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?
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”
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 .
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
In my last post about mental training, I discussed the notion of fear of falling in safe terrain and the ways that phobia can sap performance and lead to poor decisions. Speaking of which, if you need a guide to figuring out your fear of falling that actually works, click here! But let’s not kid ourselves, climbing isn’t always safe. If you genuinely wish to deepen your mental strength, we have to address the full spectrum, not just one particular metric. Mental strength is much more than just conquering your fear of falling. Trusting the system is great, but what do you do when the only thing you can trust is yourself?
I’ve had friends ask me for tips on mental training and how to overcome a fear of falling based on the fact that I am a free-soloist. It seems the climbing community has built a myth that soloists possess superior mental strength. I don’t believe that’s necessarily true. For example, soloists are not the people I would think to ask about learning to fall. By definition, falling is the worst thing that can happen to a soloist, so we avoid it at all costs. For a week or two after an extended soloing trip, I turn into a HUGE chicken on a rope. So it got me thinking: If overcoming your fear of falling is a sign of mental strength, and climbers view soloists as mentally deranged strong what is the link we are missing? What more is there to mental fitness?
I covered how to work with fear of falling in the last article, but there’s more to mental strength than learning to fall. How do bold climbers hold it together in hazardous situations?
Just Breathe: You’re a little farther above that last bolt than you’d like, and you start thinking about the poor condition of it’s rusty hanger. Will that thing even hold a fall? It looked like something you saw on sale at Home Depot over ten years ago. You start thinking about the pump in your forearms and the fact that your footholds don’t inspire confidence. As you think about the consequences, you can’t help but thinking you’re not sure how pretty the fall would be. You’ve stepped just slightly over your head, and you’re starting to come unglued, so what do you do?
Stop. Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re thinking, STOP. It’s not helping. Sure, it’s scary, sure you’re pumped, but those thoughts aren’t helping anyone to survive. The difference between a survivor and the first one to be eaten by zombies in the apocalypse comes down to one thing: How well can you accept what is in front of you and focus on the details that matter?
Stop. Breathe. Clear your head. THINK. For the sake of all that’s holy don’t just react, THINK! Okay, you’ve stopped, you’re breathing. Feel the breath enter your lungs, clean air comes in, byproducts of metabolism flow out. Try to calm yourself, focus on the breath and lower your heart rate.
Think of the things that matter, these handholds are good enough (you’ve hung on them this long right?), these footholds are good enough (you’re not slipping off immediately are you?). Breathe. Take it in. You’ve got a set of handholds and a set of footholds you’re using to adhere to the wall. Where do you go next? What’s it take to get to the next bolt? That island of safety is all that matters. Has your heart rate lowered yet?
Surges of adrenaline alter the body’s metabolic state and cause lactic acid to pool in your forearms without any hope of reducing the pump. Desperately you try to rest, but you just can’t recover any energy! Once adrenaline removes your metabolism’s ability to process the byproducts of muscular contraction, it’s only a matter of time before your forearms turn to concrete and you go airborne. Adrenaline prepares the body for short bursts of extremely intense effort, like wrestling a bear. Win or lose, it’ll be over quickly. That’s what adrenaline is for. Adrenaline provides a surge of strength, but the cost of this is sacrificing your endurance.
In addition to it’s beneficial effects, adrenaline stimulates increased phosphorylation, which will lead to increased lactic acid output in your muscles. This is great for moms who need to lift cars off of babies, but your endurance goes to hell. The better you can stave off your adrenaline and keep it together, the longer your endurance will last.
Breathe. Slow that heart rate down and you will curb the flow of adrenaline. Become calm, feel your blood start to circulate in the forearms, get back anything you can. In steadying yourself, you will lower the paralyzing surge of adrenaline and regain your ability to flush the pump out of your forearms.
Where do you go next? Where is that next bolt? Can you make it? Pause and allow yourself to feel the fear if it’s present. Being afraid is okay, but fear of feeling afraid saps energy. Just let it sit there, you don’t have to engage your fear. Managing fear in this way takes practice, and I’ll suggest a specific drill for that later. For now just know it’s okay to be afraid at times; what you have to watch for is our tendency to freak out about the fear. Just notice it and think your way out, don’t let that fear control you.
