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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

Overcoming the “itis”

Epicondylitis, Tendinitis, Teno-Synovitis, Plantar-Fascitis….. We’ve all felt it at some point. That nagging burning tweak in your connective tissue that just won’t go away. Nothing went “pop,” you didn’t fall wrong, it just hurts, and you can’t figure out why. Fundamentally these conditions are all one of inflammation, and “inflammation” is the literal meaning of the “itis” suffix. Once you’ve developed the “itis” it is vital that you get on top of your recovery fast. If it lasts beyond 4-6 weeks, it will become an “osis.”

The good news is that inflammation is relatively easy to control, the bad news is that inflammation causes abnormal re-structuring of the tendon mass if it persists for too long. That’s the “osis,” it’s an ‘abnormal or diseased condition or state’, In this case, it’s one of the tendons, hence the term “Tendinosis” that some of you may have heard during your recovery and research. The “osis” is still treatable, but it takes longer to fix due to the need for rehabilitative exercises.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, I’ve just seen and helped a few folks recover from injuries. If you see a way to improve this article, please contact me and I’ll happily update with new information. The primary purpose of this article is to have a quick summary of this subject to deliver for folks who want more information. I’ve been answering the same question for a number of people and this article should save me a lot of time and enable a faster response for those who have an injury!

I mean, it should be obvious that I’m not a doctor… at the end of this article I suggest using a horse product to increase blood flow to your tendons. If that doesn’t discredit my information in your eyes, keep on reading!

 

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There are quite a few muscles that attach to the medial epicondyle, so in some cases, climbing didn’t cause the problem, but some other activity like gardening. I don’t say this for humor, landscaping/gardening work was the culprit for the worst case of tendinitis I’ve ever seen. Working those shears is stressful business for your wrist!

A note on Tendinitis
What to call it depends on where you feel the pain. There are two places you can feel it, and each has three names which all identify the same condition:

  • Inside Elbow Pain: Golfer’s Elbow, Medial Tendinitis, Medial Epicondylitis
  • Outside Elbow Pain: Tennis Elbow, Lateral Tendinitis, Lateral Epicondylitis

Medial refers to a position near the body’s centerline. Lateral refers to a position far away. Your elbow has two attachment points called Epicondyles for the muscles of your wrist and fingers. If you have an “itis” affecting the tendon mass in these areas, the strictest definition is Epicondylitis: an inflammation of the epicondyle. Medial and Lateral just states which side it’s on. To keep things simple, I’ll call it inner or outer elbow pain to simplify when directing you to particular exercises or treatments.

How to contract the “itis:”
If you don’t know how you got into this pickle, it will be devilishly hard to figure out how to get out of it and stay healthy.

The itis is caused by a sudden increase or change in your activity level. Here are a few examples:

  • Suddenly increasing the length of your hikes far beyond the norm can lead to Plantar Fascitis
  • Getting too Gung-Ho over Campus Boarding can lead to Medial Tendinitis
  • Suddenly developing a fascination for crimping can lead to Lateral Epicondylitis
  • Hiking in new, more rugged/rocky terrain with flimsy footwear can lead to Plantar Fascitis
  • Projecting a fun boulder with a gnarsty open-handed crux and trying it too many times a day can lead to Teno-Synovitis (aka “Trigger Finger”)
  • A spur of the moment windsurfing trip on vacation can lead to Medial Epicondylitis
  • Taking on a massive landscaping project involving shears and loads of small hand movements lead one friend of mine to develop both Medial and Lateral Epicondylitis. The case was so extreme that the inflammation impinged her Ulnar Nerve and caused swelling of the hands and a loss of mobility in her fingers. My friend couldn’t fully close her hand! After about two weeks of following my rehab suggestions, she regained full use of her hands. Since she caught it fast after only two weeks, she was able to fully recover after two weeks of treatment without quitting her landscaping job.

