rest, but you just can’t recover any energy! Once adrenaline removes your metabolism’s ability to process the byproducts of muscular contraction, it’s only a matter of time before your forearms turn to concrete and you go airborne. Adrenaline prepares the body for short bursts of extremely intense effort, like wrestling a bear. Win or lose, it’ll be over quickly. That’s what adrenaline is for. Adrenaline provides a surge of strength, but the cost of this is sacrificing your endurance.
In addition to it’s beneficial effects, adrenaline stimulates increased phosphorylation, which will lead to increased lactic acid output in your muscles. This is great for moms who need to lift cars off of babies, but your endurance goes to hell. The better you can stave off your adrenaline and keep it together, the longer your endurance will last.
Breathe. Slow that heart rate down and you will curb the flow of adrenaline. Become calm, feel your blood start to circulate in the forearms, get back anything you can. In steadying yourself, you will lower the paralyzing surge of adrenaline and regain your ability to flush the pump out of your forearms.
Where do you go next? Where is that next bolt? Can you make it? Pause and allow yourself to feel the fear if it’s present. Being afraid is okay, but fear of feeling afraid saps energy. Just let it sit there, you don’t have to engage your fear. Managing fear in this way takes practice, and I’ll suggest a specific drill for that later. For now just know it’s okay to be afraid at times; what you have to watch for is our tendency to freak out about the fear. Just notice it and think your way out, don’t let that fear control you.
Which seems more possible, climbing to the next bolt or down-climbing to a safe fall zone? That is what matters. Not your pumped forearms, not your small footholds, not your fear, only that one simple decision. If any other thoughts enter your mind, breathe. Steady yourself, steel your nerves and decide. Which course do you take?
Make a decision and act upon it deliberately.
Acting in the face of fear is of the utmost importance. If you give into gut-level animal-instinct reactions, you’re done for. Thrutching and flailing while pumped and afraid is not a good outcome. Giving into the fear ensures that adrenaline will rule the day and send you straight to the grips of gravity. It’s not that strong climbers are calm but rather that calm climbers become strong. Climbing actually becomes easier when you are not afraid.
The Training: You don’t have to risk your life and limb to train your mind for climbing. Training should be performed somewhere safe, and it shouldn’t induce fear. If our goal is to build a mind strong enough to remain at peace on the wall, we need to practice feeling peaceful in the midst of severe situations, but we need to have a layer of safety so we can push our limits without winding up in the ICU.
Today we’re training to feel solid on the wall, and feeling solid can happen no matter what style of climbing you engage in at the moment. Freesolo, runout lead, highball, trad, sport, and toprope climbing all can equally employ that solid feeling. In fact, the majority of my mental training for freesoloing happens on toprope or while sport climbing. Occasionally I’ll practice the techniques while bouldering as well, but never on highballs or dangerous leads. Even while practicing for the increased mental demands of soloing hard lines, I still practice in a safe environment.
Neurons in the brain make connections constantly between each other as the result of stimuli in our environment and the activities going around us. After a few repeated interactions, they grow accustomed to firing the same way and making those same connections. You wear a rut in your mental circuitry, and it can be hard to get out once a habit has formed, but the good news is that we can deliberately create our own paths in the mind with a little bit of directed effort.
Imagine a little kid who was bitten by a dog and grew up afraid of them. Imagine that kid meets the sweetest dog on earth and makes friends with him. Quickly the association between “dog” and “scary” will break down. The same will happen with your associations of “sketchy” in relation to things like “slab” or “sloper” or “overhang” if you practice making friends with them. All it takes is a little bit of breathing.
Once you practice feeling solid on a new type of terrain, your brain forms new connections. As you repeat the experience while maintaining focus, the association between that terrain and feeling solid grows until it becomes a new habit, replacing the old instinct of fear.
One Simple Drill: Pick a climb that is somewhat strenuous, but not at your limit. Preferably one that puts you a little out of your comfort zone. Personally, I know I feel sketchy on slopers, so I incorporate slopey routes near my onsight grade into my warmups for the purpose of mental training. The key is to notice what sorts of terrain cause you to feel anxious and pick training routes which have those same qualities.
If you’ve ever felt sketched while balancing on thin holds, it would be wise to seek out a moderate slab route to climb. Once you get to the cruxy bits, and you start to question your abilities, stop. Breathe. You know that you’re in a safe position because you made the decision to train on a safe route, so you don’t need to fear for your safety. What do you fear? Is there anything? Or is it only doubt of your ability to execute the moves? Breathe. Feel the hand-holds. Remind yourself that they are good, or at least good enough. Breathe. Your feet aren’t going anywhere, are they? Perhaps they don’t feel solid; adjust them until they do. If you can’t get the feet to feel solid, relax with them to get more comfortable. Sit here, and breathe until you have relaxed a little, and move on. Practice the moves repeatedly until you feel 100% solid.
For every situation where you feel a little anxiety, and feel less than 99.99% sure of your ability, pause and breathe. Just sit there with those holds and that particular move and relax into it as much as you can. Do this at the end of your warm up to prime your mind for the session or the day to come. Do this while projecting to build that sense of calm on your hardest routes. You don’t need to devote special time to this drill since it’s possible to practice it during any part of your existing climbing sessions. Personally, I like to slip it into my warm up so I reap the benefits throughout the rest of my session.
Bonus Benefit: “Quiet Feet” and better breathing
A frequently used technique drill advocates climbing with “quiet feet,” which can be a good indicator of how efficiently you are moving, but I think it’s worth noting that this is more of an end rather than a means. Climbing with quiet feet forces you to focus on your legs and climb smoother, but it doesn’t help you hold it together during the crux sequences when you most need it. Quiet feet are one possible way to notice that you already have smooth technique, but I don’t know that it’s the most efficient way to develop technique. Instead, if you practice climbing with a quiet mind and learn to steady yourself within the severity of hard or “sketchy” moves, you’ll naturally begin to climb smoother across all the board, and you’ll naturally develop quieter feet.
Many climbers and coaches out there who will hound you with reminders to breathe during hard sequences. That’s good advice, but it’s quite separate from what I’m advocating here. In these exercises, the breath is a tool used to steady and calm your mind. Once you achieve that, you won’t need to be reminded to breathe. You’ll automatically climb in a relaxed state where breathing is natural and not forced.
Taking it off the wall:
After you begin to practice relaxing in the stressful parts of a climb, it becomes second nature. The mind is not a fixed entity, and there is a rapidly growing body of research in the field of neuroplasticity that supports this. Not only is it possible to re-program your instincts, but it’s something that Buddhist meditators have been doing for thousands of years, and it’s something that each of us already does without noticing every single day. You don’t necessarily need to practice meditation to benefit from these methods.