Which seems more possible, climbing to the next bolt or down-climbing to a safe fall zone? That is what matters. Not your pumped forearms, not your small footholds, not your fear, only that one simple decision. If any other thoughts enter your mind, breathe. Steady yourself, steel your nerves and decide. Which course do you take?
Make a decision and act upon it deliberately.
Acting in the face of fear is of the utmost importance. If you give into gut-level animal-instinct reactions, you’re done for. Thrutching and flailing while pumped and afraid is not a good outcome. Giving into the fear ensures that adrenaline will rule the day and send you straight to the grips of gravity. It’s not that strong climbers are calm but rather that calm climbers become strong. Climbing actually becomes easier when you are not afraid.
The Training: You don’t have to risk your life and limb to train your mind for climbing. Training should be performed somewhere safe, and it shouldn’t induce fear. If our goal is to build a mind strong enough to remain at peace on the wall, we need to practice feeling peaceful in the midst of severe situations, but we need to have a layer of safety so we can push our limits without winding up in the ICU.
Today we’re training to feel solid on the wall, and feeling solid can happen no matter what style of climbing you engage in at the moment. Freesolo, runout lead, highball, trad, sport, and toprope climbing all can equally employ that solid feeling. In fact, the majority of my mental training for freesoloing happens on toprope or while sport climbing. Occasionally I’ll practice the techniques while bouldering as well, but never on highballs or dangerous leads. Even while practicing for the increased mental demands of soloing hard lines, I still practice in a safe environment.
Neurons in the brain make connections constantly between each other as the result of stimuli in our environment and the activities going around us. After a few repeated interactions, they grow accustomed to firing the same way and making those same connections. You wear a rut in your mental circuitry, and it can be hard to get out once a habit has formed, but the good news is that we can deliberately create our own paths in the mind with a little bit of directed effort.
Imagine a little kid who was bitten by a dog and grew up afraid of them. Imagine that kid meets the sweetest dog on earth and makes friends with him. Quickly the association between “dog” and “scary” will break down. The same will happen with your associations of “sketchy” in relation to things like “slab” or “sloper” or “overhang” if you practice making friends with them. All it takes is a little bit of breathing.
Once you practice feeling solid on a new type of terrain, your brain forms new connections. As you repeat the experience while maintaining focus, the association between that terrain and feeling solid grows until it becomes a new habit, replacing the old instinct of fear.
One Simple Drill: Pick a climb that is somewhat strenuous, but not at your limit. Preferably one that puts you a little out of your comfort zone. Personally, I know I feel sketchy on slopers, so I incorporate slopey routes near my onsight grade into my warmups for the purpose of mental training. The key is to notice what sorts of terrain cause you to feel anxious and pick training routes which have those same qualities.
If you’ve ever felt sketched while balancing on thin holds, it would be wise to seek out a moderate slab route to climb. Once you get to the cruxy bits, and you start to question your abilities, stop. Breathe. You know that you’re in a safe position because you made the decision to train on a safe route, so you don’t need to fear for your safety. What do you fear? Is there anything? Or is it only doubt of your ability to execute the moves? Breathe. Feel the hand-holds. Remind yourself that they are good, or at least good enough. Breathe. Your feet aren’t going anywhere, are they? Perhaps they don’t feel solid; adjust them until they do. If you can’t get the feet to feel solid, relax with them to get more comfortable. Sit here, and breathe until you have relaxed a little, and move on. Practice the moves repeatedly until you feel 100% solid.
For every situation where you feel a little anxiety, and feel less than 99.99% sure of your ability, pause and breathe. Just sit there with those holds and that particular move and relax into it as much as you can. Do this at the end of your warm up to prime your mind for the session or the day to come. Do this while projecting to build that sense of calm on your hardest routes. You don’t need to devote special time to this drill since it’s possible to practice it during any part of your existing climbing sessions. Personally, I like to slip it into my warm up so I reap the benefits throughout the rest of my session.