The key is to look back and figure out what changed in your life. If it’s elbow pain, look for anything where you used your hand, particularly if there was flexing or twisting at the wrist. If the pain is elsewhere, look for the motion that would cause stress in that area.

Now that you know what you did, it’s time to begin the healing.

  1. Cease or reduce the offending motion
  2. Stop the inflammation
  3. Stretch to limit the re-structuring of your tendons
  4. Exercise to rehabilitate your tendons
  5. Encourage blood flow  to the affected area
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    “Cowboy Medicine” 100% guaranteed to fix nothing

1: Stop making it angry!

Whatever motion got you in this predicament, it’s time to stop. Or at least significantly reduce the offending behavior. The first rule of self-rehabilitation is “No Pain MUCH Gain!” Tendons and connective tissue are notoriously slow to heal, so moving the joint keeps blood flowing to the area and promotes healing. How much, and how intense? As much volume and as intensity as you can without causing pain or soreness. 

2: Stop the inflammation
Now that you’ve finished making it angry, we aren’t generating any new stimulus for inflammation, but we still have to bring down the existing inflammation, and there are a few ways to do that without resorting to NSAIDs and pharmaceuticals.

  • Fish Oil: Studies have shown that doses of Fish Oil from 2-4,000mg can be helpful as an anti-inflammatory. Look for a Fish Oil that’s high in DHA and EPA (as those are the two most beneficial components) which is also low in contaminants. Labdoor.com is a 3rd party tester of supplements, and they have some great recommendations for what to use! If you want to walk into a store and grab one off the shelf, Vitamin Shoppe has the best-rated product of anything I’ve found in-stock at a local store. Read more about Fish Oil here
  • Turmeric and Black Pepper: In studies, curcumin (a naturally occurring component of Tumeric) has been shown as such a strong anti-inflammatory that it rivals pharmaceuticals. Black pepper contains piperine, which increases its absorption by 2,000%
  • Tart Cherry Juice: This has been used by marathon runners since the 1940’s to combat Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) after intense training sessions, and it’s just as effective today. It tends to be a bit expensive to drink the juice itself, but it’s quite easy to get the extract in any supplement store
  • Acai Green Tea: Acai berries have the same cytokines as Tart Cherries, and work as an excellent anti-inflammatory. The largest benefit of the Acai Tea from the Republic of Tea is that it runs significantly cheaper than Tart Cherry Extract. I order it in loose-leaf by the pound and drink it every day because it’s delicious and I’m an unrepentant hot-tea addict!

3: Stretch it out
Part of the worry is that long-term inflammation can lead to restructuring of the tendon mass. Stretching the affected tissue can help to slow or stop this process giving you more time to recover, and shortening the recovery process.

4: Rehab the tendons
The next step is to use eccentric motions to rehabilitate the tendons as these have been shown most effective in studies for rehabilitation of connective tissues. Eccentric motions are those where the muscle is working through its extension. Think about controlling a dumbell with your bicep, and you resist the weight as it lowers then have help lifting the weight back up. That’s what we’re talking about. All of the work should be done as the muscle extends and it is un-weighted for the contraction.

5: Keep it flowing
Exercise, but carefully! We want to increase blood flow to the affected area, without making it angry! Remember, No pain, best gains. Cardio gets your blood moving, as can light exercise of the problematic tissue.

In extreme cases, it could be useful to use a liniment or topical rub to help with the healing. Icy Hot works fairly well, but many horse-liniments use the same active ingredient (Menthol), but at a higher concentration. Chapman’s Horse liniment has a whole page on their website to stating that their product is safe for human use, I’ll let you decide if this course is acceptable or not. I do know from experience that Absorbine Horse liniment has been immensely helpful to a few folks whom I’ve seen self-treat their tendinitis issues. But for goodness sake, read the ingredients label and do your research. Steer well clear of anything that has DMSO in it.

Atlanta Climbing Coach

Mega Mile Mojo Mission: Success!

I FINALLY DID IT!!!!! 5,700ft of free-soloing, just over a vertical mile racked up in one day by climbing fifteen different routes on the multipitch walls of Shortoff Mountain, NC.

