All posts by austinhowell6

The Hypocrisy of Risk

I am not here to convince you that soloing is a good idea. I wouldn’t try to convince anyone of that. Regardless of whether you approve of soloing or not, we can’t ignore that it is happening, and it will continue to happen. I believe we all have a common interest that is served by seeing that it is not performed for foolish motivations. To that end, I would like to explore attitudes of risk with you before proposing a solution. We climbers have been struggling with how to treat risk in the media in recent years, and we have arrived at a point where there are interesting contradictions within our collective attitudes which I believe are holding us back from finding a workable solution.

This morning a few local Boulderite average joes soloed one of the flatirons, and nobody batted an eyelash. I can feel fairly confident of this statement no matter when you read this article. Unless it was raining in Boulder this morning. Almost every single day the Flatirons are soloed multiple times by ordinary folks like us, and nobody writes scathing comments on Facebook to decry their insanity. Nobody drops the heartfelt line: “I’m so glad you survived.” Every morning they wake up, drink coffee, solo, head to work, and relax through a proper morning post-coffee bowel movement. Despite the coffee, soloing didn’t make our morning joggers shit themselves. Average joe, average solo, nobody gets in a fluff.

This weekend Alex Honnold soloed Freerider and caused an internet shitstorm for the ages. World’s most accomplished soloist, world’s most incredible solo…. you’d think the two would go hand-in-hand and everybody would think “yeah, that’s fair.” Apparently, that’s not the case, and he’s a glory-hounding psychopath. What gives? We’re all okay with the Morning Joes, but not with Honnold? That seems logically inconsistent. I could understand if there was an internet shitstorm against all of them, it’s that breakout point where it suddenly isn’t okay that I find interesting.


High altitude mountaineering has got to be one of the most lethal sports out there, right alongside wingsuit BASE jumping. Not that long ago, we as a community held a collective celebration for the ascent of the “Shark’s Fin” on Meru. The ascent was amazing, and I genuinely tip my hat to those guys. I’m not about to criticize them or denigrate their achievement, but I feel our communal attitudes here are interesting and worthy of inspection.

During the film, I watched as Jimmy, Renan, and Conrad each acknowledge that this ascent could get out of hand and kill them, then state that it was absolutely worthwhile to attempt. Never once has heard Alex indicated that he would be willing to die for free soloing, and yet he has been put on blast by a portion of our community. They say he is the model of unacceptable risk. Meanwhile, alpinists refer to death almost as the cost of doing business in the mountains. We can’t go a single season without hearing of multiple deaths via avalanche and other catastrophes in the alpine world. How can we celebrate this, then turn around and skewer Honnold for “pushing it?” Is it purely because they had a rope and he didn’t? We can hardly argue that the ascent of Meru wasn’t “pushing it,” and we’d be fools to say it was safe just because they had ropes. At this instance, we celebrate unashamedly the ones who openly greeted death as a possible outcome in the mountains, and lump hatred on the guy who chose to climb on a sunny day without inclement weather or conditions of any kind. That too is logically inconsistent.

Angry at Alex, but not the Morning Joes. Ire towards Honnold for supposedly inspiring others to follow him, when generations of mountaineers have died pursuing the unfinished projects of their fallen mentors, who literally led them into the mountains and taught them how to think. And then they died because of it. Where are the fervent cries that we mustn’t risk inspiring more climbers to venture into that world?

Even if someone solved these inconsistencies by behaving equally incensed towards the average Joe, Alex Honnold, and the entirety of high altitude alpinism, they’d still have one more problem: Their Uncle Larry.

You know who I’m talking about, we all have one. That one relative who thinks that you are utterly insane for freehanding them thar cliffs. “But I prepared myself!” Doesn’t matter. “I trained endlessly for this!” Doesn’t matter. Uncle Larry still thinks you’re insane and can’t fathom how you would risk your life for something so utterly pointless. “But it’s the most fulfilling part of my life!” Uncle Larry looks deep into your eyes with a genuine and righteous sense of overwhelming pity. “Oh honey, we just love you so much, and I’m glad you survived.”

For climbers to hold this enmity for Alex, ultimately, is to be devoid of empathy. The only safety that any of us have is our ability to make competent decisions. The types of decisions we make vary based on the risks that we choose to take, but ultimately every single rock climber on earth is an unnecessary risk-taker. Don’t believe me? Just ask Uncle Larry. How can you justify putting him through so much stress over all of these years? It’s not like you have to climb up there to get food. Why can’t you take up something safer, like football?

An article on Fringes Folly recently suggested that we should all stick our heads in the sand and pretend this isn’t happening. The logic being that if we ignore soloing and stop reporting it, then maybe it will go away? I say that is folly. Soloing started long before anyone ever reported on it. And if you haven’t noticed, despite the glory espoused by certain articles, the internet comment machine is pretty damned negative. If you’re soloing for attention, you won’t be doing it for long because the attention from your peers is fucking harsh. Especially when you first start doing it and don’t have a Honnold sized fan-club to back you up. At that point, everyone tells you how stupid you are and why you shouldn’t be doing this. Ignoring it won’t make anyone safer because soloists are already told to quit incessantly, and they still go out to find peace on the wall. Just like you do after each conversation with Uncle Larry.

“And I’m not talking about shaming, or guilting that climber friend in your life. I’m just talking about reminding them how loved they are […]

Just maybe, we can help Honnold and some of our other brightest stars to finally rest in peace… Without having to die, first.”

Fringes Folly, not using guilt tactics, and not at all sounding like Uncle Larry.

There is one big problem with the Fringes Folly article: Those same lines of logic have been used for decades by Uncle Larry and still haven’t stopped you from climbing, so why would they stop anyone from soloing? Furthermore, if we don’t comment on the subject thoughtfully, and if we do stick our collective heads in the sand while whispering “this isn’t happening,” then the tabloids will spray word vomit across the universe with click bait titles unabated due to the lack of reasoned and well-thought counterpoint. Granted, there are some sorts of risk taking that are utterly foolish, and those should be condemned. You know what type I mean. It’s the kind of thing that starts with “hold my beer and watch this,” then finishes on “Unbelayvable.” But what of Calculated Risk™? Isn’t Calculated Risk one of the most important fundamentals of climbing? Isn’t the sensible calculation of risk one of the most valuable lessons gained from climbing?

Our society and our community has been exhibiting a truly bizarre relationship to the idea of risk in the last several years, and it’s cool to watch people grappling to come to terms with the the fact that calculated and deep risk is not the same thing as rushed, seat-of-the-pants risk. Risk is complicated, and risk is inspiring.

Steph Davis

If we want to change our reporting, we can start by reporting the calculation instead of just the risk. Yes, I’m looking at you, National Geographic, for breaking the story with a headline that reads like something from a trashy tabloid. “Exclusive: Climber Completes the Most Dangerous Rope-Free Ascent Ever.” I liked my title a little better: “Climber Sends El Cap After Reasonable Preparation.” In all seriousness, while I may quibble with the title, It’s just because they’re the big dog and the easy target. I do applaud Nat Geo’s coverage of Honnold’s process. If we want to keep impressionable youngsters from soloing in a “hold my beer” moment, then it is vital that we mention process so that it becomes understood that we shan’t take these things lightly.