Bonus Benefit: “Quiet Feet” and better breathing
A frequently used technique drill advocates climbing with “quiet feet,” which can be a good indicator of how efficiently you are moving, but I think it’s worth noting that this is more of an end rather than a means. Climbing with quiet feet forces you to focus on your legs and climb smoother, but it doesn’t help you hold it together during the crux sequences when you most need it. Quiet feet are one possible way to notice that you already have smooth technique, but I don’t know that it’s the most efficient way to develop technique. Instead, if you practice climbing with a quiet mind and learn to steady yourself within the severity of hard or “sketchy” moves, you’ll naturally begin to climb smoother across all the board, and you’ll naturally develop quieter feet.
Many climbers and coaches out there who will hound you with reminders to breathe during hard sequences. That’s good advice, but it’s quite separate from what I’m advocating here. In these exercises, the breath is a tool used to steady and calm your mind. Once you achieve that, you won’t need to be reminded to breathe. You’ll automatically climb in a relaxed state where breathing is natural and not forced.
Taking it off the wall:
After you begin to practice relaxing in the stressful parts of a climb, it becomes second nature. The mind is not a fixed entity, and there is a rapidly growing body of research in the field of neuroplasticity that supports this. Not only is it possible to re-program your instincts, but it’s something that Buddhist meditators have been doing for thousands of years, and it’s something that each of us already does without noticing every single day. You don’t necessarily need to practice meditation to benefit from these methods.
Take driving a car for an example: My first time driving a car on the freeway was utterly terrifying. I couldn’t fathom how my parents had managed to drive the car so smoothly down the road while simultaneously threatening my brother and me with punishments as kids while we fought in the back seat. Despite my trepidation, it was only a few short months later that driving become a routine endeavor. This reprogramming of instincts and habits is an experience that we all share. By becoming aware of it, we can learn to climb a little calmer so that we can pull a bit more happiness from our days at the crag!
And once you’ve practiced it for long enough, you can start applying this lesson to any stressful situation that you encounter. This practice on the wall is a way to work with your stress response, steady your mind, and act with greater confidence anywhere you go. Sure, it’ll help you climb harder, but it will also help you live happier if you apply it off the wall as well!
Next time you feel stressed, whether it’s high off the deck on a boulder problem, high above your gear on a dicey lead, in the middle of a bad week at work, or a gnarly visit to the hospital…. Just breathe. And remember, you are a thinking thing. You’ve got this!
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 45004700 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.
Learn the systems well so you know how to make safety.
Find a place to practice where you can implement a safe system.
Find the most extreme scenario where you know that you are safe, and you feel comfortable.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
“Take!” 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:
Announced falls, below your highest piece. Just like “toprope whippers” in the sport climbing section.
Unannounced falls, below your highest piece.
Unannounced falls, 12 inches above your piece. Just like the “small falls” drill in the sport climbing section
Un-announced falls, with the gear at knee level.
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.
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!
Now, I’m not a certified expert on the subject of training, but I do have a lot of tips to give. I train like a complete masochist, pouring every ounce of my being into each session as if my life depends on it, because it does. Lets be blunt, when I’m soloing 200’ in the air there is nothing between me and the ground except for my fingers and my mind. They simply are not allowed to fail, so I put a lot of thought into training them properly. This blog mini-series will counteract a lot of myths and mistakes I’ve seen folks ascribing to in gyms around the nation, as well as outline the ideas and theories I use to come up with my routines so that you can hopefully make a program that works for you as well. Don’t copy what I do, but rather use these ideas to tailor a regimen that’s geared towards your fitness level and goals.
I’m not going to tell you what to do for your training routine. I want to tell you how to develop your own.
Goals: The most important thing is to have a goal. What do you want to climb? Hard bouldering? Hard lead? Onsight? Comps? Or do you perhaps want to climb 5.6 trad all day? Each one of these requires a different focus for training. If you do not set a goal there is no way to train for it. Without focus you will not be able to progress effectively. Think of it this way: If you don’t have a target, how can you hit it? Just as you need a goal for your training overall, you need to have an intent for each session. Is this a recovery day, a training day, or a day for fun? You can’t train properly without a little forethought.
