Tag Archives: Austin

“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!

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.

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*

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.


“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.


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

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

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

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


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



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

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.

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.

“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!

Quantum Leap: A trip report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the video below!

QuantumLeap from Austin Howell on Vimeo.

Atlanta Climbing Coach

A guide to fall practice that actually works

This thing ran long, far longer than I intended when I started writing; if you fail to read the whole thing, that’s fine. I mean, its 3500 4500 4700 4900 5000 words long for Pete’s sake! This article is meant to serve as a reference guide. If you only read the intro and then scroll down to the information that’s pertinent to your climbing, I won’t be offended. I tried to list things in order from least objective danger to the most objective danger, so naturally trad and bouldering are at the end, but they’re in here, I promise! Just keep scrolling.

We’re all familiar, to some degree, with the prevailing wisdom on fall practice, “whipper therapy” as some call it. We’ve all had friends say that you just need to “get over it” or “take the fall” as if that’s some magic cure to overcoming your fear. I’d be willing to bet you also know folks who have tried this and only come away more shaken and afraid. Some of you have attempted to coach your friends through fear on the wall, you send them up, they become afraid, you tell them to take the fall, they do it, it’s terrifying, and you’ve successfully reinforced the fact that the scary thing is scary to them. Nothing changed. You keep convincing them to take falls and every time they come away with greater and greater trepidation. When someone has a fear of falling, the problem often isn’t that they think it’s dangerous, the problem is that they feel like it’s dangerous. There’s a vast difference between the perceived danger and actual danger that’s present. If you’re reading this, you’ve likely been trained well and seen enough people climbing to know that, in most scenarios, the risk is low. Yet we’re still afraid. The feeling of fear is divorced from the level of danger present.

Taking long falls to conquer the fear does work for some people, but it doesn’t work for everyone. We need additional tools to work with fear and build a sense of comfort on the wall for everyone who wishes to develop mastery. You become what you practice. If you practice being afraid, you will become fearful. There is no need whatsoever for mental training to be frightening. Given everything we know about belays, the strength of gear, and various hard-skills involved with climbing, we know it’s possible to climb safely without risking injury. A phobia is defined as “a strong, irrational fear of something that poses little or no real danger.” Now, I’m no psychologist (I just have a tendency to peruse Wikipedia articles) and I’m not saying you have a phobia; however, insights from the processes of overcoming phobias can inform our practice regarding a fear of falling.

One tactic, known as flooding, involves taking the subject and exposing them directly to the source of the fear to push them through it. Imagine taking someone who is afraid of cars, throwing them in the passenger seat and driving around for hours until they calm down. It might work, or it might make them utterly hysterical. According to the Wikipedia article on Flooding: “This is a faster (yet less efficient and more traumatic) method of ridding fears when compared with systematic desensitization. In order to demonstrate the irrationality of the fear, a psychologist would put a person in a situation where they would face their phobia at its worst.” Flooding is the equivalent of the standard “whipper therapy” approach. Afraid of falling? Take some massive falls! Afraid of spiders? Let’s fill your bathtub with them and hop in!

Desensitization can be tailored to the individual, and this is what makes it so useful. You start by identifying which scenarios cause the most fear and slowly gain confidence with them one by one time using relaxation techniques, starting with the least frightening and working your way up. The methods I put forth in this article have worked the best for me and my own fear of falling, and I’ve used it to help many people overcome their fear. It’s less traumatic and much more efficient compared to “whipper therapy” and I’ve found it works for a much broader range of people whether it’s your first time wrestling with your mind or you’re simply recovering the mental game after an accident. As an added benefit, using this method will arm you with mental tools to better cope with fears on the wall in a general sense. Even better, it arms you with the ability to handle your fears in the moment as they occur instead of being overwhelmed. You simply can’t get that from whipper therapy.

The Big Idea:
The idea for my theories on mental training are simple: Isolate one variable at a time, then start with the easiest situation possible. Slowly increment the complexity or “extreme-ness” as you become comfortable until you feel relaxed in every climbing scenario in which you know your system is safe. My preferred relaxation technique is to stop what you’re doing, pause mid move (or while hanging on the rope) and just breathe. Focus on the breath as it comes in and out and feel your heart rate start to lower. Once it does, you may progress forward. Think Yoga, do climbing.