On a personal note, I took to soloing nine years ago because it felt like the most obvious thing in the world to do. But I think initially I was on a crash course for something unfortunate, and I had a few scary moments. Luckily, I found the videos and blogs of Michael Reardon. I never met the guy, but I think he may very well have saved my life. Through seeing his videos and reading his words I realized there was a process that had to be respected if I wanted to live a long and happy life, and that preparation became my religion. Without that, I don’t know if I’d have made it. That is why I write this blog. From my own experience as a soloist and from watching others, I see that those who solo are drawn to it magnetically from something deep within their being, not because they want to endure the inevitable hate-storm of backlash from their peers. If one person saves himself from doing something foolish by reading my words, then it’s all worth it, including the backlash I’ve received myself, and the backlash that I know I’ll receive for writing this article.

Some would say that publicizing his solos or mentioning them in any way means that he is doing it for the wrong reasons. Does that mean Chris Sharma has been climbing for the wrong reason all of these years? Is Sharma a narcissist and attention seeker for publicizing his send? Is your friend a narcissist for being happy about his first 5.10 toprope and posting it on facebook? Despite the nomenclature, soloing is n’t about being alone. Most soloists I know practice their craft as a path to freedom. Do you expect Honnold to solo only when he’s verified that nobody is looking? The cycle is the same for all climbers: We go climbing, we have a fun time, and when we see our friends afterward they ask “how was your weekend?” For Honnold to avoid telling anybody about Freerider and his other solos, it would require a massive and sustained effort of outright boldfaced lies.

“Hey man, how’d it go today?”

-Oh you know, sat around, ate cheetoes and shot whiskey.

“But we all saw some guy alone on Freerider. That wasn’t you?”

-Oh glory me! I wouldn’t do anything so reckless and crazy!

“But the guy we saw was wearing the exact same clothes as you”

-Nope, not me.

“That chalkbag you just stuffed full of cheetos and whiskey is the same one that I saw soloing El Cap.”

-Still not me.

“We had a telephoto lens, this picture shows your face”

-What if it just looks like my face due to quantum micro lending? Einstein predicted things like this could happen.

Even if Honnold had no film crew, and went out totally by himself, hiding his sends would be completely devoid of integrity. If we don’t believe it is appropriate to lie about our sends, why would we pressure someone into lying to cover up his sends? For my part, if you ask me a direct question like “what did you climb this weekend,” I’m going to give you a straight and truthful answer. I absolutely refuse to look you in the face and lie. That sort of disingenuous behavior is the exact opposite of the “Brave and Humble” attitude we claim to idolize.

Like the rest of you, I don’t want to encourage anyone to solo, but I can’t ignore the fact that people are going to solo in good conscience. There have been soloists since the beginning of climbing, and there always will be. That is a reality that we cannot escape.

Given that, the most important story here becomes Honnold’s extensive preparation, rather than the risk he worked so hard to mitigate. Freerider goes at 12d/13a, but Honnold can onsight 5.13+. Alex has climbed El Cap seven times in a seven-day span and holds the current speed record on The Nose. The scoop here isn’t that a brash youngster survived a brush with death. The strongest headline is the notion that Honnold prepared himself so thoroughly that Freerider felt like little more than a morning jog. He was so fresh after his ascent that he went back to his van for an afternoon fingerboarding session.

The way we deal with risk as a community is positively absurd. We laud mountaineers who court death as an old friend but lambast Honnold for the best prepared and most controlled ascent of his life. I’ve always felt as long as the risks you take are commensurate with the preparation you make, then everything is copacetic. Even if Uncle Larry will never admit it. Actually, hold on… Even Alex’s mom is supportive of his climbing. How many of you can say that for yourself? If Alex’s mom is okay with his soloing, then who are we to judge?

Breaking News: Climber Sends El Cap After Reasonable Preparation

Alex Honnold and I have the same initials, and we both free-solo… but that’s essentially where the similarities end. Nevertheless, I get asked about this Alex Honnold guy a lot. I usually dodge the subject and try to avoid speculation… but… I feel like I finally have something useful to add. This whole El Cap thing has got me thinking. I start thinking the most whenever I realize there is a disconnect between my thought process, and everyone else’s. That’s what led to my fall practice guide, and all of the articles that left me most satisfied.

Everything is like something else. If you can draw parallels, then you can deepen your understanding of even the most unfathomable things. It works for quantum physics, so why not for climbing? I feel like this ascent was part of a natural, logical progression, and I feel that it shows a lot of restraint on Honnold’s part, but you wouldn’t think that from the internet comment machine. I’m not here to persuade anyone that soloing in general is more or less sane, but I think a little bit of perspective is useful when thinking about these things. Since I think about soloing way more than most people, I thought it might be helpful to offer up my view on this monumental achievement since I see things from a different perspective than most. The more you know, the better you can form your own opinion. 

Disclaimer: I don’t know Honnold, or really anybody in the climbing world. The first-hand gossip from the pro climbing scene never lands in my ear. I live deep down in the dirty south, about as far removed from Yosemite as one can get without landing in Florida. But I do spend a lot of time thinking, and I’ve been waiting for this to happen.

 

Alex Honnold solos “The Phoenix (5.13a)” – Photo Big Up Productions
Setting the stage:
Freerider, as a free solo, poses three problems: It’s big, it’s hard, and it has insecurities. Each poses its own dilemma, but luckily the insecurities are not the technical crux itself, unlike his ascent of Half Dome.

Speaking of which, Half Dome was six years ago! The Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome goes at 5.12a, and 2200ft tall. The crux move was wildly insecure. In his memoirs, Honnold referred to it as a “very private hell.” He seemed to acknowledge that he over-reached on that one. In fact, he had only freed Half Dome a handful of times before he soloed it. With Freerider he invested a full year to training with that goal in mind. Furthermore, he made an attempt on “Freerider” back in November and backed off after an hour of climbing because it didn’t feel right.

Around the time of Half Dome, he soloed “Cosmic Debris” and “The Phoenix” at 5.13b and 5.13a, respectively. In other words, he could solo big walls, and he could solo 5.13. So why didn’t he solo the 5.13 big wall? I think that scare on Half-Dome made him wiser. He waited six years. He had the “high” and the “hard” in ample supplies to solo el camp, but he spent six years developing the precision necessary to handle the insecurity. I think that shows wisdom and restraint.

Alex Honnold soloing the 2200ft face of Half Dome – Nat Geo

What does it take?

The “Boulder Problem” pitch on Freerider is a V7/5.13a sequence that many ascensionists choose to avoid the insecure 5.12d “Teflon Corner.” In essence, they make a choice to accept greater difficulties because they are easier to control. It might be more physically demanding, but the odds of success are greater. This is what soloists pursue. But finding a secure path through the crux, and mastering it wasn’t enough. He needed the ability to control insecure sections of 5.11 elsewhere on the route, and that’s a different sort of challenge.

To understand this, I draw parallels from my own experience. At Sandrock, AL, when I soloed “Dreamscape” at 5.11+ folks immediately asked why I hadn’t soloed “Misty,” a “mere” 5.10+ nearby. The reason was that I felt it was too insecure. I didn’t solo “Misty” until after my first solo of the 5.12 grade.  Though Misty was “only” 5.10, I had to develop 5.13a climbing ability and 5.12- soloing ability before it felt secure enough to solo.