Every single one of you are capable of so much more than you know. It took me five years to understand that soloing the mile was possible, and three years of hard training in preparation. In short, this weekend was the culmination of eight long years of dreaming, and even as little as a year ago it would have seemed impossible.

I’ve been climbing for ten years now, but when I first started, I was falling on 5.8s and had to project them at the university gym. The hardest climb on the wall was 5.12, and we  heard that folks existed who not only could send the grade, but could onsight it. It sounded like an internet hoax. To us, 5.13 was an unthinkable difficulty for superhumans, trad climbing was obviously wizardry, and anybody who said they had done more than 300ft of climbing in a day was obviously full of malarkey. Clearly your arms would fall off before you got that far! These things were so obviously impossible as to be laughable! I told myself back then that the ultimate lifetime achievements were to send 5.13 and onsight 5.12.  It seemed reasonable at the time to assume that it would take me an entire lifetime to achieve. Those things would be enough for me in climbing, I thought. Back then free-soloing 5.11 wasn’t even on the table. Hell, free-soloing of any kind wasn’t on my mind! That was obviously for people far more awesome than me! But myyy how the times change… As it turns out, with dedication and proper training, you can do far more than you know. The crux is just dreaming big enough.

Three years ago I updated my goal list:
-Send 5.13a Sport
-Send 5.12a Trad
-Onsight 5.12 Sport
-Free solo 5.12
-Onsight solo 5.11 multiptich
-Free solo one vertical mile of climbing in a single day, without repeating any routes

But I ran into a major problem: Eighteen months ago I fell on El Cap and wound up in a California ICU. I was so terribly injured that I couldn’t focus my eyes more than six inches in front of my face, and I couldn’t sense which way was up or down. The only way I could cope with it was to tell myself that the guy I was beforehand had died. In essence, I was giving myself permission to start over from scratch as a new man without any attachment to past achievements… but that list of goals was always in my head… I was a bit sad that I’d never do any of those things when I had come so close to each.

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Looking up in the valley, contemplating the words of a doctor who stated I would never climb again

This year I saw climbers at 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell who had only been climbing for six months. THAT is dreaming big, and I can’t wait to see what they achieve in their future! They sent triple the number of routes that they had hoped for! It turns out that they were capable of far more than they could have possibly known beforehand!

Those guys believed the impossible better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Nevertheless, despite my constand self-doubts, I’ve found my way to some wild achievements, the type of things that kid at the university absolutely knew were impossible ten years ago! Things that guy in the ICU knew had been taken away forever. My achievements might not be huge in the grand scheme of things, but they’re definitely huge for me. Despite catastrophic injuries, and doctors telling me I’d never climb again, I’ve achieved my own impossible and as of this weekend…. I’ve done everything I had ever hoped to do in a lifetime of climbing. That list is completely finished, and I’m left utterly dumbfounded in ways I can’t explain. The weight of my experience in Yosemite and the injuries which put me ICU has finally been lifted from my shoulders. The guy that went to Yosemite full of hope and excitement… That Guy died in yosemite, but he’s back now, and he’s ready to kick some ass.

*Cue bitchin soundtrack*

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Special message to the folks who said I’d never climb again. The smile is because I’m grateful they kept me alive, everything else is because I’m grateful to be living. Photo: Cynthia Gannon

As a kid, when I first learned of climbing…. I heard of two large rocks: Half-Dome and El Capitan. Pretty soon everything I did was done with the notion of those two stones in the back of my head. They were the benchmarks against which I measured my progress as a climber.

