A Soloist’s Guide to Mental Fitness for All Climbers

The myth of mental fitness is that it’s difficult to achieve; that it’s the sort of thing which requires you to find a mentor who lives on a mountain and spends his time sitting on a cushion chanting “om.” This mythological creature spends his life in a state of perpetual meditation to solidify his mental fortitude into an impenetrable fortress which he bestows one bit at a time upon those who are starved for peace and have just a little bit of spare change in their pocket to throw around. Money, that’s what brings enlightenment, am I right? #yolo

There are those who say the brain is a muscle. I say put your money where your mouth is. If the brain is a muscle, shouldn’t we be able to come up with simple protocols to train it’s strength, just like the physical body? If the brain is a muscle, shouldn’t it be that there are multiple and separate aspects of fitness which can all be improved?

There’s another myth: That free-soloists are wise. I don’t stock any credit to that notion, I started off a complete idiot, and a brief search through Instagram proves that there’s plenty of idiots climbing without a rope. However, I’ve been doing it for nigh on ten years now. When you’re the local free-soloing guy in a place that doesn’t have any other soloists, you’re bound to get a lot of questions, and some of them don’t make much sense:

“Hey, you’re that free-soloing guy, right? Hey, how do I get over my fear of falling?”

Well, if I’m speaking as “that free-soloing guy,” I’d have to say “Don’t,” but I feel guilty because that’s not a very helpful answer…

Well, there’s this lovely facet of my personality that once I’m asked an awkward question enough times, I start to think about it. As a result, I’ve thought about that question a good bit. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve figured it out. Mental training isn’t hard or complicated at all. Over the past many years I’ve been able to flip the switch back and forth between the ability to go for it when it’s safe, and to reign in my instincts and focus when I’m high above the ground without a rope. In fact, I’d say that mental training seems to be a much simpler matter than physical training. At least for the parts that matter when you’re *on* the wall. For the sports psychology matter of trying your hardest, that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.

Focus and determination are skills, skills are built by repetition. Repetition is built through practice.

First, I’d like to ask you: which climbers do you think of as mentally strong? I’ll go ahead and list a few of my personal favorites below:

  • Chris Sharma
  • Angy Eiter
  • Alex Honnold
  • Brette Harrington
  • Dave McLeod
  • Steph Davis
  • Alex Megos
  • John Bachar
  • Margo Hayes
  • Michael Reardon
  • Barbera Zangerl

If you notice, these folks come from wildly disparate disciplines. Mental fitness is no one-dimensional item.

Chris Sharma, Angy Eiter, Alex Megos, Margo Hayes. Why do we consider them to be mentally strong? I think Sharma’s process while projecting Jumbo Love provides the most obvious and clear example. He was taking 60ft whippers without a moment’s hesitation, because the route was so tall and overhung, that such falls were a safe risk to take. It was nothin’ but air the whole way down! Angy and Alex exhibit the same mental capacity every day when they commit fully to trying the moves on their projects despite the risk of a fall. The commonality between them all is this: even if they think there is a low chance of success, they still go for the moves just to see if they’ll make it this time. They have an inherent and instinctual trust in the system to arrest their falls when they’re working the latest project. Therefore “what happens if I fall” is the furthest thing from their minds when they try a hard move. They know precisely what will happen, they know it is safe, and they feel it instinctively.

If you never try fully with all your being, then you can never know if the task at hand possible or not. Trust in your system frees your mind to focus fully on trying hard, instead of allowing thougths of “what if” to sap your strength.

That’s the first tenet of mental fitness: you must have an inherent trust in the system, at least when it is reasonable. The idea is to feel safe everywhere that you are safe and to have the wisdom to know when you’re not.

Imagine this scenario: down on the ground you look up at the route and evaluate the spans between the bolts. You identify that all the falls are safe. There are no ledges, corners, traverses, trees, or other obstacles for you to hit anywhere on this route, so you launch forth full of confidence. 50ft off the ground, you find the crux. You’re 10 ft above your last bolt, and you are afraid. Previously you identified that all fall positions on the route are safe, but now you are scared. That, my friends, is cognitive dissonance. Discomfort and cognitive dissonance both signal opportunities for learning if you are willing.

On the other hand, we have the examples of Alex Honnold, Steph Davis, Michael Reardon, John Bachar and Brette Harrington. On their most stunning solos, do you think they had trust in the system? I sure hope not; they didn’t even have a system! They might trust in their process, as I do as well, but there is no fall-arresting system to speak of. While free-soloing one must possess complete trust in one’s abilities on terrain which you know can be controlled. The idea is to trust your skills when you know that you have it, to back off when you don’t, and to possess the wisdom to understand the difference between the two scenarios.