Honnold had soloed 5.13 before, that means he probably had the physical and mental abilities needed for the 5.13a crux pitch of Freerider. But that is only one piece of the puzzle. He had 3,000ft of rock to link securely. Mastering the crux means nothing if you risk punting on an insecure moderate pitch down low. For Honnold to solo Freerider, he needed the mastery to control insecure pitches of 5.11 elsewhere on the route. For that, he needed time. Six years of time, apparently.

I feel that he learned a valuable lesson on Half Dome. I believe that acting on the wisdom gained in that moment is the most remarkable part of this ascent. Many see a brush with death and a roll of the dice. Perhaps that was the case at moments in his past, but I don’t know the guy, and I can’t say for sure. Regardless, I see that Honnold has matured now. I feel this ascent is a display of wisdom, restraint, and patience. I feel that Alex Honnold will live a proper length of life.

Some folks cite this as proof that he’s insane, but insanity would have been going for it in a blaze of glory as a follow up to Half Dome. Allowing six years for personal development when he clearly had the basic physical abilities… That is a very good sign.

Six years ago Honnold had the abilities to solo 5.13 and to solo big. wall. But he waited six years to solo the 5.13 big-wall. That’s wisdom.

Some will say “This was crazy” but what they really mean is “I think he is crazy and nothing will change my opinion.” At the end of the day, this was the most well thought out and best-prepared action of Honnold’s life, precisely because it had to be. This doesn’t change Honnold as a person, and it doesn’t change Honnold in your eye. It’s simply the inevitable consequence of Alex being himself.

Post Script: I’ve always said if you solo something and say “I’ll never do that again,” that means you got away with it, and it was a terrible roll of the dice. If you are soloing right, you could do it on command, any day of the week. I just read a post from Jimmy Chin, when Honnold topped out he said “I’m pretty sure I could go back to the bottom and do it again, right now.” Congratulations Alex, you absolutely nailed it!

The Power of Disbelief

This weekend I sent my third 5.13a, and I sent it on my second go. I understand that this isn’t how climbing is supposed to work.

Remember folks: don’t believe everything that you think.

Russ Worley messaged me somewhat out of the blue, all stoked about a trip to Lower Leda. “This place has tons of 5.7 to 5.10, and there’s this 5.13 roof that YOU’RE GONNA LOVE!” There’s a common misconception here where folks think I enjoy climbing hard when really I obstinately try to avoid it. I mean, I like being able to climb hard, I’m just not stoked on actually doing it. I like it when climbing feels easy, and I save my try-hard for the fingerboard. Regardless, Russ has this outrageously infectious stoke level that reminds me of myself at age 19, so I grinned and shook my head, already knowing that I was going to get on that damn thing simply because he was so excited.

All week long I had been in a funk, low on mojo, disinterested even in my own training sessions, and then Russ messages me out of the blue and gets me stoked on the one thing that I actively try to avoid: hard climbing. I couldn’t help but feel uplifted by the good mojo vibes he was sending my way!

That’s one hell of a guy, ya know?

16729423_10101202553849952_1584108585422486898_n
Even when it’s 30 degrees and wet, this guy is still stoked!

After flailing on a 12b, and then on a 12a, I was fairly discouraged, and kinda just wanted to quit and go home. So when Russ popped around the corner to ask what I thought, I think my response was “That route is a chosspile from Mt. Bullshit!”

“Oh no, the 13 was no good?”

I felt bad, realizing I had just spoken very poorly of the adventure he had inspired. Oh yeah! The 13! “Uh, Idunno man, when I looked from the side I couldn’t see anything that even vaguely reminded me of a hold, so I haven’t even tried.”

“I know, those moves look CRAZY! IT’S GONNA BE AWESOME!”

Fuck. What could I do? So with an unexpected sense of optimism, I tied in at the base of the route “Alright man, I’ll go ahead and hop on it because I’m quite sure that I won’t get far enough to get in trouble.”

The route is an extension to a 5.10a which ends at the base of a large roof and has a double-bolted ring-anchor there. The next bolt is in the middle of the roof and can be clipped easily from the end stance of the 5.10. The next bolt was just barely over the lip, and I knew I could yank on the roof-draw to retrieve my gear and retreat from the anchors of the 5.10 once my attempt failed. There was little investment due to ease of bailing.

So I tied in and racked up. I clipped both the anchor and the roof bolt with short quickdraws. I was so convinced of my imminent failure that I didn’t bother to plan for rope-drag. Over the lip, I couldn’t find any holds… so I yanked on the roof-draw to clip the bolt over the lip, and retreated to the stance at the end of the 5.10. Great. Now I’ve got a toprope!

I paused here, contemplated life, and recovered my forearms, then launched out into the roof. Reaching over the lip, I found a rounded quarter-inch crimp and  ran out of belief, “TAKE!” Almost immediately, I saw a terrible divot that could work as a heel-hook. “CLIMBING!” In desperation, I pawed the wall with my right hand, and it sticks on something. The hold is so bad that I don’t even other looking at it. I hit a juggy undercling, clip. “TAKE!!!” What the hell. I was not supposed to get this far. I looked down and couldn’t figure out what my right hand was holding on to…  Rather than think about it for too long, I rally and climb like a trash can to the anchor while fighting a sumo-wrestler worth of rope drag tied to my harness.

 

Looking back, this certainly was not the best way to manage rope drag
As I lower off, victory music starts playing through my head. This thing is about to go down. Holy crap. Click here for a short explanation of what was going through my head, the guitar riff when Bonamassa throws the hammer down and starts playing hard says everything you need to know.

Oh but that rope drag… it was the only thing that could sink my ship… Well, that and the fact that I had no idea how to clip the bolt after the lip. Luckily, I had brought a rack of alpine runners with me. New plan. Four-foot runner at the base of the roof, two-foot draw in the middle of the roof, skip the bolt on the lip. Running a body-length runout 45ft off the ground is hardly risky. Game on.

I tried to rest up properly, but after belaying Maria on one of her leads, I was too antsy to sit still, so I tied in to fire it off. In the roof, I replaced the draws from my resting stance and clipped them. Now the lead-line flossed the sky and would run right past the lip of the roof without contacting rock anywhere on its path. I paused, contemplated the 2ft extension of my draw, contemplated the clip I was about to skip, contemplated those poor crimps, contemplated life, turned off my brain, and fired out to the lip. Immediately my foot popped off the divot, but I cored up and stuck it back on. Whelp, that’s it, I’m screwed. There’s no way I have the strength left after that mistake to hang this crimp with one hand and make a move.

I fixed my eyes on that jug only 48″ away, to avoid thinking about the holds I was on, let go to move my right hand up and pawed it blindly onto that invisible two-finger crimp. It’s like that moment where a cartoon character runs off the edge of a cliff, but they’re able to stand there until they look down and suddenly gravity remembers that it’s a thing. I knew I couldn’t hold those crimps, but I figured as long as I didn’t look at them, then maybe gravity wouldn’t remember to pull me off.

It worked.