  • Eight years ago I started soloing with a weekend that earned milage equal to Half-Dome over the course of two days
  • Four years ago I saw shortoff mountain and realized the location was prime for some serious shenanigans
  • Three years ago I decided to do an “El Cap Day” of 3,000ft. However, while I was scouting the location, I managed to do 2,500ft by accident…. after waking up late with a hangover. Apparently 3,000ft wasn’t ambitious enough, and the next notable distance was a vertical mile. So I began training.
  • Two years ago I tried the mile for the first time and came up short at 4500ft.
  • 18 months ago I almost died in Yosemite, and the doctors told me I’d never climb again.
  • 17 months ago I resumed climbing on 5.6 topropes in the gym.
  • 12 months ago I sent V6 indoors, and could onsight 5.12a in the gym.
  • 6 months ago, after training all winter in my basement, I onsighted a few 12’s, sent 5.13- and then soloed 5.12 for the first time in my life. And I did it nine times spread over four different routes.
  • 1 month ago I completed 36 Hours of Horseshoe Hell. Mark and I each did a vertical mile in the 12 hour competition, and another in the 24. At this point I knew I absolutely had to return to Shortoff Mountain. I was certain that I would succeed, the only unknown was how hard I would have to fight
  • November 5th, 2016: I completed my mission without feeling rushed. I didn’t even break a sweat until the wall was bathed in direct afternoon sun.

 

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“Dopey Duck” (5.9) in afternoon sun – Photo: Andy Toms (he has a beautiful Instagram feed)

The Approach
John and I woke up at 6:00 AM, cooked breakfast and hucked it up the trail to Shortoff just before sunrise. When we crested the ridge, first light had broken, but the sun wasn’t quite up yet. At the top of Shortoff John shook my hand and continued on his way, he had his own Mojo Mission this weekend. As I  unpacked my food, water, and shoes, my entire body started shaking. I couldn’t tell if it was from the cold, nerves, or excitement, but it was quite a thing to suddenly be left alone at the top of a four hundred foot wall knowing that I had a mile of vertical climbing ahead of me. It was quite a thing to know that eight years of dreaming had condensed to this one single moment. Every adventure has a moment where you take the first step, a moment when you commit fully to the doing of it. That moment is the crux.

I began the pre-flight ritual of unpacking my headphones and slipping the cord inside my shirt so it wouldn’t tangle on anything while I was climbing. Lightning struck as soon as I pressed play, and my soul came crashing back into my body for the first time since Yosemite. I landed back in my body with a force that staggered me. I drew in a deep breath as “Medicine Man” by Dorothy pumped through my brain, and my body reconnected with its mountain…. This is what I am made for. It was good to be home again! Taking my first step towards the bottom of the cliff felt like peace. The shaking stopped immediately, and any jitters or nerves were replaced with rock-hard resolve. In that precise moment, I finally shook off the psychological shackles of my past injuries.

 

notebooks
My notebook with a rough diagram of the routes and cliff layout. It seems somehow wrong that 400ft of climbing can be abbreviated with a number and a hash-mark

 

Toxic Shock (5.9) 350ft
The previous day, I had planned to warm-up with “Full Tilt Boogie”, but I scratched that plan in the morning chill because my head wasn’t quite on fully. The descent got my heart-rate up, thesmall holds on the first pitch readied my fingers to pull hard, and the easy finish pitches helped me stretch the muscles out. I have never climbed this with a rope. Crux at 80ft
1 route – 350ft – Completed 8:37AM

Onsight(ish) – Supercrack (5.11d) 400ft
John tells me that I have to report this as an onsight. I’d rather call it free-solo redpoint, or perhaps “Onsightish.” I’ve never tried it with a rope, but I attempted the onsight solo two years ago and backed off at the crux 40ft up. The mile day was the second time I tried the route, but this was the first time I tried the crux, and the upper pitches were all onsight.
2 routes – 750ft – 9:33AM

Full-Tilt Boogie (5.11+) 300ft
I onsighted this with a rope one day before, and I clipped the bolt from the crux holds like an idiot while hauling a double-rack up to #3’s…. once I ditched the gear it felt 5.7! And that’s how it should be if you’re soloing. If it feels harder once you drop the rope, you’ve made a terrible mistake and you need to rethink you the decisions which got you up into this situation. Ten out of ten, absolutely would repeat! Crux at 250ft
3 routes – 1050ft – 10:16AM

