Glory of the Onsight

I’m at a good place in my climbing career, I’ve accomplished most every goal I’d ever set for myself and dreamed about, but still I’ve always maintained that the actual gnar is for people way cooler than me, and I’m simply dreaming of gnar… until now. Now I realize I’m about to be flung face-first straight into the gnar, and I have absolutely no idea if I’m ready. A good many people have told me to “go to hell” in my life, but this is the first time I actually listened to one of them.

A few years back, at 24 Hours of Horshoe Hell, Mark Vabulas’ team set the all-time pitch record at 470, which means 235 pitches per person. This year Mark has big plans. Not only does he want to win this year, not only does he want to beat his own record, but Mark wants to smash his old record into oblivion. Complicating his plan is the fact that his partner split ways and pushed the record up to 520 without him last year. This spring, Mark messaged me with an invite to join his team at the competition. His reason for calling me in on this shenanigans was simple: “Listen man, you’re literally the only person I know who’s strong enough and dumb enough to pull this off with me.” I really wanted to argue with him, but I had to admit… He had a point. I’m definitely dumb enough!

Let the record show, I am definitely dumb enough
Let the record show, I am definitely dumb enough
But strong enough? That remains to be seen. I’ve been training hard for 3.5 months now, and the final push is over. Last night was my final training session and I have begun to taper in preparation for the competition. When he first invited me, I felt confident, but the more I thought about it, the more intimidated I became. Mark’s goal is a team-total of 720 pitches, that means 360 pitches per person, and if you do the math it means someone has to topout every two minutes for 24 hours straight. Holy shit. I actually started doing cardio. I mean… For the first time in my life, I voluntarily went running for fitness

(from what I understand, the above video is played at 1/3rd of the speed we’ll need in Arkansas.)

Part of the strategy is to employ “big wall speed tactics” during the comp, that’s why Mark called me up rather than any of his usual partners or acquaintances. He knew he wouldn’t be able to get a partner who had competed in the event before, and likely couldn’t even find someone who had visited the crag, so he needed a partner who could lock horns with onsight 5.11 run-outs at 4AM after 18 hours of climbing. With solos up to 5.12c under my belt, and onsight solos up to 5.11c, Mark decided I was the guy for the job. I’m sure Mark knew guys physically strong enough for it, but I had trouble arguing with his assessment that I’m dumb enough. I mean… There’s video proof of the fact that I’m dumb enough floating around the Internet. Not only that, but I also had the grit to commit to training for the event and sacrificing any goals I had for the summer.

I’ve been training a TON

Am I ready now? I don’t know. I have literally no idea how well or poorly prepared I am, because I have no benchmark for comparison. When training for soloing, I know things are going well because all the holds begin to feel larger as I gain strength, but I have no idea what this kind of fitness should feel like! I simply have never done anything like this before, and the sheer audacity of it is embarrassing: I’m attempting to win 24HHH, and I’m attempting to do it onsight against guys like Alex Honnold. Who the fuck does Mark think I am!? But… that’s the point of the onsight isn’t it? You never know if you’re ready until it’s over. In the end, it doesn’t matter. I’ve trained the best I know how, and in less than a week I’ll be driving to Arkansas to dig deep and give it hell. Now that the training is over, the only thing left for me to hold onto is curiosity.

While I don’t have any reason to think I’m ready for a goal so audacious that it flirts with outright hubris, I also have no reason to think it’s impossible, because I have no idea what I’m getting into. That’s the glory of the onsight, you don’t know if you’re prepared. But that’s the beauty of the onsight, you don’t know what you’re getting into, so there’s no reason to think you can’t succeed! You just have to saddle up and find out

 

Reflections Revised

This spring has been a huge breakthrough for me, but last spring was quite another story. This spring, I climbed the hardest that I ever have, and through the past month of training I’ve gained more strength and power than I’d ever dared to hope. I sent my first V8 on plastic, that’s something I was never sure I’d do in this lifetime, let alone after so many injuries and accidents… Sure it was plastic, and it’s probably soft, but that still makes it my first V7+ ever on plastic, so I’m still stoked!

And to think back to last year, I was just surprised to be walking then. Sometimes I wonder how I’ve come so far, but when I think about it the secret to my success is obvious: I’m not actually talented. That’s why I’ve adapted and overcome so well.