  1. Learn the systems well so you know how to make safety.
  2. Find a place to practice where you can implement a safe system.
  3. Find the most extreme scenario where you know that you are safe, and you feel comfortable.
  4. Move forward to a situation where you know you are safe and you feel just a little bit uncomfortable. Not extreme fear, not anything overwhelming, just a little bit of nervousness. Anywhere you find a place where your heart rate starts to increase due to stress is a good place to practice, as long as it hasn’t progressed to the point of outright fear.
  5. Practice trusting the safety system in this situation until it feels comfortable. If you start to get overwhelmed or genuinely scared, just stop. Don’t scream “take,” don’t jump off, don’t sprint up to finish the climb, just pause right where you are and start breathing slowly until you’ve reached a state of calm. Once you’ve regained calm, then you can make a decision to either continue or conclude practice for the day.
  6. Move a little further up, go back to step #4 and find a new and exciting place that makes you a little nervous and practice there until you feel fully comfortable.
  7. Repeat these steps until you instinctively feel comfortable in every situation where you know you are safe or feel you’ve made a good amount of progress for the day.
  8. Get out and enjoy some happy climbing!

Now that you’ve got a general idea, I’ll go step by step for growing comfortable on the wall for those of you who like an increased level of detail. We’ll start with toprope, then work to sport climbing, then trad climbing, and finally I’ll finish with a few tips for boulderers at the end. It’s important to remember that mental training should not be scary if you’re doing it right! If you feel overwhelmed, it’s usually best to ease off and back down to a place where you only feel a little nervous or uncomfortable. On the other hand, if a particular exercise is already comfortable for you, keep reading and push it up to the next step! Remember, though, we’re only working in safe terrain. One important note is to assess any risks or objective dangers from the ground and decide whether those risks are acceptable to you. Once you know what you’re in for and intellectually accept that it is safe, you’ve laid a solid foundation for your practice. Since we’re isolating one variable at a time, it’s better not to leave yourself assessing risk mid-climb.

It’s important to read from a variety of sources for climbing training
New to climbing (Top-rope Tips):
When you first start climbing, it’s normal not to trust the rope. Fear of heights is normal, and fear of falling is a sane quality to possess in most situations. Fortunately for those of us who have a psychological impediment that requires us to spend time high off the ground, engineers have designed some rather robust safety systems that can remove the need for fear in many climbing situations (though by no means all). Now, I can tell you all day that these ropes are strong enough to suspend my truck from the ceiling of Stone Summit, and it’s good to know that in your head, but it’s quite another thing to feel that safety instinctively and relax while climbing. Actually, that is an important point in its own right: If you go about it in the right way, climbing becomes a relaxing experience. The operative idea is that it’s a good idea to feel safe in all the places where you truly are safe. Fear makes climbing stressful and far less enjoyable. Imagine being able to relax on the wall as you do in a yoga practice (assuming you’ve ever done that), that’s the sort of payoff I’m talking about. For the following drills, it’s best to start practice on a vertical wall, we’ll get to the overhangs later.

First thing’s first, let’s prove the rope will hold:
The biggest fear at the beginning is fear of heights (at least, it was for me), and this becomes overwhelming when you find yourself with burning forearms 50’ above the floor. We’ll start a little closer to the ground. Find the easiest climb in the gym and start climbing. Picking something easy is important because the fear of falling is stressful enough already, adding the extra stress of increased difficulty will make the fear much harder to handle.

Once you get a few body lengths off the ground, call for a “take.” Now, take a deep breath, relax, and let go of the wall. Sit down on your gear and feel that it’s holding you. Now, if you’ve reached out and grabbed a hold from instinct, let go of the wall again. Just sit still and breathe until you feel somewhat relaxed while fully supported by your gear. Start climbing again and repeat this process until you instinctively feel confident the rope will hold you can begin to relax while calling for a “take” anywhere on the wall.

Note to belayers: “Take” is shorthand for “take my weight,” and it’s an active activity. Don’t just lock off the belay and stare at your climber. Pull in the slack, then lock off the rope, and sit down into the rope so you support your climber and absorb the stretch. Feeling that the rope is slack after saying “take” is far from confidence inspiring. Feeling that tension is essential when giving a proper “take.” In outdoor scenarios where climbers have to clean gear from bolted anchors, that tension is the only way the climber can know they are safely on belay. If you don’t feel that tension, unclipping from the anchor and trusting the rope is akin to playing Russian Roulette with a loaded revolver.

Next: Trusting the belay:
Now that you trust the rope for holding your weight, start climbing again. This time, pause and announce “falling” once you’ve climbed a few body-lengths. Belayers, don’t give your climber a “take,” this is supposed to be a small fall. If this made you nervous, sit and relax on the rope until your heart rate and breathing have returned to normal so you can relax a little. Continue climbing up the wall, periodically jumping/falling off. After you’ve grown comfortable with announced falls, the next step is to repeat the process with un-announced falls until you feel comfortable giving it your all, even on the most improbable moves!