Pinball Wizard (5.11) 300ft
I love this climb, but I climbed the wrong damned route while looking for it a few years back. I found the correct route with John the day before. Super classic climbing, once again, it felt much easier once I ditched the rope! This lap was aboslute peace for me. Crux at 250ft
4 routes – 1350ft – 10:44AM

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An inspection run on “Pinball Wizard” (5.11) -Fall 2014 – Photo: Andy Toms

Julia (5.10b) 500
Another great one, I onsight-soloed this one years ago, and it went well enough, but I could really feel my progression as a soloist on this route. All of the footholds felt so much larger this time! I still have not climed Julia with a rope. Crux at 100ft
5 routes – 1850ft – 11:20AM

Help Mr.Wizard (5.11a) 400ft
Once upon a time I toprope-soloed this one to rehearse it, and have been soloing it ever since. Super classic climbing, crux is about 30ft off the ground. I have never led this route
6 routes – 2250ft – 11:55AM

Onsight – Golden Rule (5.11b) 400ft
My target was “Straight and Narrow,” but there was a party mid-lead when I arrived and passing them would have been utterly rude, plus… I didn’t want to risk anyone falling on me!

I asked around to find the start of “Construction Job (5.9)” and started up the wall. For whatever reason, I’ve never been a huge fan of CJ, so I stopped on a rock mid-way up the wall and checked Mountain Project. I remembered there was an alternate finish at 5.11b, and the MP notes said “Big moves on big holds!” Well, that sounded like a good time to me, so I detoured up the seam of Golden Rule and got rowdy! Two 5.11- cruxes 250ft off the ground! Onsighting this might be the coolest achievement of my climbing career so far
7 routes – 2650ft – 12:43PM

Built To Tilt (5.10b) 300ft
By this point, Andy Toms had arrived with his camera. Last time I happened to bump into him and he got some great shots, so I saved most of the routes that are visible to hikers until he arrived. BTT felt the easiest it ever had, by this point I’d become absolutely comfortable soloing in the steeps. I’ve climbed this once with a rope. Crux at 250ft
8 routes – 2750ft – 1:13PM

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Hangin out on “Built To Tilt” (5.10b) – Photo: Andy Toms

Onsight – Tommy Gun (5.10) 300ft
After traveling through the other three routes in the Tilted World, I had looked over at “Tommy Gun” enough to know it would be casual, especially without the weight of a rack and rope. And besideds, if it turned out awful, I could always bail on one of the other variations to the top. This route felt absolutely peaceful and relaxed, all the roof jugs of Full Tilt Boogie with none of the cruxing! If I didn’t know any better, I’d have said it was 5.7! Crux at 250ft
9 routes – 3250ft – 1:44PM

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Onsight and at peace in the steeps of “Tommy Gun” (5.10) – Note: I actually don’t know how to tie my shoes – Photo: Andy Toms

Dopey Duck (5.9) 350ft
At this point, all of the 10’s are behind me except for “Straight and Narrow,” I was a bit tired, but I was cruising on momentum knowing that anything difficult was already completed. I onsight soloed this route a few years ago, and have climbed it once with a rope since
10 routes – 3600ft – 2:16PM

Early Times (5.9) 350ft
The climbing went slow on this one, I had to dust lichen off of every single hold. I onsight soloed it two years ago and have never roped up on this route.
11 routes – 3950ft – 2:58PM

 

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“Dopey Duck” (5.9) – Fall 2014 – Photo: Lynn Willis

 

LUNCH BREAK DANCE PARTY!