Take driving a car for an example: My first time driving a car on the freeway was utterly terrifying. I couldn’t fathom how my parents had managed to drive the car so smoothly down the road while simultaneously threatening my brother and me with punishments as kids while we fought in the back seat. Despite my trepidation, it was only a few short months later that driving become a routine endeavor. This reprogramming of instincts and habits is an experience that we all share. By becoming aware of it, we can learn to climb a little calmer so that we can pull a bit more happiness from our days at the crag!
And once you’ve practiced it for long enough, you can start applying this lesson to any stressful situation that you encounter. This practice on the wall is a way to work with your stress response, steady your mind, and act with greater confidence anywhere you go. Sure, it’ll help you climb harder, but it will also help you live happier if you apply it off the wall as well!
Next time you feel stressed, whether it’s high off the deck on a boulder problem, high above your gear on a dicey lead, in the middle of a bad week at work, or a gnarly visit to the hospital…. Just breathe. And remember, you are a thinking thing. You’ve got this!
I went on a rant on the Internet. It happens sometimes. Unlike most of my internet rants, this wasn’t supposed to be a blog post. The guys over at TrainingBeta.com posted an article about climbers resorting to extreme methods to lose weight for performance and posted the article along with a question “what are your thoughts on weight and performance?” I started writing a comment almost immediately, and as often happens with me these days, I wrote far longer than I intended. I moved over to the “message” feature instead to compose my thoughts, and my writing ran longer still. Eventually, I realized it was a post that I needed to write in its own right.
The folks at Crux Crush surveyed over 2,000 climbers asking whether they or someone they knew had ever resorted to “extreme measures” to lose weight for climbing and a vast majority said they knew someone who had, or had done so themselves. You can see their thoughts and results here. What really surprises me is the fact that people are surprised by this.
In one sense, I know nothing about this subject because I have never been tempted to lose weight for climbing. Not yet, at least, though I have friends who have done so. It’s all too easy to understand how the temptation forms, though, and that’s the scary part. A brief search on google for Anorexia Nervosa describes it as a “common” condition affecting over 200,000 people per year in the general population. In fact, t is the most common and most lethal psychiatric diagnosis among young women in the US, and that’s without the added pressure of a sport that places strength-to-weight ratio on a pedestal with the gods. It’s no wonder that this has become a major issue in our communities. This topic shouldn’t be controversial; it’s a simple fact about the world around us.
My body relationship: To me, training has always been a matter of crafting a body that can do the things I love well. I’ve never thought about my weight, just whether or not I’m capable of doing the things I love, and whether I’ve made progress lately. I have never let weight determine my activities, but periodically when I’m in the same room as a scale, I get curious. Also, I’ve had a lot of injuries. When you visit the doctor, the first they do is stick you on a scale and check your weight, so I’ve been able to watch my weight fluctuate with my performance with mild curiosity.
Once upon a time, I was a competitive swimmer, and my weight fluctuated from 135 to 150lbs depending on how hard we were pushing in practice. Once I quit swimming and picked up climbing, I settled at 150 and packed on a little muscle. I trained heavily and eventually could perform one-arm-pull-ups, and that extra muscle put me up to 155. Once upon a time, I could do three OAP’s on either side, and that muscle pushed me up to 160. I remember thinking “How cool is it that the scale could measure the thing cranking pull-ups!
I became lazy and quit training hard. Back to 150, and zero OAPs. That made sense to me. I had lost functionality, and that function lived in a muscle mass that apparently weighed about 10 lbs. Last winter I was up to 160, still at zero OAPs. That scared me slightly because I knew it was from bad eating habits. A latte every morning, snickers at lunch, and craft beer with dinner were something like 1,000 extra calories a day. Once I cut out the poor health choices, I went back down to 150. During a stint in the hospital for injuries, I dropped to 140 over the space of a week. A week later I was at 150 and dismayed since I knew there was a large amount of underlying muscle atrophy. My return to “normal” weight was due to 10lbs of IHOP pancakes. #NoRagrets!! I <3 every single one of those double blueberry pancakes!!! Anyhow, recently I got curious and stepped on a scale, 151, and I can crank an OAP. I’m currently the lightest I’ve ever been while still being physically able to crank an OAP, but this is purely accidental. All this is to say, at length, that I can associate weight and performance. I’ve noticed the two are entwined to a certain degree, but I’ve never really used one to tweak the other.
I’m lucky. I don’t climb the hardest grades, and I’m so far from winning any competitions that I don’t bother to compete. So my performance simply is what it is, there’s no mystical grade for me to complete or competition I’m trying to edge-out in a tightly packed field of high competition. I’m also lucky because I know how to train well so that my body builds muscle rapidly. Every time I’ve set a goal, I was able to train to build strength and accomplish it, unless I got distracted. It happens. Fortunately, I enjoy the act of training in and of itself, so I am progressing, for now.
Since performance on the wall is a matter of how well your muscles can carry your weight through a stretch of small holds, I can’t help but wonder… What if I couldn’t build muscle like that? What if I was facing the tight schedule of competition season and couldn’t wait to get stronger? What if I was closing in on the send of my dream project, but the weather window was fading? If I wasn’t able to build strength in time for the competition, or the end of the season, would I be tempted then?
Right now I’m still getting stronger at a pace that makes me happy, so the honest answer is that I can’t possibly know. None of us can unless we’ve been stifled by a lack of progress and looked for a way out.
Imagine being the professional climber on the cusp of sending a new grade that could bring in sponsorship offers, but failing tantalizingly close to the chains over and over for a whole season. Or a climber who is constantly just one slot away from qualifying for the finals. Repeated attempts to be your personal “best” and getting shut down when you’re so incredibly close to success can wear on even the most determined. At what point would I cave and try to shed weight to gain performance? If it happened to me, would it just be for that one time? Or would I be hooked? It worked that once, so why not again? And again? Where would it end?
I can understand this place in the mind because I suffer from depression. Now, that’s not to say that I am currently depressed; I’ve held it under control for years now (more on that here). But I know it’s back there in the deep recesses of my mind, this little monster that will tell me I’m worth nothing. All I would have to do is listen to it. The doc described my psychiatric disorder as a “mind virus,” and I likened it to a computer virus for the mind. Once certain stimulus enters the brain, it takes over and hijacks your normal function.
Imagine you cut weight that one time, through normal means, and you believe that was the reason for your enhanced performance. What would you do next time? Repeat the same experiment since it worked? Training often demands that we increase intensity and dedication to the cause; is it possible we would resort to more harsh measures? And once you up the ante, it’s easy to up the frequency, and if you believe that it was responsible for your boost in performance the pattern is set in stone, and it’s tremendously hard to break. Especially since it’s so easy to have a portion of your self-worth tied to climbing. One failed redpoint attempt, and you come away thinking “I’m useless, I didn’t try hard enough! I’ll get it right this time,” and resort to even more drastic measures to satiate the monster in the back of our head. It really could happen to anyone.