Dead Man Sending
What i’m thinking: “hold on, you mean to tell me I fell of the second pitch?”
I remember watching the film “Progression” seven years ago, right after the first time I broke my back. I obsessed over videos of Tommy Caldwell on El Cap preparing his project which would become the dawn wall, and watching him climb inspired me to walk around the house squeezing “Grip-Masters” to maintain what little finger strength I could, and keep my legs functional by moving as much as my back-brace would allow. In the middle of the film, World Cup Champion Paxti Usobiaga dropped a line that I’ll never forget:

“I see kids competing these days who are really talented, so they don’t need to train as hard as I do. But I have to work fucking hard. My talent is being a masochist.”

Paxti Usobiaga training for the World Cup
Paxti Usobiaga training for the World Cup

That line has burned into the back of my brain, and it drives me to succeed. It doesn’t matter if you’re talented or not, what matters is your drive! I’ve watched people walk into the gym and immediately send V4 and 5.10 in their first month of climbing. For me, I failed on 5.8’s for my first month of climbing before I could figure it out. It was two years before I ever sent a V4. I am not naturally talented at climbing, every last bit of success I have achieved has been through hard work. Like Paxti, my talent is not climbing, my talent is training. But my love is climbing, and my talent for training empowers that love of vertical movement.

And so I train, and I train, and I train. I have been learning how to train for 8 years now, and recently got my personal training certificate (CPT) through NASM to learn how to train in accordance with modern scientific research. And that’s what it took to drag my carcass out of a California ICU and build the strength needed to free-solo laps on 5.12’s in just 10 months. It turns out there’s a large body of research on how to get stronger, and if you apply that research with right mind, amazing things become possible! Applying these methods through this past winter is precisely the reason that I climbed my personal best in multiple disciplines this spring.

Soloing in the treetops on "First Offense" (5.12a)
Soloing in the treetops on “First Offense” (5.12a)
The secret to my recovery over the past year is that rehabilitation is just training from a lower starting point, and I use training for the purpose of getting better so that climbing is JUST for the enjoyment of climbing. After all, isn’t that the whole point of climbing? To have fun and plaster a huge grin on your face while you enjoy the moment? I don’t have to worry about my performance on the wall, because I know the training is working and the sends will come soon enough as long as I stick with proven methods. Training releases my mind so that I don’t have to think of anything while I’m actually climbing beyond how awesome climbing is! How to progress is a thought I’ll save for the fingerboard!

Training in Cruzers on 5.13's at Stone Summit Atlanta. 4% more try-hard, every single day. That's the goal.
Training in Cruzers on 5.13’s at Stone Summit Atlanta. 4% more try-hard, every single day. That’s the goal. It also helps that the gym sets large foot-holds on the steep stuff!
Dave McLeod says the difference between the pros and us is just 4%…. Just holding on four percent longer on this rep, four percent longer on that hold, giving four percent more effort on every thing that they try in every session for decades on end. Climbing has always been hard for me, and it’s never come easy, so that’s why it’s no shock when climbing gets harder after a recovery. But it’s already par for the course from where I’m sitting, so it’s a no-brainier for me to keep tossing in my 4% every single day until I’m stronger than ever.

How to solo 5.12

Step 1: Don’t.

Great, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, lets talk busines.

Soloing is dangerous; that’s evident as soon as you find yourself fifteen feet off the ground and look down, but many activities are dangerous, so what’s different about this one? To cite an overused comparison: Driving a car is dangerous. At freeway speeds, ramming a blunt object won’t end well for you or your passengers. Auto accidents are among the top ten leading causes of death in America almost every year. What if something unexpected happens, how will you manage to avoid a crash? You tell yourself that you’ll be okay, because you’ve practiced driving a lot, and know you can keep your car straight even if the unexpected occurs. Plus, you have the added knowledge that we’ve well-engineered cars to make them “safe enough.” Despite the engineering, I’d bet you were still terrified the first time you ever drove on the freeway. Despite that initial terror, I’d wager you feel incredibly comfortable behind the wheel on during that objectively dangerous activity.  It’s amazing what the human brain can get used to with a little practice, and practice is just training viewed through a different lens.

In the past two years, I’ve climbed more pitches outside without a rope than I have with one. That’s a lot of practice, and it’s just one year. I’ve been soloing for eight years now, the milage adds up fast.