The main reason people tend to stagnate is due to the fact that it’s easy to come into the gym and randomly climb whatever looks fun. There’s nothing wrong with that, but without focus your training will stagnate eventually. Even if your training is “just climbing” and you’re not a fan of fingerboards or other tools, you still need to focus your efforts to make progress.
Specificity: In order to train one facet of your climbing, you must remove as many variables as possible and only focus on the one thing you are attempting to improve. The biggest mistake I see in climbers attempting hang-board routines is that they lack specificity. Walking up to a fingerboard and doing tons of pull-ups on two-finger pockets has next to no value as a training tool, because it’s not specific enough. Climbing hard sport to up your mental game doesn’t work because you have the variables of difficulty, and clipping in addition to fears of falling. To truly work on a goal, you need to target one thing at a time. If you want to get better at clipping, perform lots of clips. If you want to work on falling, stay on easy climbing and fall when you chose to instead of adding extra stresses. If you want to work on finger-strength, don’t engage the biceps. If you are terrified of falling, adding difficult climbing into the mix might be too much stress. Just take it one thing at a time, and remember you can train multiple things in a session if you plan well.
Rest and Recovery: Nobody ever built strength in a gym. Or on a rock for that matter. Your strength is built at night when you’re sleeping after a good session. Without proper recovery time your workout will be wasted because you didn’t have enough time to build strength before your next session. Drinking excessive alcohol, sleeping too little, and stressing your body in other ways that prohibit recovery will only exacerbate this and can lead to injury in the long-term.
When I’m training hard, I can only stand a maximum of 3 training days per week. That drops down to 2 days per week when I’m working on more severe strength/power exercises. Jan Hojer progressed incredibly rapidly through the grades, and currently has several V15’s under his belt. His training schedule rarely exceeds 12 hours per week.
Injury Prevention: I’ve been training like a masochist on fingerboards and campus-boards for nearly seven years now. I’ve never had a single over-use injury. No tendon tweaks, no tendonitis, no pulley tears, no shoulder injuries. You must respect your body in order to progress. Frequently you must make an active decision between climbing NOW and being able to climb tomorrow. Always exercise caution, and keep your entire body fit to prepare for the stresses of training. If you’re sore, you might want to lay off. Muscle soreness is a wonderful thing because it means your most effective training for the day is just sitting around and relaxing, or doing all that housework you’ve been putting off because of climbing!
Also try to reduce the number of sets on an exercise to a reasonable level. You wouldn’t attempt the crux move on your hardest boulder problem 20 times a session, multiple days a week and expect to get away un-injured. Why would you apply different logic to training?
Warming Up: Most people warm up improperly. It’s called a warm-up for a reason, your body temperature and heart rate are both supposed to elevate. If you haven’t begun to perspire ever so slightly, the odds are high that you haven’t been warming up on easy enough terrain. The ideal warm up is so easy that your muscles don’t get pumped on any of the moves, and for this reason it is difficult for most folks to warm up properly by climbing boulder problems unless your body is already highly trained. Climbing is hard, and bouldering is just the hard part, make sure you keep it easy in the warm-up. Personally, I love warming up on 5.6 auto-belay routes and V0’s.
Types of strength: We tend to use the term “finger strength” to include anything that will help us claw our way to the top of a problem, but what is that comprised of really? It boils down to four important aspects.
Strength: How much force can you apply with your fingers, what is the smallest hold you can grab? This is the limiting factor on boulder problems and stopper-cruxes. If you find yourself failing on a problem/route because you simply can’t hang on the crux holds, even when fresh, then training strength might break your plateau.
Power: This is a climber’s zero-to-sixty rating. Right now, as you’re reading this, make a fist. Now squeeze as hard as you can. Do you feel how it takes a moment to engage all of the muscles in your forearm? Power is a term we use for how quickly your climbing muscles will engage. Power is the ability to snatch a small hold on a desperate move and apply full strength before you are overcome by momentum and swing off. If you have difficulty latching the hold on crux lunges, or your fingers slip off even after your fingers stick the hold, perhaps you could benefit from increased power.