Folks say this isn’t how climbing is supposed to work, they say that you have to believe in yourself to try entirely, and you have to believe that you can do it to find success. I didn’t believe in myself for a single move on this entire route. Even after I fired the crux, I felt sure that I would adrenalize myself off of the finish with the “I can’t believe I just did that” jitters. Luckily for me, my fingers don’t care what I think.

I think that’s true for most people.

I have a chronic inability to believe in myself, especially in the face of hard climbing. If I’m honest, that’s the real reason that I avoid it. Somewhat ironically that’s the reason that I solo so often. My lack of belief sends me in search of “easy” moves, and I can believe in myself while climbing easy things, no problem, so I just do that all of the time.

This focus on positive thinking is a heavy burden. We are told that we have to believe to achieve, and we believe in that axiom as if it is a law of physics. Given that, it’s only natural that failing to believe leads to a failure to even try. Every now and then I’ll have folks like Russ who believe for me and enable magic to happen, and for that, I am ever grateful. I know with full certainty that I wouldn’t have tried that route if I hadn’t been so intent on showing him that I couldn’t do it!

I get by with a little help from my friends ❤
The takeaway from all this is that we don’t have to believe to achieve. I don’t care if you believe in yourself. If you want to succeed, you need the ability to try your hardest not only at times when you are not sure that you can do it but even when you are completely sure that you can’t.

If you need a new axiom of the universe to replace “believe to succeed,” I’ve got one for you:

Gravity seems to have a funny property: if you don’t look at it, then gravity has no power over you. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in yourself or not if you can get gravity to forget about you for the one moment where you really need it, and just try your damnedest anyway. After all, your fingers don’t care what you think, they’ll still do what you tell them.

Give it a shot and see if you stick, impossible things happen every day!

punting
Photo: @rawk_tawk
Post Script:
The day after writing this post, Maria and I went into Stone Summit for climbing. I’m working on building my Anaerobic Capacity, and my general psychological ability to “try hard” so my intention was to “flail” on a bunch of 5.13’s in the gym, but it didn’t quite work out that way. My goal was simply to “go out trying” somewhere past the half-way point. I’ll usually allow myself two takes, then punch it till I pop off mid-move.

The first route I had done take-take-fall on before, but this time I immediately sent it. WTF. I acknowledge that it was soft, but it was remarkable how much better this attempt went only a week after my first try! 2nd go. sent.

The second route was one where I had previously topped out with two takes. This time, in a single push I climbed within a body length of the anchor before failing due to pump. After climbing the crimps on “Hematoma” over the weekend, all the holds on this overhanging monster just felt bigger than the last time. At a certain point, my mind gave up and I knew it was impossible to make even one more move. I fell off four moves later.

Finally, there was a Green 5.13- that a friend had suggested to me. Per my expectations,  I told Maria the plan was take-take-fall, but this route has a resting stance mid-way up the wall where sometimes the route-setters program in a no-hands rest. That gave me hope, and I managed to onsight to the resting position and regain almost full strength for the next section. It was very tenuous, but it was an actual no-hands rest.

Launching into the upper section, I was filled with the thought that “oh my god, I can TOTALLY DO THIS!” and my adrenaline rose. “No man, it’s not over till it’s over! See!? This hold sucks!” My adrenaline surged a bit more, and suddenly I felt the pump clock ticking faster. But the next hold was good, “I’m definitely going to do this! Holy Hell!!!” The adrenaline and the pump rose again.

Now a little voice of reason spoke up from the back of my head “Dude, WHAT are you doing!? Listen to your own damn advice! STOP evaluating whether it’s good or not, and just get to work!”

The adrenaline lowered, and I recovered subtly. My mind reached clarity, and the climb turned into an experiment. Instead of thinking I can vs. I can’t, or wondering if it was possible, my brain switched off, and Joe Bonamassa started playing in the back of my head again. “I wonder if I can do it?” Now there were no longer positive or negative connotations, just curiosity. What’s going to happen? Let’s find out!

I fell one move away from the top, narrowly avoiding my first onsight of an indoor 5.13-. I couldn’t possibly be more stoked. Only one year ago this was my project level, requiring many many attempts, and now…. It was one move away from being my onsight grade.

At the start of the session, I knew that I was going to flail and take all over these routes. I suppose that bumper sticker was right… I really shouldn’t believe everything that I think!

Free-soloing isn’t cool, and neither am I

I’m worried this might come off as elitist, but my intent is quite the opposite. This post is born out of the fact that I have one single belief at the base of everything I do: There is only one thing which is more awesome than climbing, and that’s “More Climbing.” Climbing is supposed to be the most awesome and fun thing in the universe, as long as you hold on to that you’re doing it right!

In other words, the purpose of this article is not religious indoctrination, but rather a message that gravity is the great unifier, and we are all equals on the walls, boulders, and cliffs.

Despite that, those of you who know me well have probably heard me riffing on bouldering and boulderers to make fun of them. It’s not because I have some deep-seated hatred of bouldering. Actually, I consider myself to be a “multipitch boulderer.” We’re basically the same! It’s just that bouldering is an easy target for humor, and boulderers are usually good natured about it. I don’t make fun of trad climbers very often because getting hit in the face by a #6 Camalot really hurts.

You show me a climber who knows the “one true way” to life on the rock, and I’ll show you a climber who has missed the point. The point of climbing is to put a gigantic grin on your face, and the perfect route is one that makes you feel more awesome than you are. Just temper that with the fact that nobody feels awesome in the hospital, and you’ll have a great life!

I don't want anyone to slap me in the face with these items, that's why I avoid giving hell to trad-climbers. It's much safer to get hit by a crash pad!
I don’t want anyone to slap me in the face with these items, that’s why I avoid giving hell to trad-climbers. It’s much safer to get hit in the face by a crash pad!

Folks want to act like they know the “proper” way to rock climb and lambast folks for taking “unnecessary risk.” Every single rock climber is an unnecessary risk taker. The thing that matters is that the preparations you make are commensurate with the risk which you take. It’s not like you have to rock climb to catch food.

On the polar opposite side, once I was climbing along on another bout of multipitch-bouldering, and I heard this:

“DUDE! That is hard core! You’re so brave man! How do I get into that!?”
-Random Kid at the crag

Every word of that is terrifying. Not many things induce fear within me, but that scares the shit out of me. It’s precisely the kind of thing that I’m afraid of every time I go out soloing. I don’t want to inspire some kid to kill himself.

There are so many scary sentiments in that statement, and it really freaks me out.

On the point of cool-factor: It’s fundamentally impossible for anything to be cooler than rock climbing (except for MORE rock climbing), seeing as soloing is just a subset of climbing…. It is no more awesome than Top-Roping or Trad Climbing, it’s just significantly lazier. That’s the thing, well thought-out laziness is the driving force behind the majority of my climbing decisions. I like being able to climb hard, but I’m not the biggest fan of actually doing it. It’s just too damn hard, and I’m quite lazy. Most of the time, I just want to ramble around and climb loads of easy stuff. In reality, all of the crazy training that I do is designed to make my definition of “easy” into something quite ridiculous. I train like a masochist so that I can climb easy things, all the time.