Statistically speaking, BASE jumping is the most dangerous sport out there, with wingsuit proximity flying being the most dangerous sub-genre of BASE. In any sport, folks like to talk about “pushing the limits” of what’s possible, but that always entails something different. Sprinters must become faster, Olympic lifters must become stronger, Sport climbers need stronger fingers and more advanced technique. With proximity flying, the progression of the sport involves flying closer and closer to objects at high speed. Unfortunately, the only safety one has in BASE relies on having distance from objects so that you can maneuver away if the wind shifts. Because of this, progressing the pursuit of proximity wingsuit flying, by definition, is a practice of slowly eradicating one’s safety margin, a little at a time, until fate catches up with you, or you come to your senses and back off. It takes a lot of skill, but also a fair amount of luck. Pushing the “limits” of proximity BASE means inching closer to death in the most literal definition.

 

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Proximity Flying: Click the photo for more details

By contrast, soloists are all about solidity. I don’t “push my limits” in soloing the way that other climbers do. I push my limits safely in a controlled setting on the campus board and in the climbing gym. For soloing, I have to know that I have the ability to climb a route even should several things went wrong. Because it’s not a matter of if, but when. Because things do go wrong, but that’s not always a big deal. If it was a big deal, I wouldn’t be able to justify continuing. How many times have your feet slipped at the climbing gym, but you continued to climb to the top? How many times have drivers swerved in front of your car unexpectedly, but you didn’t crash? These are learned skills, and there are things you can do to stack the odds in your favor.

I’m talking about jugs! Let’s talk about 5.12 now. 5.12 is hard, and 5.12’s on slabs are utterly horrifying. If we keep the grade constant, steeper climbs yield bigger holds due to the endurance factor. Then it becomes less luck and more fitness. Steep climbs are the home of the biggest holds for any particular grade of climbing, and that’s why my hardest solos have been in the steeps of Little River Canyon. To contrast that point, there are 5.8’s on Looking Glass that you could send in high-heels whichI wouldn’t solo on this side of hell! In other words, my safety margin is a mix of fitness and route selection. The grade has surprisingly little to do with it beyond being a vague guide for which ones are “obviously impossible” because I can’t send them.

 

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Steep route, big comfortable holds! “The Lion” (5.12c)

Folks like to dramatize soloing with statements such as “Don’t you know that one mistake will get you killed!” Trust me, I think about the potential consequences of my mistakes far more than you do. If I was on a polished 5.8 slab devoid of holds, it really would only take a small mistake to send me pitching off the route. When the hands are so small and thin, the only thing pasting you on the wall is friction and a little shoe rubber. In the steeps, fingers have to be locked in hard to the rock to maintain connection. If I pick a route with solid in-cut holds, I don’t have to worry about my hands slipping by accident or without warning (or my feet, for that matter), because I have a reliable connection with the rock that I can feel and evaluate. Even so, things could go wrong in little ways, but if something does go wrong, I just grab harder and bear through it. Just like you do at the climbing gym. Foot slips? Grab harder. Hand slips? That’s why I have two, and I’ve made a deliberate point to train so I can do one-arm pullups on crimps. If one hand slips a little, I have trained to have the excess strength necessary to carry through.That need for excess strength is why my hardest solos are near to my onsight level, and not anywhere near my physical limits. 

Soloing done right isn’t a matter of “I can do this perfectly,” that would be hubris. Soloing done right means training well and selecting the right route so that one can say “I can send this with energy to spare, even if I make multiple mistakes.”

Speaking of mistakes, climbers love the onsight. Onsighting is impressive, because it means you can send the climb even while doing everything wrong and wasting energy while thinking. Often I’ll choose to solo routes I’ve onsighted, so once I’ve dialed in the beta and remove the effort of dragging a rope and draws… Well, at that point I usually have a built-in safety margin. Onsighting with a rope involves making mistakes on the route from guessing the wrong beta or burning excess injury while stalling and thinking about what to do next. After onsighting,  when I come back with the correct beta, I know I can climb it without falling, even if I make a few mistakes.

That’s the thing about soloing; it’s not a kamikaze mission where I’m willing to roll the dice and see if I can climb something perfectly without making mistakes. You can’t sustain soloing for adrenaline or cool-factor, that will catch up to you faster than wingsuit BASE. I solo because it’s the most relaxing activity on earth for me. Chosing to solo isn’t a statement of impulse or sensation-seeking. It’s a statement that I have prepared so well that I know I can control the climbing on a route, even when I screw up, and a dedication to training to make sure that rarely happens.

One great quote from the 80’s states: “Any asshole can get lucky once, second time’s the solo.” That quote really threw me off when I first heard it. It just rubbed me the wrong way, but I think I understand it now. If you come off a route thinking “wow, I’ll never solo that again,” then the preparation was incomplete, it was a risk. You were too close to the limit for comfort, and you simply got away with it. It was luck. On the other hand, If you come off thinking “okay, that was cool, I’d gladly go again!” That’s a much clearer sign that you’ve approached the wall with right mind and proper preparation. Soloing is about being ready to climb on command and having everything sufficiently in control to feel relaxed.