Again, I’m lucky. I’m a very lazy climber. I’m too weak to feel the pressures of the elites with sponsorships, and too far from the comp scene to feel the pressure of my peers to perform. I’m the guy who insists on climbing in blue-jeans with untied shoes with no chalk and, often enough I’m too lazy to even bring a rope. If someone as lazy as I could understand this temptation, it’s easy to understand how prevalent these “extreme measures” have become. Given the rise of competition climbing, and the overly intense measures taken to drive kids in youth teams towards peak performance at a time when they are already overly intense to each other and themselves, it’s no surprise that tinkering with weight loss has become an exceedingly prevalent undercurrent within the climbing community.
Who can see the future? In the end, I don’t think I would take to drastic measures, but then that’s the crux of the issue isn’t it? Nobody ever thinks they would until they check into the hospital and wonder “what the hell happened to me?” Nobody thinks they would, and so they refuse to understand how anyone else could, which drives the problem even further underground so that we turn our head and pretend it’s not even there. That’s the tragedy. I’m here to tell you that I can imagine exactly how I or anyone else could fall into this. I honestly believe that it could have happened to anyone, and I’m sorry you were the one to draw the short straw. And I hope the rest of you never have that poor luck to discover just how easy it is for your mind to take you places you never even knew to fear.
There’s more to life than climbing. There’s more to climbing than sending. Someday I will finally cave to the ravages of biology and plateau at my own personal peak, with my own projects falling just so slightly out of reach. Just… So… Close… and yet so far. I can feel my disappointment because I’ve been there before. With a little luck, instead of choosing to try to eek out that last bit of performance from a dying career, I’ll instead choose to deepen my experience of climbing, dive into the adventure, see more places, and extoll the virtues of 5.6 multipitch climbs with short approaches! And perhaps in doing so, and in writing this article, I can help mentor a few folks who need it, toss them a rack of cams and the sharp end of the rope, spread some good mojo, and show them there’s more to life than just sending.
It’s that first sip of Turkish coffee in the backcountry with friends, it’s gifting your stove in exchange for food at the red river gorge, it’s swapping stories about how to “Pile ze Bags” in South Dakota. It’s about sunsets on Devil’s Tower, Sunrise in Linville Gorge, it’s about that one time you tried to see how much 5.6 you could climb in one day without moving the car and then grabbed a beer with your climbing partner in the parking lot (thanks, Evan!) while you waited for everyone else to get back. It’s the days you’re too crushed to crush and learn to play ping-pong at the Hueco Rock Ranch from someone who has seen the world.
I’ve only been climbing for nine years, but already I’ve seen one important truth in climbing: At the end of all days, in twenty years, or ten, or five, or even in a few weeks, It’s never the actual climbing you will remember, it’s the people you shared it with.
Cheers, and Happy Climbing!
PS: if you feel the need to experience a life that’s more than just sending, talk to me. I’ve got a rack of cams with your name on it and a 500ft 5.6 that you’ll never forget!! Let’s make some memories!
This thing ran long, far longer than I intended when I started writing; if you fail to read the whole thing, that’s fine. I mean, its 3500 45004700 4900 5000 words long for Pete’s sake! This article is meant to serve as a reference guide. If you only read the intro and then scroll down to the information that’s pertinent to your climbing, I won’t be offended. I tried to list things in order from least objective danger to the most objective danger, so naturally trad and bouldering are at the end, but they’re in here, I promise! Just keep scrolling.
We’re all familiar, to some degree, with the prevailing wisdom on fall practice, “whipper therapy” as some call it. We’ve all had friends say that you just need to “get over it” or “take the fall” as if that’s some magic cure to overcoming your fear. I’d be willing to bet you also know folks who have tried this and only come away more shaken and afraid. Some of you have attempted to coach your friends through fear on the wall, you send them up, they become afraid, you tell them to take the fall, they do it, it’s terrifying, and you’ve successfully reinforced the fact that the scary thing is scary to them. Nothing changed. You keep convincing them to take falls and every time they come away with greater and greater trepidation. When someone has a fear of falling, the problem often isn’t that they think it’s dangerous, the problem is that they feel like it’s dangerous. There’s a vast difference between the perceived danger and actual danger that’s present. If you’re reading this, you’ve likely been trained well and seen enough people climbing to know that, in most scenarios, the risk is low. Yet we’re still afraid. The feeling of fear is divorced from the level of danger present.
Taking long falls to conquer the fear does work for some people, but it doesn’t work for everyone. We need additional tools to work with fear and build a sense of comfort on the wall for everyone who wishes to develop mastery. You become what you practice. If you practice being afraid, you will become fearful. There is no need whatsoever for mental training to be frightening. Given everything we know about belays, the strength of gear, and various hard-skills involved with climbing, we know it’s possible to climb safely without risking injury. A phobia is defined as “a strong, irrational fear of something that poses little or no real danger.” Now, I’m no psychologist (I just have a tendency to peruse Wikipedia articles) and I’m not saying you have a phobia; however, insights from the processes of overcoming phobias can inform our practice regarding a fear of falling.
One tactic, known as flooding, involves taking the subject and exposing them directly to the source of the fear to push them through it. Imagine taking someone who is afraid of cars, throwing them in the passenger seat and driving around for hours until they calm down. It might work, or it might make them utterly hysterical. According to the Wikipedia article on Flooding: “This is a faster (yet less efficient and more traumatic) method of ridding fears when compared with systematic desensitization. In order to demonstrate the irrationality of the fear, a psychologist would put a person in a situation where they would face their phobia at its worst.” Flooding is the equivalent of the standard “whipper therapy” approach. Afraid of falling? Take some massive falls! Afraid of spiders? Let’s fill your bathtub with them and hop in!
Desensitization can be tailored to the individual, and this is what makes it so useful. You start by identifying which scenarios cause the most fear and slowly gain confidence with them one by one time using relaxation techniques, starting with the least frightening and working your way up. The methods I put forth in this article have worked the best for me and my own fear of falling, and I’ve used it to help many people overcome their fear. It’s less traumatic and much more efficient compared to “whipper therapy” and I’ve found it works for a much broader range of people whether it’s your first time wrestling with your mind or you’re simply recovering the mental game after an accident. As an added benefit, using this method will arm you with mental tools to better cope with fears on the wall in a general sense. Even better, it arms you with the ability to handle your fears in the moment as they occur instead of being overwhelmed. You simply can’t get that from whipper therapy.
The Big Idea: The idea for my theories on mental training are simple: Isolate one variable at a time, then start with the easiest situation possible. Slowly increment the complexity or “extreme-ness” as you become comfortable until you feel relaxed in every climbing scenario in which you know your system is safe. My preferred relaxation technique is to stop what you’re doing, pause mid move (or while hanging on the rope) and just breathe. Focus on the breath as it comes in and out and feel your heart rate start to lower. Once it does, you may progress forward. Think Yoga, do climbing.
Learn the systems well so you know how to make safety.
Find a place to practice where you can implement a safe system.