Finally: Swing Falls
Up to this point, we’ve ben assuming you’re working on a vertical wall where the potential for swinging is rather small, but climbing terrain isn’t always so simple. Sometimes your anchors will be offset from the base of a route, or the wall can be overhung causing you to swing when you fall. Another reason to practice this skill is to learn which swings are safe. If you’re not yet sure, start small! Move a little to the left of the anchor and practice falling there, and then gradually move farther away to see how large of a swing you can get away with. Be careful, use your judgment, don’t engage in anything risky, and don’t be an idiot. This isn’t something to practice in the gym on a crowded night where you can smash into other climbers, or belayers, or entangle their ropes.

Keep in mind that your swing velocity is related to the angle that your rope has strayed from vertical. Because of this, it’s safer to take a swing offset from the anchor while you’re low down. In doing so you may swing further, but you’ll swing with a lower velocity than you would near the top of the route, and this gives you time to get your bearings and avoid swinging into something if you’ve made a mistake in your setup. This can be a good thing to practice at the climbing gym since they typically won’t hang a toprope anywhere you’re in danger, but you have to remember that it’s a shared space. Wildly swinging about can pose a hazard for others, not just yourself, be aware of your surroundings. Remember, the goal is to feel safe when you are safe, so don’t practice anywhere that seems dangerous outside. For swing falls, use common sense, make sure you’ve climbed higher than head-height, lest you swing around and kick people. It’s worth noting that a swift kick to the head is not a great way to introduce yourself to new climbers.

Sport Climbing:
Sport climbing can require at times that you take an actual free-fall instead of sagging onto the rope. This is a new level of engagement, so make sure you’re comfortable with toprope first. I’ve seen a few novice leaders that still didn’t trust the toprope system, so practicing falls on lead was counter-productive. They had to return to the basics. You should practice all of these drills on routes with safe, clean falls. Vertical or overhung walls with closely spaced bolts and routes that travel straight with no traverses are preferred. It might seem a little weird coming from your friendly neighborhood soloist, but this really is one of those safety-first situations. With training, it’s important to practice one variable at a time for the best effect. Since we’re working on your mental game, it’s important to remove as many variables that cause danger as possible. On that note, try to avoid any falls with swings until you’ve grown entirely comfortable with vertical falls.

Top-rope whippers:
Let’s start at the start, most folks feel comfortable jumping off the wall while close to the ground, just like you would while bouldering. Clip the first bolt while it’s still above your head and take a fall. If this is still too intimidating, begin by stacking crash-pads at the base of the wall until you feel okay enough to fall willingly. I was tremendously embarrassed the first time I decided to pull over crash pads in the gym for fall practice, but there was no need to feel self-conscious. We are not alone in this endeavor; people are very understanding about mental work! Fall here, below your first bolt, repeatedly until you instinctively feel that the rope will catch you. After each fall, rest on the ground for a moment to collect yourself (since you’re so close to the floor there’s little point in hanging in your harness, it’s just not terribly comfortable). Don’t repeat the exercise until you have returned to a state of calm. Once you’re comfortable falling at the first bolt, move up to the second bolt, and the third, and so on until you feel comfortable performing this exercise anywhere on the wall.

Small Falls:
Up to this point, you were essentially on top-rope since the bolts were clipped above your head, but now we’ll begin taking actual falls, albeit short ones. Climb to the third or fourth bolt (we want to be clear of any ground level obstacles, such as your belayer’s cranium), and take a fall once your knot is level with the bolt. Pause, breathe, collect yourself, and let go. After the fall, pause, breathe, collect yourself, and continue. Relax as much as you can between repetitions. Repeat the fall at each bolt until it feels comfortable and “normal,” then move up to the next bolt and so on until you feel comfortable falling anywhere on the wall. At first you may need to announce your falls to feel more secure, I know I sure did, but the key is to practice this until you feel comfortable taking those falls without any warning. Once you’ve mastered that, move on to the next step!

Whipper Therapy!
I know I’m always talking bad about taking whippers (longer falls) for mental training, decrying the practice as counter-productive, but it truly IS part of the process. The problem is that it’s a very poor place to begin the process, and some folks mistake it for being the entire process. However, now that you’ve felt successful with drills listed above, we’re ready for some rather conventional fall-practice!

Again, climb to the third or fourth bolt to be clear of any obstacles. Climb until your knot is 12 inches above the bolt, take a breath, try to stay calm, take a practice fall. As with prior drills, repeat this fall until you feel calm, and move up to the next bolt. After some time, you’ll likely become comfortable with these short falls, and you can begin moving even further above the bolt. Good benchmarks I’ve found for indoor fall practice are falling 12 inches (one foot) above your bolt, falling with the bolt at knee level, falling with the bolt at foot level, and falling with your knot near the next bolt. That last suggestion represents the “worst case scenario” at your local gym, if you can feel confident with this then you can feel comfortable anywhere on the wall!