You want to know how to solo 5.12? Create a set of skills where soloing 5.12 feels like the most relaxed and peaceful activity on earth. Otherwise, pack in a rope!

 

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Quantum Leap: A trip report

I still vividly remember when I started climbing, struggling on 5.8’s, and looking at folks on 5.12’s in amazement. How could anyone possibly climb that? In those days, the ultimate goal in our community’s eyes was to send 5.13a and onsight 5.12a… But that kind of ability just seemed so inhuman to me, how could anyone even climb 5.12, let alone onsight it!?

One year ago, eight years later, I climbed my first 5.13a, and onsighted my first 5.12’s. I still can’t entirely believe I did it. It seems too surreal, too superhuman for someone like me to achieve. That’s the kind of stuff reserved for strong climbers, not me… No matter how strong I get, it seems that kid struggling on 5.8’s will still be looking outward with a sense of awe and wonder: “How is that physically possible?!” I’m always surprised when one day, after a lot of training… It is! And then, a few months later, it becomes easy.

I felt dizzy just typing that last sentence. I’ve never felt like I’m special, especially not in climbing, so I’m always surprised whenever I achieve something. Climbing is maddeningly difficult, and yet… I’ve trained hard enough to develop these magic moments where it all comes together and just feels like the most natural thing in the world. Then once I realized that was possible, I trained specifically to lengthen those moments and live in them. When I was injured in Yosemite last spring, I thought I had lost that irretrievably. How could someone climb peacefully with no sense of equilibrium?

I hid in the basement and trained all winter once I realized my injuries were healed, and at the beginning of March, I returned to my old favorite haunts to take the fingers for a test-drive. Not only were they doing better than expected, but I was stronger than I’d dared even to hope. I managed to onsight “Thieves” (5.12a), and snake the redpoint on “Gas Chamber” (5.13a). I’ve never screamed with excitement after a send, but… Well…  Fortunately, it was a weekday at the crag, so nobody had to hear me!

Much to my surprise, It felt like my fingers were just getting started.


I had a notion that some old favorites might go as solos with my newfound security on the wall from this winter’s training, so I returned to Foster Falls and rehearsed “Bottom Feeder,” “First Offense” and “Satisfaction” about a half-dozen times each to prepare, and then it was just a matter of waiting for the right day. To train my mind, during the waiting period, I made a “dry run” at Sandrock by repeating every 5.11 I’ve ever soloed in a single afternoon and was surprised to feel solid enough on all of them that I could repeat the lines on command, even “Dreamscape”… Which held the title of my hardest solo at the time

Then, the day after, Lohan invited me out to Little River Canyon to run laps on local testpieces. I hopped on “Boy” and “The Lion” and they felt casual. The lines are crazy steep, but the great thing about steep climbing is this: As long as you hold the grade constant: the steeper it gets, the bigger the holds are! These routes were so steep that the holds were large enough to make the climbing felt even more secure than my Foster Falls circuit. Game on!


I couldn’t decide which set of climbs I wanted to go for… Boy and Lion? Or the Foster Falls Circuit? When the weather finally cleared enough, I realized I could have both and planned to do it all in a single weekend, starting in Little River Canyon.

I started with “Boy”, and it went smoothly. To me, it was slightly nerve wracking because I knew the crux was a boulder problem at the very top, and the last move of that bouldery crux was the hardest. I had that in my head the whole way up, but once I laid my hands on the holds, I felt completely calm and restful. In retrospect, I think that contemplating life at the base of the climb was the real crux! Next, I went for “The Lion”, which had a lower and more secure crux. I wasn’t as anxious, but I got excited once I fired the crux and had to collect my head to fire the finish smoothly. The routes don’t top out on the wall, so I traversed right and climbed down to the ground via a wandering path across the opening moves of a few 5.11’s. I managed to dodge any of the cruxy bits by traversing from route-to-route and the downclimb felt about 5.10.

After pulling off the solo of a 5.12c, I knew my lines at Foster Falls would go well, but the weather soured. Rain was now forecasted for 3 pm instead of the 5 pm I had planned. I was worried I wouldn’t have time to warm up, but then I thought back to the day I sent “Gas Chamber” and remembered that I had warmed up on “Satisfaction”, and it felt good… So I figured that would be a good way to start the day. My primary anxiety was about the possibility of having an audience; that’s just weird when I’m near the upper limit of my comfort zone… I just don’t want to have the distraction… I saw some other climbers walking towards the wall and glanced at my heart rate monitor. I spiked at about 150bpm because I was anxious about their affect on my performance and almost called the whole thing off… But they kept walking, my heart rate dropped, and now at least my body felt warmed up!