Find the most extreme scenario where you know that you are safe, and you feel comfortable.
Move forward to a situation where you know you are safe and you feel just a little bit uncomfortable. Not extreme fear, not anything overwhelming, just a little bit of nervousness. Anywhere you find a place where your heart rate starts to increase due to stress is a good place to practice, as long as it hasn’t progressed to the point of outright fear.
Practice trusting the safety system in this situation until it feels comfortable. If you start to get overwhelmed or genuinely scared, just stop. Don’t scream “take,” don’t jump off, don’t sprint up to finish the climb, just pause right where you are and start breathing slowly until you’ve reached a state of calm. Once you’ve regained calm, then you can make a decision to either continue or conclude practice for the day.
Move a little further up, go back to step #4 and find a new and exciting place that makes you a little nervous and practice there until you feel fully comfortable.
Repeat these steps until you instinctively feel comfortable in every situation where you know you are safe or feel you’ve made a good amount of progress for the day.
Get out and enjoy some happy climbing!
Now that you’ve got a general idea, I’ll go step by step for growing comfortable on the wall for those of you who like an increased level of detail. We’ll start with toprope, then work to sport climbing, then trad climbing, and finally I’ll finish with a few tips for boulderers at the end. It’s important to remember that mental training should not be scary if you’re doing it right! If you feel overwhelmed, it’s usually best to ease off and back down to a place where you only feel a little nervous or uncomfortable. On the other hand, if a particular exercise is already comfortable for you, keep reading and push it up to the next step! Remember, though, we’re only working in safe terrain. One important note is to assess any risks or objective dangers from the ground and decide whether those risks are acceptable to you. Once you know what you’re in for and intellectually accept that it is safe, you’ve laid a solid foundation for your practice. Since we’re isolating one variable at a time, it’s better not to leave yourself assessing risk mid-climb.
New to climbing (Top-rope Tips): When you first start climbing, it’s normal not to trust the rope. Fear of heights is normal, and fear of falling is a sane quality to possess in most situations. Fortunately for those of us who have a psychological impediment that requires us to spend time high off the ground, engineers have designed some rather robust safety systems that can remove the need for fear in many climbing situations (though by no means all). Now, I can tell you all day that these ropes are strong enough to suspend my truck from the ceiling of Stone Summit, and it’s good to know that in your head, but it’s quite another thing to feel that safety instinctively and relax while climbing. Actually, that is an important point in its own right: If you go about it in the right way, climbing becomes a relaxing experience. The operative idea is that it’s a good idea to feel safe in all the places where you truly are safe. Fear makes climbing stressful and far less enjoyable. Imagine being able to relax on the wall as you do in a yoga practice (assuming you’ve ever done that), that’s the sort of payoff I’m talking about. For the following drills, it’s best to start practice on a vertical wall, we’ll get to the overhangs later.
First thing’s first, let’s prove the rope will hold:
The biggest fear at the beginning is fear of heights (at least, it was for me), and this becomes overwhelming when you find yourself with burning forearms 50’ above the floor. We’ll start a little closer to the ground. Find the easiest climb in the gym and start climbing. Picking something easy is important because the fear of falling is stressful enough already, adding the extra stress of increased difficulty will make the fear much harder to handle.
Once you get a few body lengths off the ground, call for a “take.” Now, take a deep breath, relax, and let go of the wall. Sit down on your gear and feel that it’s holding you. Now, if you’ve reached out and grabbed a hold from instinct, let go of the wall again. Just sit still and breathe until you feel somewhat relaxed while fully supported by your gear. Start climbing again and repeat this process until you instinctively feel confident the rope will hold you can begin to relax while calling for a “take” anywhere on the wall.
Note to belayers: “Take” is shorthand for “take my weight,” and it’s an active activity. Don’t just lock off the belay and stare at your climber. Pull in the slack, then lock off the rope, and sit down into the rope so you support your climber and absorb the stretch. Feeling that the rope is slack after saying “take” is far from confidence inspiring. Feeling that tension is essential when giving a proper “take.” In outdoor scenarios where climbers have to clean gear from bolted anchors, that tension is the only way the climber can know they are safely on belay. If you don’t feel that tension, unclipping from the anchor and trusting the rope is akin to playing Russian Roulette with a loaded revolver.
Next: Trusting the belay:
Now that you trust the rope for holding your weight, start climbing again. This time, pause and announce “falling” once you’ve climbed a few body-lengths. Belayers, don’t give your climber a “take,” this is supposed to be a small fall. If this made you nervous, sit and relax on the rope until your heart rate and breathing have returned to normal so you can relax a little. Continue climbing up the wall, periodically jumping/falling off. After you’ve grown comfortable with announced falls, the next step is to repeat the process with un-announced falls until you feel comfortable giving it your all, even on the most improbable moves!
Finally: Swing Falls Up to this point, we’ve ben assuming you’re working on a vertical wall where the potential for swinging is rather small, but climbing terrain isn’t always so simple. Sometimes your anchors will be offset from the base of a route, or the wall can be overhung causing you to swing when you fall. Another reason to practice this skill is to learn which swings are safe. If you’re not yet sure, start small! Move a little to the left of the anchor and practice falling there, and then gradually move farther away to see how large of a swing you can get away with. Be careful, use your judgment, don’t engage in anything risky, and don’t be an idiot. This isn’t something to practice in the gym on a crowded night where you can smash into other climbers, or belayers, or entangle their ropes.
Keep in mind that your swing velocity is related to the angle that your rope has strayed from vertical. Because of this, it’s safer to take a swing offset from the anchor while you’re low down. In doing so you may swing further, but you’ll swing with a lower velocity than you would near the top of the route, and this gives you time to get your bearings and avoid swinging into something if you’ve made a mistake in your setup. This can be a good thing to practice at the climbing gym since they typically won’t hang a toprope anywhere you’re in danger, but you have to remember that it’s a shared space. Wildly swinging about can pose a hazard for others, not just yourself, be aware of your surroundings. Remember, the goal is to feel safe when you are safe, so don’t practice anywhere that seems dangerous outside. For swing falls, use common sense, make sure you’ve climbed higher than head-height, lest you swing around and kick people. It’s worth noting that a swift kick to the head is not a great way to introduce yourself to new climbers.
Sport Climbing: Sport climbing can require at times that you take an actual free-fall instead of sagging onto the rope. This is a new level of engagement, so make sure you’re comfortable with toprope first. I’ve seen a few novice leaders that still didn’t trust the toprope system, so practicing falls on lead was counter-productive. They had to return to the basics. You should practice all of these drills on routes with safe, clean falls. Vertical or overhung walls with closely spaced bolts and routes that travel straight with no traverses are preferred. It might seem a little weird coming from your friendly neighborhood soloist, but this really is one of those safety-first situations. With training, it’s important to practice one variable at a time for the best effect. Since we’re working on your mental game, it’s important to remove as many variables that cause danger as possible. On that note, try to avoid any falls with swings until you’ve grown entirely comfortable with vertical falls.