Steph Davis soloing “Pervertical Sanctuary” on The Diamond of Long’s Peak, CO

Doing this is no small task. There are moves you know you can do, and there are moves you know that you can’t do. The margin between these two narrows as you grow to know yourself better. When sport climbing, one must live in that grey area between the two. For safe climbing, when pushing your limits, you explore that grey zone in between where you don’t quite know if you have it or not. There may be moves where you feel that you can probably do it, but “probably” is a deadly word when you’re not tied in. “Probably” means admitting an element of chance is present. Therefore, for the soloist adept, there the undefined grey area where the outcome is unknown must be made as small as possible. That is the power of the soloist, to know one’s ability down to a very narrow margin.

Any asshole can get lucky once. If you’re not at least willing to repeat it, then you got away with it, and you can only get away with so much in one lifetime before it catches up to you. And you can’t have that willingness to repeat without becoming intimately familiar with your own abilities.

Trust in your abilities, and trust in the system. These are the two pillars of mental strength which empower you to venture into the unknown. Whether it be the unknown of “Can I do this move” or the unknown of being extremely runout and wondering where the next piece of gear may be found.

Mental strength is knowing that it doesn’t matter if you can make this move because you know instinctively that the system will arrest your fall safely. Mental strength is knowing that it doesn’t matter where your next piece of gear lies, because you can handle the situation by downclimbing to a safe fall position or that you can carry on solidly through this patch of climbing to the next visible stance on account of knowing your personal abilities exceptionally well.

The third facet of mental strength is a willingness to venture forth into discomfort. If you look at it one way, discomfort is just another way of saying “the unknown.”  If we wish to expand our comfort zone, then by definition we must venture forth into places of discomfort to know them well. Since we are naturally comfortable in situations we know well, does it not make sense that expanding one’s comfort zone requires spending time in discomfort to know it well?

Let’s face it; there is nothing inherently safe about a human perched 100ft off the ground on a cliff. However, we humans are ingenious. If we can put men on the moon, then you’d think it should be quite trivial to engineer a system whereby a human may feel safe on the side of a wall. However, like all engineering, safety has its limitations in this application, and we must be conscious of those limits.

Often climbers will tell each other “just take the whip, go for it! You’ll get over it faster that way!” Come on, if you had a friend who was afraid of spiders, would you fill a bathtub with arachnids and tell them “just go for it, hop on in, you’ll get over it faster that way!”? Obviously not. With spiders and other fears, we have an instinctual understanding that our attempts to help may only create further harm if we overdo it. So why do we not treat climbing in the same way?

Just thinking about falling…

Have you ever seen a climber undertake a session of fall practice where they take long falls only to fear falling even more by day’s end? Have you ever seen someone get no benefit from taking falls in the gym, or even make backward progress over time so that they become unwilling even to undertake the practice? That’s what I wish to avoid,

You’ll often hear me state that discomfort is merely the feeling of learning. Discomfort is different from fear. Discomfort is something you might feel when gripping a type of hold that you know is your weakness. It’s normal to feel uncomfortable in a place where you are weak, just as I do on pinches and slopers! We, humans, come pre-programmed with a fight-or-flight response, and since there is nothing to fight, we run like hell to escape the discomfort and escape this sequence which has a possibility for learning!

Instead of running, relax. Slow down when you feel that discomfort. Marinate in it. Take note of the feedback from your extremities. Is that hold as bad as you thought? Or is it something you can manage a little better than anticipated? These footholds are good, or at least not bad. They’re doing the job which is necessary, and this handhold…. It doesn’t’ feel as awful now that we’ve sat to think about it! Once you notice that your anxiety or discomfort has come down just the slightest bit, move on and complete the problem.

In doing this, you move from a state of reacting, to a state of acting and contemplating. Just as the advanced climber built an instinctive and intuitive technique base through active contemplation and analysis of movement, so must the advanced mentalist develop skills through acting and contemplating rather than reacting desperately. Through those repetitions, you will build a new instinct. An instinct of deepening calm in the face of adversity, rather than succumbing to panic.

Wolfgang Gullich finding peace in the moment, high above the Yosemite Valley floor

I find this useful to do during my warmup and cool-down. I’ll deliberately seek moves that are moderately difficult but exploit my weaknesses. I’ll note my discomfort, and slow down to remind my mind that I have control of the situation. That’s the benefit of picking something which is only moderately difficult, intellectually you know you can manage the problem, so when you feel that discomfort…. That’s cognitive dissonance, which is always a huge flag waving in the wind signifying an opportunity for growth!

Meanwhile, many runners will be familiar with the idea of the “relative perceived exertion” scale where they estimate how hard they’re trying on a scale of 1-10 to determine if the training intensity is appropriate for the goal desired. For myself, in mental training, I appropriate this idea as the relative perceived anxiety scale. How afraid are you right now on a scale of 1-10? That is the notion that should guide our mental training on the wall. An anxiety level of about a 4/10 should be something that we can handle. You are not overwhelmed with fear or terror, but merely feel a bit of discomfort. That discomfort is something that we can work with, fear overwhelms and traumatizes.