Satisfaction starts off with some moderate 5.10 into a stout 5.11 section, and then you’re in the crux. For me, the crux beta requires a lie back off a right hand-jam, to stretch left to a quarter inch crimp. Hike the feet, reach up right to another quarter inch crimp, then flow left hand into a BOMBER finger-lock. When leading the route, cross-clipping off of that finger-jam always felt like the crux. Soloing the climb felt like cheating since I was able to skip that stressful clip without worries. As soon as my left hand sunk into the finger lock, all the morning jitters disappeared, and I relaxed my way to the finishing ledge where “Satisfaction” ends and “First Offense” begins.

After sitting on that ledge for a while to contemplate life, I just trusted my abilities and executed the moves through the roof. “First Offense” is 70ft exposed from the first move off the ledge, which really got into my head while I was sitting there thinking about it, but once I pulled onto the massive jugs my entire face split into a giant grin: This is what climbing is all about! I topped out, slipped off my climbing shoes and walked the long way back down barefoot, stubbing my toe HARD in the process. I figure one day I’ll learn to walk straight, but it’s really not a high priority at the moment!

When I glanced at the readout of my heart rate monitor, the lowest intensity periods were while I was climbing, and the highest were while I was walking back down. Apparently I feel more secure on the wall than on foot!


For the last lap of the day, I swung into the layback at the start of “Bottom Feeder”, but in my head, I was scared by the crux deadpoint. It’s SUPER committing. When I got to the crimps at the setup of the move, I wasn’t feeling it at all. “Dreamscape” had a deadpoint, but you’re launching from good holds, so if you screw it up, you can just hold on with that hand and try again. “Bottom Feeder” doesn’t have this luxury, you’re launching from a really bad pocket, so you’ve gotta stick it. I don’t like to roll the dice on something like that, so I reversed the crux and climbed back down to the base. I was a little bit bummed about the climbing but happy that I made a good decision. There’s no room for ego up there.

As a consolation prize, I took a second lap on Satisfaction and First Offense… But this time, I clipped my cruzers onto my belt-loop for the hike down. Among certain crews in the stone master era, it was once said that “Any asshole can get lucky once, the second time is the solo.” And I have to say that the second time felt way better than the first! Once I knew how good the solo felt, all the anxiety disappeared and the only thing left was good climbing. In this case, the second time really was the solo, because that’s when I finally relaxed enough to enjoy it.

Looking back, I realize that I’ll be back to solo “Boy” and “The Lion” again someday, because it was just a super fun experience. If you like numbers and grades, it’s notable that on paper it looks like I jumped from soloing 5.11c to 5.12c in the space of a weekend… But the real quantum leap that I’ve experienced is one of feeling solid and secure. Now, when I solo my hardest climbs, there is no feeling at all of doing something special. Everything was locker; everything was secure to the extreme degree where I would gladly repeat it again, and don’t feel the need to wait for the mythical “special moment.” I’m one with those climbs now, and I can enjoy them on my terms.

Ten months ago I was supposed to be dead, and now I’m more alive than I could have possibly dreamed

Enjoy the video below!

QuantumLeap from Austin Howell on Vimeo.

How to become a successful climber

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!
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Cheers, and happy falling!

Just Breathe: a guide to mental training

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?

I'm pretty sure it doesn't matter if he's comfortable falling on a rope.
I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter if he’s comfortable falling on a rope.
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.

Michael Reardon taking life too seriously on "Romantic Warrior"
Michael Reardon reminding us not to take life too seriously in the crux of “Romantic Warrior”
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.

Just breathe
Just breathe
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!

My Response to Extreme Weight Loss in Climbing

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.

TrainingBeta

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.

For insights from folks who’ve fought this battle themselves, Savannah blogged about her experiences here, and Celine blogged about her experiences for Climb Healthy.

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❤ 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.

Performance doesn’t matter, the best climber in the world is the one having the most fun!


Temptation:
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?

Extreme weight loss by accident. I lost 10 lbs in 8 days after an accident in Yosemite.


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.

More to life than sending: like bouldering in flip-flops with lots of crap dangling about. Because why not?


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!

-Austin Howell-

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!