Top-rope whippers: Let’s start at the start, most folks feel comfortable jumping off the wall while close to the ground, just like you would while bouldering. Clip the first bolt while it’s still above your head and take a fall. If this is still too intimidating, begin by stacking crash-pads at the base of the wall until you feel okay enough to fall willingly. I was tremendously embarrassed the first time I decided to pull over crash pads in the gym for fall practice, but there was no need to feel self-conscious. We are not alone in this endeavor; people are very understanding about mental work! Fall here, below your first bolt, repeatedly until you instinctively feel that the rope will catch you. After each fall, rest on the ground for a moment to collect yourself (since you’re so close to the floor there’s little point in hanging in your harness, it’s just not terribly comfortable). Don’t repeat the exercise until you have returned to a state of calm. Once you’re comfortable falling at the first bolt, move up to the second bolt, and the third, and so on until you feel comfortable performing this exercise anywhere on the wall.
Small Falls: Up to this point, you were essentially on top-rope since the bolts were clipped above your head, but now we’ll begin taking actual falls, albeit short ones. Climb to the third or fourth bolt (we want to be clear of any ground level obstacles, such as your belayer’s cranium), and take a fall once your knot is level with the bolt. Pause, breathe, collect yourself, and let go. After the fall, pause, breathe, collect yourself, and continue. Relax as much as you can between repetitions. Repeat the fall at each bolt until it feels comfortable and “normal,” then move up to the next bolt and so on until you feel comfortable falling anywhere on the wall. At first you may need to announce your falls to feel more secure, I know I sure did, but the key is to practice this until you feel comfortable taking those falls without any warning. Once you’ve mastered that, move on to the next step!
Whipper Therapy! I know I’m always talking bad about taking whippers (longer falls) for mental training, decrying the practice as counter-productive, but it truly IS part of the process. The problem is that it’s a very poor place to begin the process, and some folks mistake it for being the entire process. However, now that you’ve felt successful with drills listed above, we’re ready for some rather conventional fall-practice!
Again, climb to the third or fourth bolt to be clear of any obstacles. Climb until your knot is 12 inches above the bolt, take a breath, try to stay calm, take a practice fall. As with prior drills, repeat this fall until you feel calm, and move up to the next bolt. After some time, you’ll likely become comfortable with these short falls, and you can begin moving even further above the bolt. Good benchmarks I’ve found for indoor fall practice are falling 12 inches (one foot) above your bolt, falling with the bolt at knee level, falling with the bolt at foot level, and falling with your knot near the next bolt. That last suggestion represents the “worst case scenario” at your local gym, if you can feel confident with this then you can feel comfortable anywhere on the wall!
One last note: Now, the difference between indoor and outdoor climbing represents a sharp break for some, so it’s entirely possible that you still find yourself feeling fear outside. If that’s the case, perform a little bit of fall practice during your warm up at the crag each day to build your instincts for outdoors climbing as well! Performing these drills during the warmup has always been particularly effective because it won’t cut into your “climbing time” when you’re itching to send, and it will avoid straining too hard thus increasing the effectiveness of your warm up!
Trad is Rad! Cams and nuts have been designed and engineered as units for fall protection. That means they have been specially created for the purpose of catching falling humans when they are used properly. Today I’m not going to tell you how to use them properly, that could be the subject of an entire book. Actually, it is the subject of an entire book. GO, READ THAT BOOK! Even if you don’t climb trad. If you climb outside in any capacity, read this book. It is an excellent primer in the fine art of not-killing-yourself. And then, once you’ve read that book, read the trad climber’s bible. Those books just might save your life, if you let them.
Trad is a touch more complicated than sport, there are no pre-placed bolts or anchors to designate your stopping points, so naturally staying safe will depend on your abilities of risk-assessment and your competency with gear placements. Again, we want to practice on a vertical or slightly overhung climb that is relatively straight with minimal traverses. You should be completely comfortable with all of the sport-climbing fall-drills before starting this section and very competent with your gear placements. If you are not competent with your gear placements, bring a friend who is. And then read “Climbing Anchors” by John Long. Actually, on second thought, read that book before you practice. Yes, I hot-linked his book four separate times, its that important.
This crap is voodoo magic, and I don’t trust it one damn bit! I think that could be a good title for my autobiography. “This crap is voodoo magic, and I don’t trust it one damn bit: The Austin Howell Story.” Now all I have to do is go out and do something exciting that’s worth writing about! This could take a while….
I mean, just look at a cam. It looks like a death metal band’s interpretation of a mushroom. It’s not inherently obvious that it will save you from the grip of gravity. So it’s usually best to start over at the very beginning, much like the first-time climber who doesn’t trust the rope, we have to learn that a new piece of gear can be trusted. To a certain extent. When used properly. *cough* Have you read that book yet? (it’s linked five times now, you have no excuse.)
“Take!” Once you’ve found an appropriate route, lead about half-way up placing gear with a “normal” safe spacing. If you don’t trust your gear, send your qualified friend up to build a two-piece anchor at the half-way point, or somewhere where you can fall safely, then climb up, clip the anchor, and place one piece of your own just a few inches above the mini-anchor. This is your practice station. One benefit of having a friend build your mini-anchor while you’re placing the cams for fall practice is that it will allow you to develop trust in your own placements while knowing that something solid is in the wall in case you screw up. On the other hand, if you DO trust your own judgment and are quite competent with your placements, it’s best to build your own practice station.
Now, try to relax and call for a “take.” Pull onto the wall and inspect your gear to make sure it hasn’t wiggled into a poor placement, if everything looks good call for another “take,” repeat this process until you feel comfortable letting the cam hold your weight, and you instinctively feel confident that your gear will hold. If this is too frightening, bring extra gear and start cramming pieces in the wall until it finally feels safe. I once performed this drill with a two-piece equalized anchor and six additional pieces. Eight pieces total in a 4-foot long span, with a decent sized audience since it was a busy day at the crag. Hey, everybody has to start somewhere right?
One critical point:
After every time you weight your gear you really should inspect your placements to make sure they are still solid. Trad gear tends to wiggle when weighted, repeated falls can wiggle your pieces out of the wall. This is why we have at least one backup piece, just in case. It’s better to have it and not need it than to encourage gear failure.
Fall Progression: Return to your practice station, and practice each of these scenarios until you grow comfortable with them:
Announced falls, below your highest piece. Just like “toprope whippers” in the sport climbing section.
Unannounced falls, below your highest piece.
Unannounced falls, 12 inches above your piece. Just like the “small falls” drill in the sport climbing section
Un-announced falls, with the gear at knee level.
Un-announced falls, with the gear at foot-level.
Practice each of these until you feel comfortable with the fall at this particular practice station.