Straight and Narrow (5.10a) 400ft
This was the big moment, the last hard climb was done! Now I just had to stay motivated and keep moving! With 3 hours left till sunset, and 3 routes remaining, I knew the day was won. I onsight soloed it two years ago and have never roped up on this route.
12 routes – 4350ft – 4:07PM

Maginot Line (5.7+) 400ft: 13 routes – 4750ft – 4:43PM
Little Corner (5.6) 500ft: 14 routes – 5250ft – 5:25PM

Paradise Alley (5.8+) 450ft
Given the burly liebacking, this was not the smartest finish, but it was the most poetic! Paradise Alley was the first thing I ever climbed in Linville, the first thing I climbed at Shortoff, it was my first solo at shortoff, and my first multipitch solo on the east coast. Paradise Alley was the first time I shared a rope with Lohan… In other words, I’ve made a lot of personal firsts and personal friends on this route, so I saved it for the last route of the day! I crossed the mile marker on the way up this one, it continues to hold a special place in my heart.

The first time I climbed this route, I surveyed the world around me, and I just knew that fun times would be had here… Little did I know just how much fun was in store for my future… Shortoff Mountain is pure magic, and this route was my entry ❤
15 routes – 5700ft – 6:12PM

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Soloing “Julia” (5.10b) next to Scott Cox and Michael Stichter, Fall 2014

Given that route-lengths aren’t ever measured accurately if you ever ask me…. I’ll tell you that I did “a bit more than a mile,” perhaps we’ll call it the “Mile Plus.” All I know is that I certainly covered enough rock to secure the full vertical mile, even if some of the routes were shorter than advertised. After eight years of dreaming, I didn’t want to be robbed of my goal through a damned accounting error. For those of you who like to talk in “pitches per day,” I’m afraid I don’t have a number for you as I still haven’t roped up on most of these routes.

A note on onsight soloing:
I onsight-soloed a few things on this trip, and in particular, I onsighted a “legitimate” 5.11 multipitch climb (“Golden Rule” 5.11a) This achievement is special to me. If you climb 5.11 in your favorite style, you can walk up to almost any crag and expect to find lines to climb and have fun. If you can onsight 5.11, you can expect to have a good time at any new crag you visit. My preferred style is free solo multipitch, so being able to onsight-solo a 5.11 multipitch route is a wonderful thing because it means that I can have fun at any new crag I visit. It’s not that I expect to be able to onsight-solo any 5.11, that’s sheer hubris! There are still 5.8’s I wouldn’t solo at all, let alone onsight. That’s what makes it special; it must be practiced much more carefully, so it’s a rare achievement. I don’t expect to onsight 5.11 multipitch climbs with any regularity (yet), but the fact that I can do it on rare occasions means I’m able to have more fun on my own terms.

It’s particularly special because onsight-soloing is much less likely to succeed compared to a regular solo. With most solos, I have a pre-flight checklist of sorts. It has to feel just right, and there are numerous preconditions required so that I know I can climb the move no matter what happens on the way up. For onsight solos, I have more of an in-fight checklist. When onsight soloing I have to go forward with the assumption that there will be a fucked up move high on the wall, so the calculation changes drastically. When onsight soloing, I’m not asking if I can climb the moves effortlessly, I’m asking if I can down-climb the moves effortlessly. That way, if I find the fucked-up move high on the wall, I can still get back down to the ground safety. Since down-climbing is harder than up-climbing, it’s much more likely that I’ll veto an onsight solo part-way up and reverse to the ground.

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Onsight solo of “Ascension” (5.11b/c) – Sandrock, AL – Photo: Jake Lehner

After all, the purpose of any solo is to get bak down to the ground safely. Sometimes that means sending, topping out, and walking back down… Sometimes that means reversing your moves.

Sport climbing is a different discipline from gym climbing, and it requires a different evaluation of risk. Trad is different from sport, and Multiptich is different from both of those, and bouldering is yet another discipline with its own unique risk assessment. Free-soloing is another discipline, it has its own evaluation of risk, and onsight free-soloing is a separate discipline from the usual soloing of rehearsed routes. It has its own separate rules for evaluation of risk. In other words, if you practice it right, it’s not any more risky than rehearsed soloing. It’s just different.

