Psycho-Illogical Progress

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:

  1. Trust in the system
  2. Trust in your abilities
  3. Sports Psychology

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!

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