Because of that, I don’t see myself as hardcore because there’s nothing hardcore about being lazy and sticking to easy stuff when you are capable of more. Maybe my training is hardcore, but by definition, I’m not allowed to solo anything hardcore because that would be suicidal. If you solo things to feel hardcore, you’re an idiot, and you are going to die. When you’re soloing, everything should feel absolutely chill.

I mean…. I don’t want to come across like I know the “one true way” on this, but there is some logic behind that statement: Human brains are amazingly adaptable. In much the same way that driving a car on the freeway once felt frightening to the student driver, and years later it comes to feel normal, if something feels hardcore now, someday it will feel like any other Tuesday if you do it enough. So if that “hardcore” feeling is what you were after, you’ll have to work progressively harder every day to find it, and someday it will bite back.

Art in Motion. That's climbing! Photo: Andy Toms, a true artist
Art in Motion. That’s climbing! Photo: Andy Toms, a true artist

Chill climbing isn’t scary. It’s just plain fun. So that makes me question the label of “brave.”

brave (brāv/ )
adjective
  1. ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.
    “a brave soldier”

I’m deliberately avoiding anything painful, and courage can be defined as “the ability to do something that frightens,” but I’m not doing anything that feels hardcore, so I don’t feel frightened. We humans feel afraid and adrenalized when we sense that our life or wellbeing is in peril. Even though I frequently eschew the use of safety gear, I do everything I can to make sure my life is not in danger during those times. That goes back to ensuring  “preparation commensurate with the risk you take.” I’m not into that whole danger/adrenaline thing, so I’m never facing down something that I find frightening. Soloing is objectively dangerous, but so is the rest of climbing. So is driving your car, but we don’t call the other drivers on the freeway “brave.” Usually, we call them “idiots,” at least during rush hour. I suppose that’s something which drivers and soloists have in common: we’re both idiots! So it seems there’s more to “brave” than just the danger aspect.

To me, bravery is the ability to do what must be done, even if you’re terrified of it. It’s not fun. It’s scary. So I can’t see myself as brave because I’m out there soloing to have fun and avoid any sort of fear. When I see a climber out on their first trip, and they’re not 100% sure how all this stuff works, but they’re eager to face fears and learn, that’s brave. Coming out to your parents when you’re uncertain how they’ll respond, that’s brave. Leaving the house to relax on easy climbs without any sense of fear, I don’t think that’s brave at all. Maybe I am brave, but it’s not for soloing. It’s for coming back to climbing after my accident, it’s for climbing 5.6’s on toprope in the gym while I was utterly terrified. Overcoming obstacles to live the life you’ve dreamed, that’s brave.

And I suppose those points bring us back to the question at the end: Getting into soloing isn’t a goal that anyone should have. Especially if they think it’s cool, hardcore, or brave. It’s so utterly dangerous that there is no real concrete reason to say “hey, soloing, that’s something you should totally do!” But some folks have this moment where they wake up one morning and think “oh yeah, soloing! That’s the most obvious thing in the universe, why haven’t I been doing this all along?” That’s how you get into it. If you think soloing is hardcore, brave, or scary, then you’re inviting adrenaline. Adrenaline is the mind-killer. As soon as it enters your psyche, you lose the ability to make well-thought decisions, and worse… Adrenaline changes the chemistry of your body. It gives mothers the strength to lift cars off of their babies, but it comes at a perilous cost: Adrenaline removes your ability to process lactic acid and recover. This means you’re more likely to pump out and fall off. That’s why soloing can’t be hardcore, the moment it is…. you’re hosed.

Feeling hardcore, swimming through a sea of lichen, on toprope
Feeling hardcore, swimming through a sea of lichen, on toprope

Finally, this brings me to a critique of my own words; The title of this article is misleading. Soloing isn’t the most awesome part of climbing, but it is a part of climbing, and that makes it cool by association. What dictates whether soloing is cool to you or not is whether it puts a huge smile on your face and makes you feel at peace. If it does, then it’s cool. If it doesn’t, it’s not, and that’s okay too! It’s rather the same as any other type of climbing in that sense. And me? I don’t think I’m cool, but if I am, I don’t think it’s because of my soloing. Not for one minute. I’m just like every other climber out there. I have my preferred style, and when I set a new personal best I’m excited to share the psyche with others! Progress is cool! And progress can be found on any type of climbing! So get out there, enjoy your toprope, sport, trad, bouldering, multiptich, big wall, ice, and aid climbing! Climbing is the coolest thing in the known universe, that’s what makes it so awesome for all of us! As long as you hold onto that, you’re doing it right!


Post Script: Often I draft posts, decide they’re awful, and then let the idea marinate for a few months before I can figure out exactly what it was that I wanted to say. Such is the case with this article. So while the timing may make this seem like a commentary on the Katie Lambert article for Climbing Magazine, my initial draft was on Dec 19th, three weeks before the Jan 9th run of her article on Climbing.com. So these thoughts were not intended as a commentary on her article; however, The timing is awkward. It seems we have similar thoughts on our minds, but the timing is only a curious coincidence. I’ve had the idea to write this article for about a year now, but never could quite find the words to make my thoughts clear until recently.

This was not posted in response to any criticisms, either directed at myself or directed generally, rather it was written in response to my own fears that I could inspire someone to do something really unfortunate. To that end, I make sure leave poorly-executed moves in the final edit of any videos that I make, and I try to post about any mishaps that happen. I don’t censor any small part of the process, no matter how ugly. Even if that makes feel people uncomfortable. Especially if that makes people feel uncomfortable. I feel that’s important. Climbing isn’t always beautiful, and I won’t pretend that it is for a single minute.

It’s a conundrum. If I get back from a weekend out and someone asks me “how was your climbing?” It would be inauthentic, disingenuous and an outright lie to omit that I went soloing. When I was a kid learning to climb, I was always excited to share my adventures with friends. Nothing has changed in that regard except for the fact that it now is called “spray,” and some folks call me “inspiring” for whatever reason, which makes me fear that I’ll inspire something unfortunate.

Thanks for listening to today’s rambling, feel free to leave any questions/comments/hate-mail in the comment section and I’ll try to leave a thought out response! #DiaryOfAMadman

“Whipper Therapy” is not mental training.

At least not for most people.

(Note: if you want to skip the theory and start practicing immediately, click here for a short guide to fall practice!)

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of climbers who were permanently terrified of lead climbing because of the potential for falling. Now, in some cases, that’s perfectly reasonable. If your belayer lacks full competence, or you are climbing close to the ground, that is a logical time to be afraid. There are times when you are not safe, that’s just a natural condition of life on earth; however, we humans have a skill known as engineering which allows us to make safety in very surprising places.

I mean, we put a man on the moon. If we humans can manage to make that safe enough, then, of course, we can do the same to certain situations on the rock.

We have two kinds of fears: Those which are the natural response to finding yourself in an unsafe situation, and those born of illogical gut-instinct that that overrides your wisdom. We actually want to keep *one* of those, but the other….. well, I’d really like it if you felt safe everywhere that you actually are safe. Climbing is more fun when you are not terrified, and there is no benefit to you of being afraid during times of safety.

So why is it so hard to overcome?