Final Notes:
Eight years spent dreaming of gnar, logging onto the internet and checking every news source for the latest and greatest in climbing…. I never had to set my home page to the Climbing Narc, because I’d go to the website five times a day anyhow! Every time I go into REI, my mind starts to wander, and as I’d start to dream of the gnar again, I’d pick up another copy of “Climbing Magazine” and “Rock and Ice” (I’d always buy both at the same time). Always I’d be hoping to hear of the next, newest, gnarliest solos.

It seems that I’m not just dreaming of gnar these days, I’m living it. I’m currently doing the things I’ve been reading climbing magazines to hear about. I’m doing all of the things that I once labeled as “impossible”… it makes me dizzy if I think about it too hard!

If you don’t solo, you’ll never get it. But once you have soloed, you get a piece of it. Once you’ve soloed a lot, you’ve really got a piece of it. Once you solo every day…. NOW you understand

Michael Reardon

There is a continuum…. Climbers who’ve done a solo, those who solo, and then there are the soloists.The soloist progresses in climbing with a focus on mastery, we don’t just want to get by on the moves we make, we want to own them. Three years ago I admitted that I was a soloist, not simply one who solos. I’m not redpointing harder things and getting stronger to redpoint hard things. I want to feel more and more relaxed on a wider variety of more difficult terrain. That is the end goal. Because of that, and the past three years of practice, I think I’m starting to finally “get” this whole soloing thing.

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“The Lion” (5.12c) – Spring 2016 – Photo: Bartram Nason

Once again, that’s the toughest part: Admitting you have a goal, and committing to that goal. Once you do that, the rest falls into place because your choices become clear. Because of that, those six-month climbers finished Horseshoe Hell with triple the score they’d hoped for… and me? I’m finally doing the things that I read magazines to hear about. I believe only a dozen people on earth have had pure free-solo days as large as the one I just pulled off.

(A Note on semantics: I’m not counting things like Honnold and Potter on big-wall solo linkups because they had gear and harnesses. Big wall daisy-solos are a slightly different genre; however, I am counting Honnold for his birthday challenge where he soloed 290 pitches even though the crux was 5.10c because it was all free-solo with no gear)

And It all started ten years ago, falling and failing on 5.8’s at the climbing gym.  Because of that, I’ve often said that I have no natural talent. Nothing in climbing ever came easy to me, everything I gained has been hard won through blood, sweat, and tears…. but I put in the work, and I earned every last bit of it. Then in Yosemite, it was all taken from me in an instant. But it turns out, if you’re determined enough, and dedicated enough, all you have to do is put in the work, and you can get a lot back. It might not be the same as it was before, but that’s just because you have a new starting point. I still have no sense of equilibrium, and I’m deaf in m left ear, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let those things stop me!

The Last Hold of Seperate Reality
Dreaming big while attempting to flash “Separate Reality” (5.11d), I’ll be back for this someday – Photo: Jacob Bodkin

You know… it’s taken me a long time to admit it…but… Maybe I’m talented after all. My talent is drive and determination, which is fortunate because that’s a talent that can be shared and given freely. My main hope is that I can use this Mojo to help others… That’s why I’ve started coaching and training climbers. I firmly believe that if I can achieve my goals, you can too. The only thing unique about myself is my drive and determination, and I’ll give away every ounce of it that I can! I could never have imagined making a living off of doing the things I love, but I have to remember that I’ve done a lot of things that once felt impossible, so maybe this one will work out too!

Once again, it seems that dreaming big enough was the hardest step.

So if you’re local to Atlanta, come on down to Atlanta Rocks and sample my route setting, or train with me at Mojo Personal Training! If that doesn’t suit your mojo, just stay tuned here at Dreaming of Gnar! One way or another I want to share what I’ve learned with you so that you can dream big and achieve your impossible! I might be living the dream, but that doesn’t mean I’m done dreaming! There’s more in store this spring, and I have a whole winter of training ahead of me to prepare, backed by the latest science in climbing research!