One last note:
Now, the difference between indoor and outdoor climbing represents a sharp break for some, so it’s entirely possible that you still find yourself feeling fear outside. If that’s the case, perform a little bit of fall practice during your warm up at the crag each day to build your instincts for outdoors climbing as well! Performing these drills during the warmup has always been particularly effective because it won’t cut into your “climbing time” when you’re itching to send, and it will avoid straining too hard thus increasing the effectiveness of your warm up!

Trad is Rad!
Cams and nuts have been designed and engineered as units for fall protection. That means they have been specially created for the purpose of catching falling humans when they are used properly. Today I’m not going to tell you how to use them properly, that could be the subject of an entire book. Actually, it is the subject of an entire book. GO, READ THAT BOOK! Even if you don’t climb trad. If you climb outside in any capacity, read this book. It is an excellent primer in the fine art of not-killing-yourself. And then, once you’ve read that book, read the trad climber’s bible. Those books just might save your life, if you let them.

Trad is a touch more complicated than sport, there are no pre-placed bolts or anchors to designate your stopping points, so naturally staying safe will depend on your abilities of risk-assessment and your competency with gear placements. Again, we want to practice on a vertical or slightly overhung climb that is relatively straight with minimal traverses. You should be completely comfortable with all of the sport-climbing fall-drills before starting this section and very competent with your gear placements. If you are not competent with your gear placements, bring a friend who is. And then read “Climbing Anchors” by John Long. Actually, on second thought, read that book before you practice. Yes, I hot-linked his book four separate times, its that important.

This crap is voodoo magic, and I don’t trust it one damn bit!
I think that could be a good title for my autobiography. “This crap is voodoo magic, and I don’t trust it one damn bit: The Austin Howell Story.” Now all I have to do is go out and do something exciting that’s worth writing about! This could take a while….

I mean, just look at a cam. It looks like a death metal band’s interpretation of a mushroom. It’s not inherently obvious that it will save you from the grip of gravity. So it’s usually best to start over at the very beginning, much like the first-time climber who doesn’t trust the rope, we have to learn that a new piece of gear can be trusted. To a certain extent. When used properly. *cough* Have you read that book yet? (it’s linked five times now, you have no excuse.)

Once you’ve found an appropriate route, lead about half-way up placing gear with a “normal” safe spacing. If you don’t trust your gear, send your qualified friend up to build a two-piece anchor at the half-way point, or somewhere where you can fall safely, then climb up, clip the anchor, and place one piece of your own just a few inches above the mini-anchor. This is your practice station. One benefit of having a friend build your mini-anchor while you’re placing the cams for fall practice is that it will allow you to develop trust in your own placements while knowing that something solid is in the wall in case you screw up. On the other hand, if you DO trust your own judgment and are quite competent with your placements, it’s best to build your own practice station.

Now, try to relax and call for a “take.” Pull onto the wall and inspect your gear to make sure it hasn’t wiggled into a poor placement, if everything looks good call for another “take,” repeat this process until you feel comfortable letting the cam hold your weight, and you instinctively feel confident that your gear will hold. If this is too frightening, bring extra gear and start cramming pieces in the wall until it finally feels safe. I once performed this drill with a two-piece equalized anchor and six additional pieces. Eight pieces total in a 4-foot long span, with a decent sized audience since it was a busy day at the crag. Hey, everybody has to start somewhere right?

One critical point:
After every time you weight your gear you really should inspect your placements to make sure they are still solid. Trad gear tends to wiggle when weighted, repeated falls can wiggle your pieces out of the wall. This is why we have at least one backup piece, just in case. It’s better to have it and not need it than to encourage gear failure.

Fall Progression:
Return to your practice station, and practice each of these scenarios until you grow comfortable with them:

  1. Announced falls, below your highest piece. Just like “toprope whippers” in the sport climbing section.
  2. Unannounced falls, below your highest piece.
  3. Unannounced falls, 12 inches above your piece. Just like the “small falls” drill in the sport climbing section
  4. Un-announced falls, with the gear at knee level.
  5. Un-announced falls, with the gear at foot-level.

Practice each of these until you feel comfortable with the fall at this particular practice station.

The next steps:
Eventually, you want to develop enough understanding of the gear to build your own practice station, and then to build enough confidence to reduce the size of your practice station to only two or three pieces. We want to get comfortable with the knowledge that our gear will hold WITHOUT sacrificing safety by removing too many pieces from the system. How few is too few? That’s a personal judgment call, all I can say is make sure John Long would approve of your anchor system, and you’ll probably be alright. Once you’ve got a small and sleek practice station, the final step is to start practicing in other places with more exciting terrain. Experiment, keep it lively but keep it safe. You want to gain experiential knowledge of when and where it is actually safe to fall, and not split your cranium on an upward-facing guillotine flake.