The next steps: Eventually, you want to develop enough understanding of the gear to build your own practice station, and then to build enough confidence to reduce the size of your practice station to only two or three pieces. We want to get comfortable with the knowledge that our gear will hold WITHOUT sacrificing safety by removing too many pieces from the system. How few is too few? That’s a personal judgment call, all I can say is make sure John Long would approve of your anchor system, and you’ll probably be alright. Once you’ve got a small and sleek practice station, the final step is to start practicing in other places with more exciting terrain. Experiment, keep it lively but keep it safe. You want to gain experiential knowledge of when and where it is actually safe to fall, and not split your cranium on an upward-facing guillotine flake.
Decking Practice Bouldering Practice: This is tricky. Every fall while bouldering is a ground-fall, so we must be careful. If you have a particular boulder problem that you want to send, but fear is shutting you down, it is possible to carefully and systematically work on this fear. The crux of the issue is this: Are you safe?
Start at the beginning and consider what would happen if you fell off. Does it feel safe? Are you okay falling while attempting the move? Even better, look from the ground up and decide how high you’re willing to go. Once you know what will be safe, we can establish a zone for practice. Once your toes are a foot or two off the ground, jump back down to the pad. Then do the same one move higher. Now another move higher. Slowly practice inching your way higher and higher, stop as soon as you feel unsafe. The key is to feel safe falling in all the places where you are not in danger but to do that you have to familiarize yourself with falling to use proper technique. It helps to ask folks how to fall properly; it helps to practice short falls an attempt to make them as comfortable as possible. Start in the gym with a well-padded floor. Take special care if you’ve had ankle or leg injuries, you don’t’ want to make them worse.
Just like our practice sessions for the other disciplines of climbing, you want to practice each fall multiple times so that you feel comfortable with it. If you can’t get comfortable with the fall, that’s an indicator that you may be pushing too far above the ground, and you’re getting a little too close to the danger zone. For bouldering practice, I feel it’s of particular importance to have external supervision from someone you trust. Since every fall is a ground fall, it’s important to take extreme caution. Sometimes you are right to be afraid of falling. Bouldering is always an exercise in proper judgment.
Calm climbing is safe climbing:
Terrified climbing isn’t fun climbing. Terrified climbing isn’t safe climbing. When you’re frightened, it’s easy to make hasty reactionary decisions that can put you in danger. I know a climber who shouted “take” while he was above a nut placed for a downward pull. Since he was above the piece, the tension on his rope pulled the gear sideways and ripped it out of the crack. He decked from thirty feet. Luckily he only needed staples in his head and was able to walk out. I knew a climber who called take while sport climbing above his bolt, the weight of the belayer slammed him into the wall. He smashed into the wall with such force that he compound-fractured his leg. Once the doctors installed a sufficient number of screws and pins he was able to walk, but never quite could climb again. In either of these situations, the climbers would have been safe and injury-free had they just taken the fall, but fear clouded their decisions and ended their climbing day, or climbing career.
Controlling your fear is essential to being safe, and essential to having good fun on the wall. That’s why I’ve been writing these articles lately. I see a lot of climbers struggling with fears on the wall, they read books and posts on the Internet and come away scratching their head confused trying advice that’s ineffective or that makes their problems worse. All you have to do is start small and live in your discomfort zone for a little while to chip away at your fear from the sides until it’s small enough to handle!
You don’t have to take me at my word, though, try it! If it doesn’t work, you can come back, throw a drink in my face and call me a liar. What do you have to lose? All of these exercises are designed to fit in your warmup, so it’s not like you’re missing out on hard sends or time spent on your project. I’m confident in these methods because I’ve seen them work. I’ve got this idea that climbing doesn’t have to be scary; it can be comfortable and relaxing!
One thing that became apparent to me as I recovered from my injuries was the amount of habits that filled my life that I couldn’t justify. If you can’t find a reason for your habits, perhaps they aren’t doing anyone any good? And what kind of life is that? I’ve questioned why I bother to keep up this blog a few times over the past year and questioned why I would continue to do so. In the end, I decided that a post is worth writing and publishing as long as it has a chance to be helpful to someone. For me, the best things in life come from helping others to accomplish their goals and have fun. It’s all about spreading that Good Mojo! If that’s not a good reason to write, I don’t know what is, so here’s hoping this advice helps you as much as it did me! And maybe, just maybe, together we can lead a paradigm shift in the accepted methods for overcoming our fears and find peace on the wall!
I’ve got a secret, one that nobody seems keen on spreading: Conquering your fear of falling is easy, and it follows a very simple easily explainable process. (PS: I feel that first sentence sounds like clickbait, and I apologize)
Why should you care? Only because climbing is the most fun thing in the world, and it’s a lot less fun when you’re terrified. Sure, that terror will also limit how hard you can climb, but nobody really cares how hard you can climb. “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun”, and if you’re terrified, that’s not you. Conquering your fear of falling is useful because it makes climbing more fun, and that lets you become the best climber in the world!
But hold on, why should you listen to me? I haven’t published any books, I’m not a competition climbing coach, I haven’t climbed anything notable, and high-school girls have been known to onsight my projects at the gym. Essentially, in the grand scheme of things, I’m a nobody. But… I’ve been smashed by gravity. In the course of my climbing experience I’ve smashed a fair number of random body parts, and that made me afraid. When I first learned to lead-climb I quickly overcame my fear of falling, as many people do, by practicing long falls. Since that time I’ve had a series of unfortunate accidents, each one re-instilled a fear of gravity within me, each one shattered my trust in the belay system. Taking long falls was out of the question due to the fear it caused within me. Despite this, each time I became injured I still managed to overcome my fears and come back stronger than ever.
Post Edit Note/disclaimer: Those injuries are not indicative of climbing in general, and are not indicative of the situations described in this article. I have been injured while engaging in dangerous situations. During my recovery and afterward this caused me to feel fear even in safe situations. This article is one option for learning how to feel safe when you know that you ARE safe. This is advice does not pertain to unsafe or uncertain scenarios. The only reason that I bring up the injuries at all is to point out that these techniques work even for folks like me who have experienced intense bouts of recurring fear.
You should listen to me because I am a nobody. I overcame my fears enough times to become practiced at overcoming fear. It’s not an ability I was born with; I had to learn it the hard way. I have no super-powers or special abilities, but I’ve had the luckmisfortune opportunity to work through these fears a few times more than most people. My superpower is that I’ve been afraid more often than anybody I know, so hell… If I can do it, anybody can! And yes, I mean you.