Muscular endurance: This is your ability to keep pulling one hard move after another without pumping out, think in terms of 15-30 difficult moves with little rest. Commonly this is referred to simply as “endurance,” but endurance is more complex than that. If you fall off the crux of a route because your forearms feel like they’re filled with concrete, and you can do the moves when you’re fresh, then working on muscular endurance might bring the send!
Cardio Endurance: This is your ability to keep climbing hard routes/problems all day long at the crag. This is what separates folks with the ability to give one good project burn, from those who can work a hard route 5 to 6 times in a day and still make progress. It’s your ability to recover, and it’s what gets blood flowing in your muscles. This is essential for recovery between moves, between routes, and between sessions. If you find yourself overly fatigued after a short session at the crag, lack the ability to keep climbing “easy” routes at the end of the day, perhaps your days could be extended with a little cardio that’s specific to climbing.
The view was certainly good from up here, even though it’s not the type of high-angle view I’m accustomed to, I had to give it that. You could see all three hallmarks of Houston from these parapets, and I took a minute to survey them all. The downtown, medical district, and even the stacks of the refineries were visible, lit up by the midnight hour in their productive glow. I was a long way up. Looking down from the walkway at the concrete, I knew this place would do the job. But then I’d thought that out long before I ever got in the car and drove out here. Ten floors plus a little extra to land in the concrete pit just below the base of the building. I had come here to die.
The calculation was brutal. Midnight, so there would be fewer witnesses troubled. I didn’t want to make a scene, but this was the only place I could be certain. Ten stories, because I’d already survived a fall from 3 stories up (in a thoroughly un-desired climbing accident). Tripling that with a hard landing zone would make the end quick, relatively painless. Once I tipped over the edge, there was no chance of survival. None.
I stayed up there for perhaps an hour, trying to feel it out. Sometimes I sat on the ledge, looking down, sometimes I stared at those familiar horizons gleaming in the dark. I’m still not 100% sure what tipped the balance in my mind back towards the elevator. Some part of me, deep down was fighting to stay alive even though the parasitic thought patterns in my head were pushing hard to storm the castle and achieve their insidious victory over life. I don’t know why I walked away from the precipice while so many others committed. Perhaps it was luck?
“Can’t see the sky, nothing’s on the horizon
Can’t feel my hands and the water keeps risin’
Can’t fall asleep ’cause I wake up dead
I just keep rowing, I just keep rowing
Don’t know where I’m going I just keep on rowing
I just keep on rowing, gotta row”
I guess you do just have to keep on rowing, even when you don’t know the outcome. That track (Rowing, by Soundgarden) got me through a lot of tough times.
That was my only serious attempt at suicide, the only time I came close to letting the darkness win and actually ending it. I do remember a long, long history of wanting to die and pushing through anyway. In one of my youngest memories I sat on the couch in my family house and tried to choke myself to death with my bare hands while no one was around. I don’t know how old I was, but I was too young to realize I would eventually lose my grip. I recounted that story in a counselor’s office not too long after my rooftop ordeal, and he asked why I felt so strongly that I wanted to die…. I’d thought about it a great deal, why did I want to die? The events in my life were not particularly rough, I didn’t have a horrible past, the obstacles before me were possible to overcome, and I knew all of this. I didn’t think I had any good reason whatsoever. I didn’t even have a bad reason.
The greatest moment of terror in my life was realizing that there was no reason for my suicidal tendencies. If there was no reason, how could I fix it? At that point, I estimated my odds of surviving another year at 50%.