So that’s the goal for fall practice. Every day, during your warmup, climb up and find your 4/10 and let go. Remember your hand and foot placements, then return to the same place and let go again. How did it feel this time? Perhaps a two or three out of ten? Now go fall a third time. Now it might be only a one or two. At this point, we’ve taken something which was uncomfortable and made it fit under the umbrella of the ordinary. In a very literal sense, we’ve expanded your comfort zone! So what if it’s only one square foot more of comfort zone? If you do that every day, then at the end of the year…. You’ll have ACRES of expanded comfort zone.


In keeping with this “brain is a muscle” analogy, I like to break this down into sets and reps. Brains get tired! So to keep your brain from frying, it’s wise to acknowledge that we encounter a point of diminishing returns with this training in the space of a single day. Rather than dedicate an entire training session to fall practice, dedicate a few sets and reps every day. Each fall is one rep. At a minimum, I’d do at least 3 reps. You need that feeling of confirmation on the third fall that it’s not scary. It’s a powerful reinforcement. Many folks will take the whip, decide that the next one will feel comfortable, and move on…. But if we really want to pattern this instinct property, we’re going to need one more fall after that to internalize the new instinct.

If you’re feeling sassy, you could go as far as 6 reps in a single set, but I wouldn’t go any further than two sets in a session. After that, you’re better off doing some actual climbing to test out the progress made! In all, this means somewhere between 3-12 falls in your warmup. After your final fall, go ahead and lower off if you’re in the gym! This is your warmup, so there’s no need to send the route!

One important fact to note is that the gym, outdoors, and trad are three different systems so you might need to repeat this practice for each. If you want detailed examples, read my previous post “A guide to fall practice that actually works.”

Trusting your traditional gear is quite a bit different from trusting bolts in a climbing gym. Your brain knows this, so you have to leverage that fact to your advantage!

For myself, sometimes when I come back from a trip that was heavily focused on soloing, my trust in the system will be a bit rusty. So I’ll keep it at a moderate level and perform two sets of three during each session’s warmup until I feel back up to par.

Added benefit: taking a fall in your discomfort zone often causes a spike of adrenaline. This can help you warm up a little bit faster! So let go of the ego. Nobody cares if you send your warmup. It’s not going to gain you the adulation of your peers, it’s not going to get you laid, and let’s face it…. Climbing itself is not going to get you laid, no matter how shirtless you happen to be at the moment. So let go of the ego, let go of the wall, and let’s get those reps!

Typically, I don’t place much stock in notions of the ego, because I deal with hands-on drills to deepen one’s sense of equanimity on the wall. I find that one’s ego rarely comes into play when your foot slips on an R-rated slab 30ft out from that last bolt. All that comes into play at that point is your will to survive and the capacities you have to do so.

out at the end of your rope, metaphorically at least

I know of many situations within climbing and within life where it is quite reasonable to panic; however, I do not know of a single case where it is productive to panic. Your ability to maintain equanimity on the wall is directly related to your ability to succeed, and to your ability to enjoy. After all, nobody has fun when they’re utterly terrified.

I cannot deny that the ego has a place in climbing though. In my experience, it comes into play before your feet leave the ground and in reacting to successes or failures. Picking easy climbs to show off? Ego. Throwing your shoes at the wall with disappointment over a perceived failure? Ego. Falling off of a route because you’re terrified and adrenaline causes you to pump out? That’s instinct. That’s what I wish to modify. If we can re-program your instincts so that they reflect reality, then you can develop a more profound sense of equanimity on the wall. Simply put: I want your perception to match your reality while you’re engaged in the moment.

Imagine this: high above your last bolt, you encounter a section of climbing which encapsulates all of your weaknesses in one nice neat little package. You begin to panic, and the adrenaline surges. Adrenaline is famous for enabling mothers to lift a car off their baby, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and everything comes with a price. That price is your endurance. Adrenaline changes the metabolic state of your cells, and this causes you to lose the ability to process lactic acid and recover. At that point, a fall is virtually inevitable.

Getting gripped only 4ft above my pro

So that’s the cycle. Your mind sees that this sequence requires your weaknesses, so the limbic brain releases adrenaline, your forearms pump out, you take the fall, and terror floods your mind. OH, MY GOD, I FAIL AT MY WEAKNESSES AND FALLING IS TERRIFYING. Thus the feedback loop is re-enforced so that encountering your anti-style and risk of falling both become more powerful triggers for fear. We must break the cycle.

Instead of launching in over your head, always search for your 4/10 and marinate in it as long as you can. Only by doing so can you render that discomfort into a feeling of peace. And the longer you work with it, the more it comes off the wall into your everyday life!

Trust in the system, Trust in one’s abilities, and The willingness to venture into the unknown You can see it in their posture even down on the valley floor