A climber grabs on the last hold to complete the hard moves of Seperate Reailty (5.12a)
Photo by Jacob Bodkin
Part of the problem is the prevailing wisdom of “whipper therapy” whereby climbers tell each other to “get over it” and “just take the fall.” So you do it, and it’s terrifying, and it doesn’t help, and that’s to be entirely expected. If you put your brain in a situation where it feels terrified, and then do something which feels terrifying, then your brain receives a very clear message that “Yup! The scary thing was definitely scary! I should definitely continue being afraid in those places!”

Think of it this way: If you had a friend who was afraid of spiders, would you fill a bathtub with tarantulas and ask him to hop in and “get over it?” Doubtful. It’s very obvious that this won’t work, so why do we do it with climbing?

Well, sometimes it *does* work. This method of overcoming your fear of falling is very similar to the “flooding” method used to move folks past phobias in therapy. This approach does work for some individuals; however, it does not always work, and it is very traumatic for the people for whom it does not succeed. Flooding has largely been abandoned for that reason with most folks preferring a more gradual exposure to the phobia. A more manageable “exposure therapy” can be scaled appropriately to any individual and has been widely successful for many millions of people around the world.

The idea is to expose oneself to a very manageable level of anxiety where you can control it and develop the skill of centering your mind and bringing yourself to a state of increased peace. For details on that, read my latest article “Learning to Relax”

Trust the safety system!
Trust the safety system!
Why bother?
Why should you even bother with controlling your fear?

The first rule of my entire life is this: Rock climbing is supposed to be the most awesome thing in the universe, second only to “more climbing.” Nevermind grades and sending the sick gnar, the whole point of climbing is that it’s supposed to be immensely fun, and you aren’t having fun when you are terrified.

When you become anxious, your body releases adrenaline. Adrenaline is best known for famously giving mothers the spontaneous ability to lift cars off of babies; however, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The price for enabling this reserve of strength is that you completely sacrifice your endurance. Adrenaline actually shuts off the pathway which metabolizes lactic acid and allows you to endure long crux sequences.

It’s easy to imagine a scenario where you find yourself climbing, and you start getting pumped, so you become afraid of the upcoming fall, and that fall fills your mind while leaving no room for your brain to coordinate your movement. Adrenaline floods your system, you lose the ability to de-pump, and you rapidly hit the point of failure and fall off of the route. Without fear, you could have relaxed and recovered. Perhaps you could even have sent!

Without fear, you would not have given the fear a reason to exist, because you would not have fallen. When pump induces anxiety, it causes you to fail and reinforces that negative feedback loop that tells your brain that pump leads to falling, and falling is terrifying. Now, not only are you afraid of falling, but also afraid of simply being pumped! To succeed and be truly happy as climbers, to maximize our fun, we must break this cycle and free our minds to find peace within severity. It’s a skill that you can take with you everywhere, not just on the wall.

It’s not that the strong climbers are calm, but rather that the calm climbers can become strong .

 

If you know the way, climbing can become a path to peace. It doesn't have to be frightening
If you know the way, climbing can become a path to peace. It doesn’t have to be frightening. Photo by Andy Toms

If you struggle with these fears, feel free to visit me at Atlanta Rocks, or sign up with me at Mojo Personal Training! Or if neither of those stoke your mojo, read my follow up article on “A short guide to fall practice.” 

Happy Climbing my friends

PS: I think I’m a bad businessman… I keep giving all my secrets away for free! #SorryNotSorry #SpreadGoodMojo

PPS: Is there a topic you would like to hear about on the blog? Give me a shout out, I’ll give it some thought and post it back up as a detailed article!

Learning to relax: a short guide to fall practice for climbers

I’ve been coaching climbers for about a year now in my capacities as Mojo Personal Training, but I’ve been coaching folks in how to fall for much, much longer than that. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of why these methods work today, that’ll come next time! At the moment,  I want to give you a short, concise guide for implementing drills to overcome your fears on the wall and have more fun while you’re climbing!

Falling

Getting Started
This is a drill to be practiced in safety. After all, it would be completely right and natural to feel afraid if you were in physical danger. So the first and most important thing is to pick a climb where you know all of the possible falls are safe.

One note: when I taught lead-climbing at my university gym, we taught that the first three bolts were essentially the “no fall” zone. If you fall on the way to the first bolt, you will hit the ground. If you fall on the way to the second bolt, you will risk hitting your belayer in a fall. If you fell while trying to clip the second bolt, you risk hitting the ground… and finally, if you fall while clipping the third bolt, there’s a chance that you’d hit your belayer.

These are the kinds of things you want to think about when selecting a practice climb, you want to think about the “what ifs” for falling at each bolt, and when you’re clipping the next bolt. Because of that “no fall zone” it’s usually not a very good idea to practice falling when you are low on a route. It wouldn’t be comfortable anyhow, because there isn’t much rope in the system to absorb your fall force.

Whoops!

Scout the route from the ground, assess what can happen if you fall off the various positions on the climb, and make sure you have a range where you can practice falling safely. It’s usually possible to do this for most climbs from the ground, and that takes a lot of pressure off of you during the climb. If you’ve decided that you are safe while your feet were on the ground, you don’t have to worry about it on the way up.

How to practice falls

  1. Climb to a zone on your route that you have identified as “safe.”
  2. Prepare to fall, and note your anxiety level on a scale of 1-10
  3. If your anxiety is above a 4, then down-climb a move or two until it is only a 4/10
  4. If your anxiety over the thought of falling is only a 3 or lower, climb a move or two higher!
  5. Once you’ve found the sweet spot where your fear is at a manageable level of a 4/10, go ahead and take the fall

    *Note: at one point in my climbing career, I was so frightened that I had to downclimb below my clip and take a fall on pseudo top-rope to control my fear. Everybody starts somewhere, don’t force it too hard!

  6. Once the fall is completed, take a moment to relax until your anxiety reaches a 1 or 2/10.
  7. Climb back to the same place you fell before, and take the fall again.
  8. If your anxiety level for that fall is still moderately high at a 3 or 4/10, then repeat that fall until both your pre-fall and post-fall anxiety levels drop to only a 1 or 2
  9. Once you’ve mastered your mind on falling from this position, try climbing a move or two higher and repeating the drill.
  10. Only practice between 3-6 falls per attempt. Your mind needs time to relax and assimilate what it has learned.
  11. I’ll usually only perform one or two rounds of fall practice on a given day, which means between 3-12 falls. Anything beyond that seems to have diminishing returns. If you keep going for too long, it just tires out your brain and isn’t as beneficial, so you’d be better off getting some proper climbing done instead of additional practice!

Through repeated practice sessions, you’ll find yourself moving a few inches or a few feet higher every day. In the future, if you have a project which has a fall that is scary, you can repeat the same process to grow accustomed to falling where it no longer causes anxiety. If you do this even just once every session during your warm up, you’ll find yourself overcoming your fears rapidly.

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For Trad Climbers:
You can perform the same drill, but if your anxiety is high (as mine was when I started), you might need to build an anchor in the middle of the route, and then take pseudo toprope falls below that anchor before moving to fall practice. Personal note: I was so afraid at first, that simply calling for a *take* on my own gear was enough to bring me to a 5/10 anxiety level and I had to practice there for my first session.