Um…. this is how bouldering works, right? Photo Cred: Stephanie Harabaglia

Decking Practice Bouldering Practice:
This is tricky. Every fall while bouldering is a ground-fall, so we must be careful. If you have a particular boulder problem that you want to send, but fear is shutting you down, it is possible to carefully and systematically work on this fear. The crux of the issue is this: Are you safe?

Start at the beginning and consider what would happen if you fell off. Does it feel safe? Are you okay falling while attempting the move? Even better, look from the ground up and decide how high you’re willing to go. Once you know what will be safe, we can establish a zone for practice. Once your toes are a foot or two off the ground, jump back down to the pad. Then do the same one move higher. Now another move higher. Slowly practice inching your way higher and higher, stop as soon as you feel unsafe. The key is to feel safe falling in all the places where you are not in danger but to do that you have to familiarize yourself with falling to use proper technique. It helps to ask folks how to fall properly; it helps to practice short falls an attempt to make them as comfortable as possible. Start in the gym with a well-padded floor. Take special care if you’ve had ankle or leg injuries, you don’t’ want to make them worse.

Just like our practice sessions for the other disciplines of climbing, you want to practice each fall multiple times so that you feel comfortable with it. If you can’t get comfortable with the fall, that’s an indicator that you may be pushing too far above the ground, and you’re getting a little too close to the danger zone. For bouldering practice, I feel it’s of particular importance to have external supervision from someone you trust. Since every fall is a ground fall, it’s important to take extreme caution. Sometimes you are right to be afraid of falling. Bouldering is always an exercise in proper judgment.

Calm climbing is safe climbing:
Terrified climbing isn’t fun climbing. Terrified climbing isn’t safe climbing. When you’re frightened, it’s easy to make hasty reactionary decisions that can put you in danger. I know a climber who shouted “take” while he was above a nut placed for a downward pull. Since he was above the piece, the tension on his rope pulled the gear sideways and ripped it out of the crack. He decked from thirty feet. Luckily he only needed staples in his head and was able to walk out. I knew a climber who called take while sport climbing above his bolt, the weight of the belayer slammed him into the wall. He smashed into the wall with such force that he compound-fractured his leg. Once the doctors installed a sufficient number of screws and pins he was able to walk, but never quite could climb again. In either of these situations, the climbers would have been safe and injury-free had they just taken the fall, but fear clouded their decisions and ended their climbing day, or climbing career.

Controlling your fear is essential to being safe, and essential to having good fun on the wall. That’s why I’ve been writing these articles lately. I see a lot of climbers struggling with fears on the wall, they read books and posts on the Internet and come away scratching their head confused trying advice that’s ineffective or that makes their problems worse. All you have to do is start small and live in your discomfort zone for a little while to chip away at your fear from the sides until it’s small enough to handle!

You don’t have to take me at my word, though, try it! If it doesn’t work, you can come back, throw a drink in my face and call me a liar. What do you have to lose? All of these exercises are designed to fit in your warmup, so it’s not like you’re missing out on hard sends or time spent on your project. I’m confident in these methods because I’ve seen them work. I’ve got this idea that climbing doesn’t have to be scary; it can be comfortable and relaxing!

One thing that became apparent to me as I recovered from my injuries was the amount of habits that filled my life that I couldn’t justify. If you can’t find a reason for your habits, perhaps they aren’t doing anyone any good? And what kind of life is that? I’ve questioned why I bother to keep up this blog a few times over the past year and questioned why I would continue to do so. In the end, I decided that a post is worth writing and publishing as long as it has a chance to be helpful to someone. For me, the best things in life come from helping others to accomplish their goals and have fun. It’s all about spreading that Good Mojo! If that’s not a good reason to write, I don’t know what is, so here’s hoping this advice helps you as much as it did me! And maybe, just maybe, together we can lead a paradigm shift in the accepted methods for overcoming our fears and find peace on the wall!

Cheers, and Happy Climbing!
Austin Howell – Atlanta Climbing Coach

“Always pass on what you have learned” – Yoda

Free Solo Walking

Forgive any mistakes in my last post, I wrote it on my iPhone with one hand. Please forgive any mistakes on this post too; though I have a keyboard I’m still operating with one hand in a splint which makes typing interesting. Now, I don’t believe my story is remarkable in and of itself. Many have befallen worse circumstances than I have, many have overcome greater adversity, many are stronger than me, and many have ended up worse off than me. But that’s the thing, there are many. I only claim that my story may be relate-able to many, because many have and many will experience various aspects of what I’m going through. It helps me in my darkest hours to hear from those who’ve tread similar paths; hopefully I can pay that forward and deliver a little good mojo those of you who might need it when the time comes.