Don’t Take the Whipper! Mental training might make you a little nervous, but it should never make you outright terrified. If you’re afraid, we’re doing it wrong. Whoever decided that taking massive falls is the “silver bullet” magic-cure for fears on the wall was terribly misguided. Jumping off the wall ta a great height where you start to get overwhelmed with fear and only reinforces your instinct that falling is terrifying no matter how safe the system is, for most people anyhow. However, there is a certain subset of folks who can greatly benefit from this, and they are the reason the myth keeps lingering. They’ll proudly proclaim “It worked great for me!” with all the best intentions of the world, and it did, for them, but it’s a very small view of the complete solution. I’ll begin the discussion by talking directly towards the largest audience, sport climbers, but at the end eventually in my next post I’ll bring things full circle to include new climbers who are afraid on toprope, trad climbing, and even boulderers! (in other words, the next post will be a great read for anyone who’s introduced a friend to climbing and been dismayed by the fact that your friend was terrified the whole time. Hint: screaming “c’mon, it’s only toprope!” Isn’t helpful).
Relax, It’s only Rock Climbing! All of these drills are best performed during your warm-up. The point of this is to isolate variables. When you’re tired it’s natural to feel more insecure, and that insecurity leads to an increase of fear and anxiety on the wall. If you’re anything like most of us, you’re dealing with enough of that already!It’s also worth noting that taking falls when you’re a touch nervous tends to raise the heart rate and can get some people just a little “amped up” with adrenaline. Now, I don’t advocate climbing for adrenaline, but in this particular instance we can make our fears work for us as a pretty good warm up. That little release of adrenaline and twinge of uncertainty developed in fall practice can help raise your heart-rate and core temperature, which readies you for climbing stronger for the rest of the day.
And now we begin:
This is the first step. Next time you go to the wall, find the easiest climb you can for warming up. Step up to the wall, grab the first hold, take a deep breath and make a mental note to relax. It might feel a little weird at first, but this is something I do for every major climb. It becomes a little ritual that helps bring you “in the zone” for whatever it is that you’re intending for the climb. Now, pull on the route and make a deliberate effort to climb it slowly, sink into every position as much as you can for a good stretch. The goal is to feel 100% relaxed and calm for the whole climb, that’s why we chose something easy. Every time your mind wanders, bring it back to this move, this body position. Think about how solid your hands are, remind yourself that your feet are stable and unlikely to slip. Your mind will wander eventually, and that’s fine, just bring it back to the moment by focusing on your breath and continuing to relax your way up the wall. Don’t be hard on yourself when your mind wanders! We’re making a practice of directing your attention, and you can’t bring your mind back to task if it never wanders to begin with, so having a wandery mind is a great staring point!
Great! We’ve established a baseline, we’ve found somewhere you’re comfortable. Even if you weren’t able to maintain focus and relaxation through the whole climb, that’s okay. You were probably able to achieve that relaxed state for at least a few moves. If you’ve had that one moment of peace and relaxation, then we can start to expand that feeling to the rest of your climbing, doing so is a lifelong process and our practice of growing comfortable with falling is just one possible starting point. The idea on this first climb is to practice relaxing, without thinking about falling. You could even do this on top-rope if you wanted.
Trusting the System First, we need to pick a route for practice. It’s important to assess the risk from the ground, that way you don’t have to figure out whether you’re safe or not while climbing. Get your thinking over with at ground level. Look up at the climb, imagine falling from each bolt. What would the consequences be? The idea is to choose a route that’s easy, so you will feel physically secure the whole way, and safe so you can know intellectually that there are no dangerous fall positions on the route. You want something easy, but you want a climb that is at least vertical, a slight overhang is even better for safe, clean falls but we must keep the climb easy enough that climbing laps on it will not be stressful. We’re only working on one stress at a time.
Tie into the rope and climb up. Practice stretching and relaxing as much as you can, just as we did with the first climb of the day. As you climb through your first few bolts start thinking about how you would feel about taking a fall. If you feel it would be frightening, keep climbing until you find a point where it feels more comfortable. If you reach a point where it only feels “uncomfortable” or “nervous”…. That’s perfect! Pause at the point where you start to feel uncomfortable, take a breath, try to relax, jump. Repeat the fall at this point until it feels absolutely normal and relaxed, just a part of doing business.
Real Life Example:
Seven years ago, I fractured two vertebrae when my partner let go of my rope and dropped me to the ground, when I first came back to climbing I was afraid even to fall when I had a bolt clipped above my head. The fear was paralyzing. Even though I didn’t feel safe anywhere on the wall, I did feel safe while bouldering, that was my comfort zone. I felt safe taking short bouldering falls.
I dragged Jeremy to the gym and let him in on my plan. He dragged a few crash-pads to the base of the wall, then I climbed up and clipped the first bolt while it was still above my head. “Hey man, you ready? Are you sure you’re ready? Like really ready? You’ve got this right?” “C’mon fucker, just jump already!” (I might be paraphrasing his response a little a lot) I tried to relax through the nervousness that swelled within me and jumped off. The rope held! I mean, of course it did, but it felt surprising at the time since I had lost all trust in the system. I repeated that fall until it felt normal and comfortable, then moved up to the second bolt, then the third, and so on until I felt comfortable falling below my bolts anywhere. For the next step I started falling equal with the bolt, and then slowly inched my way above the bolt.
Your Personal Practice: If you feel comfortable doing so, climb up to the second or third bolt, and clip it above your head. While your body is below the bolt, think about falling. Does it feel comfortable, uncomfortable, or scary? If it’s comfortable, we can push further up the wall or climb up above the bolt to start practicing. If it’s scary, we need to back off a bit. Perhaps you could come closer to the ground and stack some crash pads to feel safer. If it’s just slightly uncomfortable, we’ve found your practice point.
Make each increment as small as you can. You should take small steps forward after each instance where you gain confidence. If fear of the heights is taking over, only move up one bolt and begin practicing again. If the fear of falling is taking over, seek your next practice point by moving only 12 inches higher at a time. We want to have small incremental progress. The idea is to take a point that feels uncomfortable and make it feel normal, thus expanding your comfort zone. Eventually, by expanding your comfort zone in small increments, it will engulf all of the areas that once left you feeling terrified!
Final notes: At the onset I thought I would expand this post to include bouldering, trad, and toprope practices… but I’m at 1400 2000 words in length at this point, and I fear I’m losing your attention because I talk too much. Plus, it’s the holidays and my family wants to spend time with me, so I’m done writing for today. However, I will devote my next post to tailoring this practice for those disciplines.
Remember, climbing isn’t fun when you’re terrified. If you’re like the bulk of climbers who seek out safe routes which have little danger, then you know intellectually that you’re safe. It seems odd that we can feel so much fear while taking so much effort to ensure safety, but it’s perfectly normal. That’s just how we humans were hard-wired at the start. The good news is that we’re also hard-wired to learn. Think about the first time you ever drove a car on the interstate. It was probably pretty terrifying, wasn’t it? Slowly, bit by bit, you grew accustomed to it and understood that you have a relative amount of safety, and some control over the situation. The same thing happens with climbing, in time. If you keep working at it, climbing can come to feel just as ordinary as driving your car to the gym!
I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!