I’ve been around these United States of ours in a wild way this past year, and I’ve seen that we humans are all frighteningly similar. No matter where I go I find amazing people, people who have survived great hardships of mind, body, or circumstance and, frankly, they all kick ass. Learning to overcome these sufferings makes you a powerful survivor. Even if you’re not out of the woods yet, you’re still surviving. I’m going to say right now that I love you all, more than you’ll ever know. The more people I meet, the more convinced I am that these internal struggles are just a part of the human condition, and the most interesting and beautiful humans I’ve ever met seem to have the most vicious fights for survival. I think it’s part of what’s made them so strong. Those with the demons inside have to be or become strong. The alternative is to perish. These people are beautiful in their awareness of others and the world, but perhaps being aware comes with a cost. Not only are you attuned to the good in the world, but also the frightening bits within you. And biology has us hard-wired so that fear makes a loud noise. I think most folks have wished at some point that they didn’t have to deal with life, wished they were never born, or wished that something would end it for them. These are just steps along a continuum, and it’s a small slide on the scale to think “I wish I could kill myself” or “I’m GOING to kill myself.” And then it’s only one small step for a man to actually do it.
For me, the desire to die was nothing new, it was old-hat and had been around my consciousness as long as I could remember. I don’t know a single moment in my life where the ghost of suicidal thinking was completely gone. I had come to think of it as part of me, it didn’t scare me anymore. What scared me was the day that I stopped enjoying climbing.
Turning Around: I went to four different counselors in total over the years. It’s not that any of them were inadequate, but imagine learning a complex subject from one single teacher. They have a great depth of knowledge, but perhaps they don’t know how to phrase it in just the right way to make it “click” for your learning style. Seeing multiple therapists helped me find the one that clicked. Today, I don’t even remember his name, but he gave me the single most crucial insight of the whole journey. I am not depression, I am not depressed, the depression is OF me, but it is not me. It’s more like a cancer.
Most of you are familiar with the idea of a computer virus. Depression is like a mind-virus, a series of repeating processes that disturb the normal operation of an otherwise healthy system. The mechanism of depression is to shrink your world. Depression shrinks your world by eliminating the things that make you happy. Depression wants to eliminate your friends. Depression wants to eliminate your daily functioning. Ultimately, after your world is gone, depression wants to eliminate you. Depression is the mechanism of suicide. Lucky for me, my counselor caught on that I was a somewhat self-aware individual, and accustomed to following my thoughts. I suppose it’s hard to be frightened by your mind if you never notice it. Perhaps if I wasn’t self aware, I wouldn’t have entered this state to begin with. But then I wouldn’t be writing this article either. The key is to simply notice passing thoughts, and to notice when a thought was coming from my desires, and when the thought was coming from my depression. Did I want to sit around the house all night, or was that the depression trying to eliminate more of my world?
Fuck you depression, I’m going climbing.
And so I went back to climbing, and I began training hard. I threw myself back into climbing like my life depended on it, because it did. I knew 100% that I was doing it for me, and not for the depression. All through this time I maintained my penchant for runout climbing, and for soloing as well. The depression wants to eliminate the things that make me happy, I wasn’t about to let it take that away from me. When you’re 30’ above your bolt and a foot slips, in that moment of surging adrenaline you truly come to know how strong your will to survive is.
For me, climbing is the one time where my mind shuts down. There is no me, no depression, no elation, just the next move, the hold I’m on, the feet I’m using for balance, and the core tension keeping it all together. Soloing has taught me to look inward and observe my thoughts to see when a climb feels right, and when I should back off. For me, soloing furthers that sense of still calmness for me in a way that nothing else can, and I can tell you I’ve never once considered letting go on a route. I would be far to pissed off if my epitaph reads “I told you so” to ever consider that.
You are not alone: Soloing, saved my life. It gave me the power to fight back against my depression and take back what’s rightfully mine, and it gave me the mental tools to look inward and inspect my own mind. But that’s nothing unique to me or soloing, I’m not particularly special, and I’m NOT advocating soloing as a way to overcome depression. But everybody who’s dealt with this has that one thing they gave up to the depressive state that shrunk their world… I know friends who were similarly saved by triathlons, painting, cycling, writing, climbing, swimming, playing guitar, and a myriad of other pursuits. Many of them had far worse trouble to overcome than I did. Shit, even Tommy Caldwell contemplated suicide.