The hardest part of training for climbing is not climbing. If you can manage that, then the rest is easy.

The hardest part of recovery is deciding to begin. Just keep telling yourself that. Especially if it’s not true.

Once upon a time in the hospital:
It’s like free-solo walking just to get to the bathroom. I close my eyes and the world spins, so I open them again and wait for the mud in my brain to settle. Eventually the world sobers up and I can see straight. Might as well take stock of my situation. At this point I have one useful arm (the other is in a full cast), no sense of balance, my neck and skull are fractured, and there are nine staples in the back of my head. Days later I would finally be able to reach my skull and my hand would return with tufts of hair and chunks of dried blood. My vision was blurred and my eyes had trouble focusing farther than a few yards away. At this point, I’m still not accustomed to the deafness in my left ear (for that matter, as I’m proofreading, I’m still not accustomed to it). My sensory inputs are diminished, as is my capacity to think. Everything takes effort, but I am aware that all is not well in the land of Oz. I know my faculties are diminished, and I proceed with ever increasing caution. I’m a firm believer that the only safety in this world lies in being able to make good decisions; if that ability is compromised I must be particularly wary. In essence, my world is a ten-foot-eggshell, and just as fragile. Anything farther than about ten feet simply doesn’t exist. I cannot fall. If I were to lose my balance, there would be no chance to brace for impact. My left arm is immobilized in a full cast, and my right arm feels inexplicably weak. It wasn’t until I came off the pain medications that I would realize my right shoulder was injured. I knew that a fall would be utterly catastrophic in this condition.

But I’ll be damned if I’m going to piss in that bottle again.

There! I'm pretty now?
There! I’m pretty now? No, definitely not.

I can sense balance through my fingers. I don’t need my hands to support myself, just to feel which way is up and down… I can work with that! I survey my surroundings; The world spins as I turn my head. It stabilizes as I touch a finger to the bedside railing. There is a chair three feet from my hospital bed. Three feet from that are the beefy bathroom door hinges. Three feet from there is the door handle, and then the railings inside the bathroom.

-I push the button on my bed to raise my back and sit up.
-I swing my legs over the bed and the world spins.
-My finger finds balance on the bed-rail and I lower my feet to the floor. The world doesn’t spin. My plan is working.
-I tap the chair.
-Two steps forward.
-Tap. I steady myself again
-Two steps sideways.
-Stop. Its spinning again.
-I tap the door handle and the world steadies itself.
-I’m in.

I needed no support from my hands; my legs were strong. I just didn’t know how to coordinate them without some sort of alternative sense of balance. Congratulations, I can now wipe my own ass.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

You’re battered, you’re broken, you’re down but not out. What do you do? That depends, what CAN you do? Where do you want to go? Once you know those things, its just a mater of connecting the dots. When you get down to it, that’s a lot like training in a general sense. And life too. If you don’t have a target, you’ll never hit the bullseye. Recovery is not a spectator sport, neither is it a passive activity. You have to reach out and grab it by the horns.

All I'm thinking in this photo is
All I’m thinking in this photo is “Fuckthatrock”

If you know where you are, and where you want to be, connecting the two is just a matter of logic. Google maps does that millions of times a day. Granted, there are obvious conditions which affect connecting two places or two states of being, and I know there are factors that could ruin my goals, but even this is just logic. Google maps won’t find driving directions from Japan to Costa Rica, but if you’re smart you can hop a ride on an airplane. There’s no way to connect those dots with four wheels, but there’s more than one way to get around. There’s more than one way to face your obstacles as well.

I want to send Separate Reality roughly a year from now. I don’t yet know if that’s possible or reasonable, but I have a rough idea of what it’ll take to get there, and I know the effort and rehab it will take to get there will enrich and enable my future regardless of whether I achieve the goal. Especially if I play it safe and avoid pushing anything too soon. To achieve this, I’ll need to train. To train, I’ll need to get back to work. To get to work, I need to drive. To drive, it would be nice to have both hands, and the ability to turn my head. I can’t regain use of my arm and my head while they are immobilized, and they’ll be immobilized until a doctor clears my injuries for movement. I need to see a doctor. That’s something I can do. That is my goal, I have a target. And nothing else matters.

I have broken many things in my body, but not my ability to hope. I still have that. For now.

You won’t always be the strongest or the fastest, but you can be the toughest. (internet wisdom)

Note: I have seen the doctor now. Many doctors, actually. But more on that later once I’ve collected my thoughts. For now I’ll just keep telling myself that the hardest part of recovery is deciding to begin, and try not to prove myself wrong in the meantime.