I remember my last trip to the black hills. Back then I had all the fearlessness of a young fool who had only broken his back once. My MO at the time was a penchant for extremely runout slabs and the occasional free-solo in a good secure crack. Being in an oldschool trad destination like the Sylvan Lake Needles was perfect for me and I felt right at home. When I returned this fall, I was expecting to slip back into the groove like slipping on a pair of resoled Mythos…. like an old friend brought back to life. Having broken myself didn’t slow me down last time, why shoud it this time? This time, the place gave me the creeps. It took me a while, but eventually I figured out why.
After leaving The Needles I went back to my favorite old haunts around Tennessee and Alabama and was pulling on sport routes into the 12+ range without fear. I mean, I was a little tense about my shoulder, but pulling seemed to help the rehabilitation effort. I was back to free-soloing, even if only on routes up to 5.8 and thought my mental game was back in top-shape.
For the winter I decided to focus on climbing trad at Tennessee Wall, and that’s where the trouble started. Even on moderate 5.7’s and 8’s I’d get extremely nervous while making thin moves above gear. On slightly slabbed bolted routes I’d have the same fears resurfacing and it nearly paralyzed me… except… I didn’t trust the gear so I had to keep going.
There are three important parallel branches of mental fitness in climbing:
Trust in the system
Trust in your abilities
While I was out soloing, my mental game seemed perfectly back to normal because I felt 100% solid. My trust in myself was still going strong, but I was still feeling limited. It turns out the only reason I was able to climb hard routes is because I reverted to soloist thinking. Any time I felt like I could make it to the next bolt, I felt perfectly safe. When I thought I was getting pumped, or the moves seemed dicey, I’d immediately scream “TAKE!” In essence, I was taking each route in little bolt-to-bolt mini solos, so any time I thought a fall was possible it really gutted my brain. But I didn’t notice it much, because I felt safe with my little islands of “take” scattered up the wall.
Until I resumed climbing trad, that is. Since my fall occured while aid-climbing with only body-weight hanging on my gear, I didn’t even trust a cam to hold a “take.” This left me perpetually shaky on trad lines. At T-Wall I tried to get on a 5.12, and felt awful. I thought it was just the line so I got on an attractive looking 5.13 and felt terrified on that as well. I bailed on both of them. On a 5.8, and a 5.6 that same day it was the same story, that’s when I realized I had a problem and I needed to work on it.
The first crucial point of mental training is to feel safe every where you know that you are safe. No sense shaking in you boots on a toprope problem when you know the rope can hold up a truck! Even though I knew I had plenty of gear in the wall that could hold a fall, I was paralyzed. My instincts were not in-line with my intellect. Actualy, they still aren’t.
That’s my winter project: re-establishing instinct. Again. I’ve tread this road a few times now and I’ve gotten rather practiced at it. At the end of the day I was taking confident falls with gear below my feet. Fear saps the fun out of climbing, but the good news is it can be overcome fairly easily! More on that in the next post.
In the meantime I’d like to hear your stories! Have you ever had to overcome fear or mental blocks in climbing? How did you manage to do so? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear your perspective!
Hold on. Back up, you’ve jumped the gun here big-time.
Nobody actually cares how hard you climb. I mean it. Nobody does. So why do you want to train for climbing? Do you think training is fun? Most people don’t. (Note: I think training is fun, but I’m going to keep reading anyhow, because that’s not the point.)
“I’m just so scared all the time when I’m on the lead.” No amount of fingerboarding will fix this.
“I never feel solid on the wall.” Campus boarding probably won’t help you here.
Think about it, why do you want to train for climbing? Do you know? If you don’t have a specific reason for it, then no training can’t possibly help you. You need a target to shoot for, or you’ll wander aimlessly, frustrated.
I know a guy who went out one day and climbed a cumulative total of 3,000ft in one day in North Carolina, as you can imagine he said it was one of the most fun days of climbing he’d ever had in his life. Anyone want to wager a guess as to how hard the crux-pitch was on this massive day? It was 5.6
I’m not kidding; the crux was 5.6 and the majority of the climbing was even easier than that. It was some of the easiest climbing Evan’s ever done, but one of the most fun days we’ve ever had. So apparently, all you need to have fun with climbing is the strength to crank 5.6. So why bother with training?
We all get caught up at some point in this notion that we have to climb HARD and that’s the real point of climbing. It’s not, and you don’t. I don’t know about you, but I usually hate climbing hard. I mean… I like being able to climb “hard” (or at least being able to pretend until someone who climbs hard shows up), but I don’t so much enjoy actually climbing at my limit. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule for me, I do like a good challenge from time to time, but I’m also really lazy and would kinda prefer to just hang out and have fun at the crag!
We read all these “how to climb harder” books, and usually it’s a little bit of a struggle to apply what you’re reading, right? The usual formula is “You want to climb hard, and I can teach you how to climb hard, because I climb hard,” but what if I really just want to climb happy?
My favorite instructional book on climbing is “Speed Climbing” by Hans Florine. Right in the opening he sets out the “why” behind his publication: in short, to paraphrase, Hans doesn’t expect you to become a speed-climber. So why should you read a book on speed climbing? “Because the only thing better than climbing, is more climbing.” Given that we have a finite number of hours in this world to do our climbing, if you climb faster and with more efficiency, you will have more climbing. Hans didn’t write a book on speed climbing; he wrote a book on how to enjoy climbing more.
Now isn’t that a notion? Rather than write a book on how to climb harder, or how to climb faster, or how to avoid killing yourself, Hans wrote a book on how to climb happier and it just happened to be through the lens of speed climbing.
That’s a book I love to read, and it’s a premise that has enhanced my life. And isn’t that really the point of climbing? To enhance your life?
What if we stopped thinking about how to climb harder and considered how to climb happier?
It’s a funny thing, if you climb easier routes, you’ll naturally move faster. That’s a quick and easy tactic to get “more climbing.” Another tactic is to get stronger. If you get stronger, more climbs will feel “easy,” and you’ll get more climbing.
One way to get strong is via training, and here’s the cool thing: When I’m training, I can make forward progress with as little as two or three hour-long sessions a week. Then for the rest of the week I have license to climb as easy as I want, socialize and have fun. Hold on, isn’t that why we started climbing to begin with? To meet rad people and have entirely too much fun?
Now that’s a concept I can get behind. Some folks get too serious about their climbing, ultimately it’s supposed to be fun. If it’s not, you’re doing something dreadfully wrong. I mean, why else would a human spend time at deadly heights if not to enhance life and to have fun? Surely there is no better justification for climbing than simple enhancement of one’s ability to enjoy life.
To me, that’s the perk of training. It increases my ability to relax and have fun while climbing, and it releases me from the pressure of having to “climb hard,” whatever that even means….
“Here’s an article on how to climb happier, it just so happens that training might make your climbing happier.” That’s a notion I can get behind. If training doesn’t make your climbing happier, why do it? Life’s too short to avoid something as fun as actually climbing things without a good reason.
So, why do you want to train? Submit your motivations in the comments below!