“Free soloing El Cap” is sometimes used as a euphemism for suicide in certain circles because it would mean certain death to attempt. “Hanging out on the summit in a thunderstorm? You might as well free-solo el cap!” In the aftermath of divorce Tommy considered attempting the feat. Granted, he’s one of the few humans physically capable of such a thing, but even for him it could easily have resulted in a swan-dive. Either he’d succeed and become the first human to free-solo El Capitan, or the emotional pain would end… He sat above the rostrum (a site famous for Peter Croft’s solos) contemplating the idea… And that’s when the Dawn Wall was born. Instead of choosing to be consumed with something that would destroy him, he chose the project that would save him. The Dawn Wall saved Tommy’s life. That’s resilience.
Steph Davis, a high level soloist and BASE jumper, went through similar bouts with depression and suicide. After the death of her husband in a BASE accident in Italy, she considered jumping without the parachute… but in the end she too saw herself separate from the darkness and BASE brought her back to life. She deliberately chose resilience.
Robin Williams fought with it too. It’s not always obvious who is suffering.
I remember a scene in the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” where John Nash was accosted by a hallucination, a symptom of his schizophrenia. He turns to the imagined person and says “I’m sorry, but I can’t talk to you anymore.” The delusion wasn’t gone, but he was much more able to function by simply choosing not to interact with it. And so it is with me and my depression, that mental cancer is still there. I haven’t exorcised the demon, and judging from my childhood memories, it may always be within me. But now I can recognize those thoughts, I can see when the depression is attempting to influence my behavior, and I don’t talk to it anymore. I just recognize it as an old friend that I can’t engage.
The worst battles I have currently are with anxiety. Coming that close to death leaves an imprint upon you, and now that imprint is mixed with any feelings of sadness that come across my mind so that they trigger a wave of fear and terror. Sadness? Oh shit, depression is coming back! But now I’m learning to recognize that as just another trigger, just as I would recognize a wave of fear mid-solo as irrelevant to finishing the route, I am beginning to recognize these irrational waves of anxiety as separate from me. I box them up and file them in that same corner with my old friend, and we don’t dance in circles so much. Soon, I won’t talk to them either. Sadness, I know, is part of the human condition. It comes and goes, but sometimes it takes longer to depart and we wonder how long this winter has to last! But spring will come, it always does.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that nothing lasts forever, eventually spring will come. Depression, suicidal thinking, eating disorders, anxiety, substance addiction… almost everyone I know has had something to deal with because we’re all human. The more I travel around the country, and the more amazing people I’ve met, the more convinced I am that this is a universal battle that we all face to some degree or another. We all lie somewhere on the continuum. Reach out to those around you, you’d be amazed how many can understand what you’re going through. For those of us who battle our own minds: You are beautiful! How amazing is it that you’ve been able to survive something this long that has taken so many wonderful people from us?
You are amazing. You have a beautiful mind. You are not your demons any more than I am. And you are not alone. We are not alone. We are many, and we will be okay. Spring will come, because the only thing constant in this world is change. Tune into that change, and ride the wave. This is life and death. This is war. Don’t let the mind virus win. Give it hell.
But if you can’t do it alone, that’s okay too. In fact, it’s normal.
In “Deep Survival,” Laurence Gonzales notice a tendency among those who survive life and death wilderness situations: They are able to see the world around them as it changes, they are not caught up in preconceived notions of how things *should* be, they simply see them as they are and move forward with a plan that fits the new reality. There is no particular way that humans should be, we are so beautifully diverse that practically anything could be considered “normal.” and as the Buddha said: “Suffering is.” Don’t be afraid of sadness, or a certain amount of despair, for those are normal human conditions to have from time to time.
Gonzales estimates the percentage of the population that have this natural born ability to ignore what they think “should” be and survive is only about 20%, but there are countless anecdotes of group survival. All it takes is one member of the group standing up and taking the initiative to inspire the others and buoy them up as well. That’s 80% of people who need a little help to see that they can make it out of the woods, but the point is that they DO make it out!! So for the sake of 80% of those still stuck in the woods, if you’re surviving…. Don’t hide it. Let everyone know, and be that beacon in the night. You might even help me some day.
Saying these things publicly is a bit scary for me, and this is the first time I’ve done so. It’s amazing what people are capable of if they only know that it’s possible, and so I feel I have a duty to display my struggles as an example. If it helps even one person, that’s well worth making my story public. For that reason you have my permission and encouragement to share this article anywhere you can. Those of us still in the woods need to know they are not alone.