Another Note: I’ve got my left hand back, after a fashion. It’s too bad off for surgery, but at least I can use it. It might remain useful for five days, or the rest of my life, there’s no way to tell. It’s been bad for at least five years now, and I’ve been managing because I was unaware, so at least there’s some measure of hope. Its a ticking timebomb with an unknown fuse, but it’s lasted this long; There’s no telling what I can accomplish before it goes off, so I might as well get it while I can. The good news is I can drive now. There’s nothing to be done for my wrist, so they let me have it back.

P.P.P.S: I’ve been recovering faster than I can comprehend. These posts will be constantly lagging a few weeks behind my current condition because it seems it takes me longer to collect my thoughts than it does to heal. At present I’m working on rehabilitating my injuries through a little bit of easy movement, and signing all the documents it requires to go back to work. Don’t fear for me too much, yet. You’ve got to wait and see how the story ends, and it’s already progressed farther than I could cover in this post.

After the accident, I climbed the kiddie wall. I'd never quite thought of doing that before. Now I climb 5.0, but at least I'm moving.
One month after the accident, I climbed the kiddie wall. I’d never quite thought of doing that before, but it seemed like a worthy goal. Now I can say I climb 5.0, but at least I’m moving. Not something I’ll be doing often, but a pitch a week might be a good way to measure my progress.

Pile Ze Bags

Climbing on a knob encrusted spire in the Needles of South Dakota, I draped a sling over a chickenhead. “Hmn, no good,” I figured a decent gust of wind might blow the sling off the wall, so I hung my #5 Cam upside down from the sling to keep it stuck to it’s perch. “Hmmmmmm, still crap,” rope drag would definitely pull that off the knob, so I extended the piece with a 4′ runner. Well, I guess staring at it longer isn’t really going to make me safe, so I started climbing. Seventy five feet off the ground, and ten feet above a sling draped on a knob that could be knocked off by a good fart, my next piece of bomber pro was a nut at 20.’ Clipping a rusted piton never felt so good!

Back at the capground we started swapping stories with a guide named Cheyenne. The climbing at this place is old-school and bold, so naturally we circled around to every trad-climber’s favorite topic: “What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever seen someone do out there?”

I’ve got some pretty good stories, but his took the cake!

Pile Ze Bags:
Some russian free-soloist and his crew had bowled into town and made some waves by running around and (obviously) soloing anything he felt sassy enough to sack up for. One particular climb followed a 100′ crack up a 110′ pillar that started as a 10b offwidth and slowly narrowed until it no longer existed, just 10′ from the top. He grunted, scraped, thrutched and groveled in the offwidth, but it’s offwidth and that’s generally the accepted technique. As it narrowed to fists he sped up a little, but looked thoughtful as he placed rattly jams in the crack, but it’s fist-crack and the jams are rattly, so that’s okay. BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! He tommahawked rapidly up the crack as it narrowed to hands, then slowed again as it became off fingers.

If you drive through the mountains, they have my Native American name on street signs.
The crack ends, he’s got good finger-locks with good feet on typical Needles knobs, but he’s stumped 100′ off the ground with no rope. Left hand up… doesn’t like it. back into the crack. Right hand up… still doesn’t like it! chalk… chalk… think, head scratch.. AHA! SHIFT THE FEET! right foot, left foot… okay, again with the hands. Right hand up… still garbage. Left hand up, not promising. If only he could reach that knob that is just slightly.. well… out of reach!

He sits and thinks a moment more before looking over his shoulder and shouting at his friends “PILE ZE BAGS!!!!”

INSTANTLY, they start throwing all their bags at the base of the crack. As soon as the operation has finished, he nods contently as though all is arranged to satisfaction… and dynos up for the knob, sticks it, and nonchalantly continues his day as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Here’s the reasons that’s sketchy:

  1. What the FUCK!?
  2. Did he really think he’d even land on the bags from that height?
  3. Even if he did land on them, I don’t know about you… but my pack isn’t exactly full of stuffed animals and anti-gravity.
  4. Everyone reacted instantaneously, as if this was a routine maneuver.
Boom goes the dynamite
Boom goes the dynamite

Fast forward through some years from that trip, and I’m on a cell tower east of Atlanta. Storms are building fast in the summer heat, but it looks like it’s going to just barely miss us. We’ve got a load on the line coming up to finish the job. KABOOM! Less than a mile away. I stare at Mike, on the ground and he yells back at me “PILE ZE BAGS!” and begins lowering the load fast, as we climb down 200 feet to the ground. We touched dirt just as the first raindrops began to pour on the tower.