I started small but eventually was able to move on to taking proper lengthy whippers on my gear, and even grew comfortable with falling on try-hard onsight attempts. It just takes a little time, and if you do this on your daily warmup, then you’ll still have a full day of real climbing ahead of you, and now you’ll be more productive due to lowered anxiety!

Final Notes:
Brains are amazing, they learn very well, and climbing does not have to be terrifying. If you practice it right, climbing can become a path to peace that helps you relax and handle the stress of your daily life. But the first step is to build trust in your belay system. Knowing that you are safe is one thing, but I want you to feel it, deep down inside at an instinctive level.

Happy Climbing my friends!

This thing is hard.... why am I up here?
This thing is hard…. why am I up here?

The Myth of Mental Fitness

When I started climbing, I had a paralyzing fear of heights and had trouble getting up the sort of routesI see folks send on their first day at the climbing gym. Nowadays it’s quite a different scenario! I’ve made huge gains in my mental fitness and learned to conquer my own fears. Through that process, I’ve learned to help others to do the same, too. Lucky for me, my mind is nothing unique so the methods I’ve used and the way I look at mental fitness can work for anyone! The reason I’ve been able to help people isn’t that I have a unique ability, It’s because I started off completely ordinary. My first time driving on the freeway was terrifying. My first ride on an auto belay scared the poop out of me! Lead climbing took me months to get familiar with! The obstacles for your mental fitness are the same that I’ve dealt with on my path.

The great news is that you don’t have to solo or partake in dangerous climbing to become mentally fit. In fact, most of my practice happens in complete safety! That’s the beauty of climbing, it can be as safe or dangerous as you want it to be, and you can still become as mentally strong as you want! Before we get started on this article I’d like to stress two points: Nobody has to climb the way that I do, and I started in the same place that you did.

There is a great myth among climbers regarding mental training. They seem to think that being afraid is normal and that getting over those fears is a difficult feat reserved for the elite few with superior knowledge. That last part is what I’d like to object to. You don’t need a tremendous amount of knowledge to get more mental fitness for climbing. The problem is that “mental fitness” is ill-defined, so most don’t quite know what it is or why they should even care! Climbing is already fun, right? Isn’t mental training just for people who want to push their limits and climb the hardest routes? Not exactly. Climbing is fun, but it’s a lot less fun if you’re terrified. Mental training is less important to the community at large as a path to climbing hard, and much more potent as a vehicle toward climbing happy and having more fun. Once you’ve maximized the fun, then we can worry about crap like grades!

When folks hear of my soloing, folks tend to ask me about mental training for climbing. As if soloing has given me some advanced perspective that is unattainable for everyone else. I don’t think it has; however, it has caused a lot of people to ask me awkward questions, and those questions caused me to think harder about mental training. Just what is it that’s going on differently in my head from yours? It seems obvious that something is different about the way I climb compared to everyone else, or they’d find soloing just as ordinary as I do. Nothing better, nothing enlightened, just slightly different.

What a Dirtbag Hair-Do Looks Like
Only *slightly* different. Photo: Jacob Bodkin
I don’t know everything, not nearly. Or at least I sure as hell hope not, because I don’t know terribly much, and it would be pretty sad for us all if the contents of my head made up “everything.” Furthermore, if I knew everything about climbing, I think I’d have to retire, and that would be doubly sad!

*cough* Excuse me, I digress, but that’s what I do. I do love a good rant… Anyhow, enough about how unqualified I am, let’s get back to the point!

Mental fitness only seems daunting because we view it through a lens of gurus and mythical figures, but in reality, it’s just as trainable as physical fitness. But it’s hard to train well if you don’t know what you are training. If you don’t have a proper target, you’ll never be able to hit it! Today’s article grew more wordy than anticipated, so I don’t have space to include training tactics today, but I hope that I’ll be able to describe the target well enough to get you started in the right direction!

One Mind:
Friends have told me at points that they feel a need to work on their “lead head” or that “I don’t have a head for bouldering.” Another favorite is “I just don’t have the mind for trad.”

Listen, folks, you only have one head. Only one mind. The mind that’s sketched on the hard mantle at the top of a tall boulder is the same mind that is afraid to take practice falls on safe terrain at the gym. We only have one mind, but the mental confidence required for falling on bolts in the gym is different from what’s needed as a trad climber locking horns with a long runout over questionable gear. We all know we only have one brain, but clearly, there is something different happening in each discipline. So the first question I have is “what’s the similarity across these disciplines?” The second question is “what’s different?” It turns out those answers are more related than I’d have thought.

 

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Some pro is questionable for unconventional reasons

In a sense, I’m peddling semantics. But the point I want to make isn’t one of arbitrary distinctions and terminology rather one that’s simpler and more useful: You only have one mind, so if you have strength in any one aspect of that mind then you have the potential to become strong in every other aspect of that mind. And you all have the ability to strengthen some aspect of your brain. I mean, for most of us, our first time driving a car on the freeway was absolutely terrifying, and now it’s just another Tuesday because you have learned to handle that stress. The same can happen in your climbing just as quickly, but you have to make a conscious effort to practice since nobody is forcing you to climb a rock on your commute to work!

So to me, that’s the biggest myth of mental fitness. Sometimes I hear folks who state “I’ve got my mental game on lockdown for sport, but trad is just too scary. I can’t do that.” To me, that statement is as absurd as hearing someone state that he has massive finger strength, and therefore obviously can’t gain endurance. That’s just plain false. These things don’t exclude one another, rather they work together! They’re all part of a well-rounded climber. Similarly, as building strength has payoffs in your power and endurance, so can strengthening one facet of your mental abilities pay off in other ways that you didn’t at first anticipate.

We all know that physical fitness is a multi-faceted subject and that we can simply improve in the areas we are lacking. Why shouldn’t mental fitness be the same? Just as we have one body with many abilities at different levels, we have one mind and it is powerful in many ways! All we have to do is pay attention to its multiple aspects, and we can learn to bridge the gap between ourselves and our dreams!

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What’s the difference?
When you first start climbing, you have no good gauge of how well you can hold on, and no ability to know when you’re likely to fall. And that’s scary because you haven’t learned to trust this whole “top rope” thing. You don’t have that gut-level instinct that tells you the rope is going to catch and you’ll be okay. You haven’t learned to trust the system, and that’s a problem. When you’re new, you can’t trust your abilities, so to prevent being terrified all the time, it’s imperative that you learn to trust the system to catch you. It’s hard to climb well and have fun if your instincts are screaming that you’re about to die!

Another example, when someone like Chris Sharma or Adam Ondra ties into a rope to head up their new project, they aren’t trusting in their ability to send. They know that there’s a chance they could send, but they are well aware that it’s okay if they don’t, so they charge up the wall to find out! When you know you’re safe intellectually, and you feel it instinctively, it’s okay to push your limits. That’s the first part of mental fitness for climbing: Trust in the system. Since each discipline has a slightly different safety system, you will find yourself re-discovering this aspect of fitness multiple times during your climbing career. It’s important for your instincts to be in line with your intellect. The goal is to feel safe everywhere that you know you are safe. That’s the first facet of mental fitness. It’s not a pass/fail sort of thing, but a spectrum. It’s not a matter of fit vs. unfit, but a question of degree. How fit is your mind?

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If you are afraid of the consequences of a fall, it means that you do not accept the consequences of falling. We already have a discipline of climbing where the consequences of falling are unacceptable; it’s called free-soloing. Soloists are incredibly limited in what they can climb because of this. If you can’t control your mind, you will be just as limited. What use are strong fingers if the brain can’t use them? Furthermore, whenever you experience fear your body releases adrenaline. In extreme cases, adrenaline is known for giving mothers the ability to lift cars off of babies. Its purpose is to prepare the body for intense bursts of strength and power, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch. This power comes at a cost: Your endurance. Adrenaline changes the metabolic state of your body to prepare for feats of strength, but doing so shuts down the metabolic pathway which clears lactic acid from your system. Once you’re pumped on adrenaline, you stay pumped, and you can’t recover. That is why the fear of falling makes you so much more likely to fall.

On the other hand, sometimes you really can’t afford to fall, and in those scenarios fear can have lethal consequences. Fear is more than just the mind-killer. As you succumb to fear your body releases adrenaline and your heart rate goes up. We outlined the problems with adrenaline earlier, but it has been shown in numerous studies that we lose proper decision-making ability when our heart-rates is red-line. Fear puts us in a state where we are more likely to make poor decisions. Meanwhile, our endurance has been ruined by adrenaline so we can’t just hold on longer to make up for our mistakes. It’s absolutely natural and reasonable to be afraid when your life is on the line, and that’s the problem because fear makes you much more likely to die in situations where it’s reasonable to be afraid. When climbing goes wrong we need our decision-making abilities intact, and we need all the endurance we can muster. While panic may be reasonable, it’s certainly not productive.

Controlling that fear so you can get down to business, make competent decisions, and get to safety is another important facet of mental fitness. It’s also one that will come with you off the wall into your daily life. Climbing is not the only place where it is unproductive to panic in the face of adversity, but climbing does provide a controlled place to practice preserving your equanimity and learn to be the stone resting at peace within the rapids.

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In these cases of moderate to extreme danger, you have to trust in your abilities. Being comfortable with falling is often heralded as the prime example of mental fitness for climbers, but this is a terrible oversimplification. Clearly, there is no benefit to being comfortable with falling when it could result in a broken leg. Others consider soloing, bold trad and highball bouldering to be examples of mental fitness, despite the fact that these disciplines require avoiding falls. When Alex Honnold soloed El Sendero Luminoso, I don’t believe he was comfortable with the idea of falling. When Michael Reardon onsight-soloed “Romantic Warrior” (700’ 5.12b), I don’t think he relied on any trust in his system or gear; There was no gear. Soloing is a simple system. Had they fallen they would have perished. But then, I guess that’s the point. It’s an entirely different form of mental fitness. When you can’t trust the system to save you, you’d better be able to trust yourself. Otherwise, you’re going to have a very bad time.

And finally, there is a sport-psychology aspect to climbing. Even for those who feel safe when they truly are safe and who trust their abilities to send the climb when things get scary, they may be reluctant to give it their all when the moves get hard. They might simply not want to, there might be a lack of motivation to push limits. Or perhaps you’re like I was a couple years ago… I wanted to get stronger, I was training and thought I was doing everything right, but I wasn’t progressing an inch. I had plateaued. Nearby I spied a guy I’d only seen in the gym a couple of times crushing boulders I could only dream of. Bouldering strength; THAT is what I was lacking! So I asked him “How do I get stronger?” After a short couple of questions back and forth about my training and goals, Andrew Perry looks straight at me and says “huh, yeah, that all sounds about right, I think you just might need to try harder.”

 

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This is the face of try-hard!

And the worst part? It turns out he was right! I held my training grip on the fingerboard twice as long on my next attempt. Clearly, I hadn’t been trying hard enough, but I had been suckered into my own myth and believed I was trying as hard as I could. I needed an outside perspective to shake my thought pattern up. And that’s the trick with sports psychology: Learn to try harder and believe you can do it. You don’t have to believe that you can do it now, just that you can get there someday if you try hard. If you can’t believe it, how can you achieve it?

Three aspects of Mental Fitness:
I break climbing down into three categories of mental fitness:

  1. Trust
  2. Confidence
  3. Willingness

Those subjects are the unifying thread across all disciplines of climbing, what makes each type of climbing feel different in the mind is how much you need each of those types of mental strength. Just as bouldering and big-wall have different demands on Strength, Power, and Endurance, they also require different amounts of trust in the system, trust in your abilities, and letting go of preconceived notions to see success.

The first step towards mental fitness is trust. You have to learn to trust your safety system and your partner. Otherwise, you’ll be as terrified as if you were soloing every single time you climb. Trust is why folks consider the ability to fall as a sign of mental fitness. Trust gives you the ability to feel comfortable in a place which once was scary. The second step, which is especially important when you climb outside, or if you climb trad, is confidence. This is the reason some folks think of soloists as mentally strong. However, the soloist’s greatest gift can quickly become a crutch that holds you back.

By learning to trust their abilities to a greater extent, many climbers fail to gain confidence in the system. After all, nobody is afraid when they don’t believe they will fall! These folks are often seen calling “TAKE!” as soon as they encounter moves that they’re not sure they can complete. Meanwhile, there are those who trust the system very well but have no confidence in their own abilities. Whenever you see someone fail to try a move with full effort, or you see them jump off the wall and “take the whip” instead of trying a hard move, this is because their trust in the system has become a crutch and a hindrance. Falling has become their new comfort zone, and their confidence in falling has surpassed confidence in their own abilities, so they are more willing to fall than try a move that feels uncertain.

The good news is that you don’t always need to trust your own abilities.

Falling

I love watching video clips from Chris Sharma’s process while he was projecting “Jumbo Love.” The climb was so hard that he truly felt each attempt was in vain and was sure to end with a 60ft fall through free space before the rope came tight. Knowing the fall path was clean, he trusted his belay system entirely, and he let go of weighing his own abilities. Instead of passing judgment on his fingers and wasting time and energy on deciding if the move was possible, he just tried it. If you want to truly climb your hardest, you have to let go of the outcome and just try the move. It’s a scientific experiment. We need the willingness to try uncertain and challenging moves by letting go of your judgments of what is possible or impossible. How many times have you achieved moves you thought were impossible? If it’s happened before, it can certainly happen again, but if you decide the move is impossible and jump off without fully trying… You’ll never actually know if it was impossible or not.

And if you fall?

It was a successful experiment! Use this moment to think and ask yourself “why?” Why did you fall? Was it an error down low? Could you have used better technique? Are your fingers simply too weak? In answering this question, you learn how to become a better climber. Ask it as often as you can, after you’ve asked it many times on many efforts you’ll see patterns arise, and only then can you know what the weakest links are in your climbing. Only then will you see the easiest path to gains in your abilities.

Remember folks, sending is only a demonstration of strength and skills that you already possess! It is only through repeated and calculated failure that we can improve, so get out there and try the moves!

There really are only two possible outcomes: If you stick it, then you’ve succeeded in sending the impossible! If you fall, then you’ve succeeded in learning about your climbing! In a very literal sense, failure simply isn’t an option.

Atlanta Climbing Coach