Fast forward a little further, and Spencer is about 2ft above his bolt bemoaning the fact that “This is a sketchy 5.9!” Since I wasn’t belaying, I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed my empty pack and tossed it at the base of the climb, poor guy laughed so hard he fell off.

Next time you’re feeling sketched, just remember to PILE ZE BAGS! Next time you’re at the crag, give it a shout! You’re just might hear a shout back from some cool folks!

Anatomy of a Soloist (Part 3)

Onsighting is rad, but man can it be scary. My second multi-pitch route ever wound up with becoming marooned off route on seemingly impossible terrain (my head couldn’t understand 5.9 slab at that point in time). After rigging some insane contraption with leftover cordolette to essentially create a via-ferratta back to the route, I was finally safe again… but I’d definitely used up all of my water and about 90 minutes of our limited daylight in the SNAFU.

I can’t remember for the life of me whether that happened on the same trip as my first solo, or a different one. Either way you’d think it would’ve served as a distinct warning for someone wiser that diving in over my head was definitely a bad idea.

There was just no point in having him hold the rope anymore
There was just no point in having him hold the rope anymore

So there we were, staring up at “Cave Crack” in Enchanted Rock. We couldn’t figure out how to get to the top to setup a toprope anchor for belaying, so in an act of infinite wisdom I made a decision. Hey, it’s 5.6… how hard can it be? So I harnessed up, packed up the rope on my back in a backpacker’s coil, clipped on a couple wads of webbing for TR anchors and set off.

It was essentially a train-wreck from the onset. I had approximately 4 days of cumulative experience in learning to perform hand-jams and the hardest crack I’d ascended to that point was a 5.8, but the slabbed crack was just easy enough to lull me into a false sense of security, and I wasn’t stopping.

Higher and higher I climbed up into the chasm of cave crack, with webbing drooping off my harness snagging in my feet as I tried to move. I readjusted, tried to re-tie it one handed, and continued onward. Useless. It was still getting snagged. Move. Jam the hand, work the foot… stop, tease body parts out of the webbing, continue, repeat. Finally, I made it to the overlap where the wall behind cuts off the crack. From the ground I had assumed that the gap between the walls was enough to squeeze through, or that I’d at least be able to span out around the corner from where they met…

Leading Cave crack several months later after purchasing a dirtbag rack of gear
Leading Cave crack several months later after purchasing a dirtbag rack of gear

That wasn’t the case. The walls pinched far too close together to squeeze through, and as I reached blindly around the corner I found… nothing. There was nothing there! and that’s when the panic set in. I couldn’t climb up, the walls pinched together. I couldn’t climb out to the right, the walls formed a cave that cutoff movement. I couldn’t down climb, I was too inexperienced. and I couldn’t make my way out left through the opening because there were no holds. Actually, the holds were plentiful, but I was too inexperienced to understand the slab movement required to escape my predicament.

The guys on the ground were getting nervous, and I could hardly blame them. I was about to die. I was sure of it. I sat there, perched with my foot on a chock-stone in the crack, pondering my options and considering what life choices had led me to this awful end.

We didn't know what we were doing, I was basically a Junk-Show. But GOD did we have fun!
We didn’t know what we were doing, I was basically a Junk-Show. But GOD did we have fun!

And then it hit me. There was a chockstone deep in the crack. I had webbing! That same accursed web which had ensnared my feet through the entire ascent would be my savior! All I had to do was lasso that chockstone and I was home free. I loosened the wad of webbing into a single long loop, wound up my arm and threw….

Too short. Wind up, toss, WAY too short. So I started spinning the webbing for momentum using the carabiner as a counterweight to throw farther into the crack. Finally it shot past! but it didn’t come back close enough for me to catch it and hitch the chockstone. I pull it and try again. And again. And again… and again…. Oh HELL! I’m dead. There’s no way out of this. my last line of hope just failed, the carabiner was stuck in the chockstone and I couldn’t reel my line in to try again.

My first multi-pitch rack (sport-bolted)
My first multi-pitch rack (sport-bolted)

And that’s where I started laughing like a maniac. Ohhh no its stuck…. what am I going to do? Wait. It’s stuck. IT’S STUCK! Yes! Thank every diety imagined by man! It’s stuck. If it’s stuck, that means it’s not coming out, and I can pull on it to get myself to safety. I set a solid hand jam and test-tugged at my “lifeline” with all my might… seems solid enough. I leveraged myself out into the hold-less void and around the roof… JUGS! I’m free.

With minimal discussion I set the toprope so everyone else could climb, and made a vow to myself right then and there. WOW! That was stupid, and I’m NEVER doing that again!

Never again eh? "Never Believe (5.11b)"
Never again eh? “Never Believe (5.11b)”