The mind is a powerful thing, it can help you or hurt you. The mind can be controlled, or controlling, and like any complex system… it can be hijacked and derailed. Here are a few links, consider them my starter survivor’s tool kit:
Details on Tommy Caldwell see “Rock and Ice: April 2015”
Looking up at the wall, it was hard not to feel small. It’s one of those boogeymen around the corner, and legends still persist from the race for the first ascent. Rope gouges a quarter inch deep burned into a belayer’s palms and dashing backwards hard to pull in rope were the only thing that de-escalated the situation to a simple broken back. It could’ve been a broken family instead. It’s a good thing that legendary belayer didn’t care much for his palms, and it’s a good thing he wore his running shoes to the crag. Two hexes and a pair of balls were all that protected the lead during that prehistoric bid for the first ascent. A snapped spine was the consequence. Modern gear brings the route down to a modest “PG-13” rating, though some insist on the “R.” At the time of the FA, before the widespread use of cams, it was a full-blown X-rated horror show.
Fear of Flying is burned into the psyche of central Texas climbing. I swear sometimes it seems folks are afraid even to toprope the line because of its reputation. The higher you climb, the wider it gets. The crux is at the top of the route in the last body-length where the crisp laser-cut corner becomes rounded and sloping from wind erosion. That means the hardest individual moves are at the precise point where you are most exhausted and the farthest run-out from your gear. That’s enough to entice a fear of flying even in the most committed climber. Reports on rockclimbing.com once listed the route as 80ft tall, and I’d often hear climbers swear till they were blue in the face that it clocked in at 100. I took a 200’ rope and measured one day…. The line is only 53ft tall, but the impact in your head is much bigger than that. When your back is turned it tends to grow a little, only to grow a lot more when you come back to face it. Turning to face it with only a pair of shoes, a chalkbag, and cajones for fall-protection it suddenly seemed much, much taller even than the internet reports. Back to that X-rating again. I swear it’s at least 120’ tall.
It’s a hell of a thing to stand at the base of a climb and look up knowing my life will soon hang by my fingertips on that stone which towers overhead. My heart was thumping in time with some 1980’s Metallica just from letting the thought skate around the edge of my consciousness. I’m tying my shoes, I’m adjusting my chalkbag, I’m shaking out and getting warmed up, I’m adjusting my chalk, I’m scratching itches, I’m smelling the rock, I’m ready to solo Fear of Flying. Fuck! There it is, no denying it, I am about to solo Fear. I’m here to go one on one with the bogeyman. No running belayer, and no rope-gouged hands will save me from my folly if I’m wrong.
It’s not something I set out to do, but I’m always training and always re-visiting old lines that have provided inspiration. One day I can toprope it, the next season I can lead it, a year later I can lead it on command, finally one day I can just feel it click. I’m one with the line, I can smell the scent in the air. Electric life fills me to the brim and I realize that I’m primed for the solo, but not today. All at once I realized I could do it, but too much electric life makes one edgy, and edgy is bad mojo.
When the time was right, I returned for the solo. I am afraid, but I know there is no reason to be so after all the practice and training I’ve invested towards this unintentional goal. And besides, I had a secret weapon. Using my entire REI Dividend, a seasonal 20% off coupon and a couple Christmas gift certificates I’d managed to score a pair of TC Pros. After taking one of those silly quizzes on Facebook (I blame the Tequila Monster for that) I learned that Tommy Caldwell is my spirit animal, with his specially designed shoe I knew I could climb more impeccably than ever. At that point, I’d soloed 5.9+ slabs and almost every 5.10 crack in the park. Physically, I was beyond prepared. Psychologically, however, I couldn’t just walk up to the boogeyman and expect passage on my own merit. What I needed was a magic weapon pulled from the stone. When I pulled Excalibur those shoes on, I knew the time was right.
Fuck. Turns out the camera was turned off. I should probably do it again for posterity…. It’s all about safety through control, and that control means being able to do it on command. Right? After all, any asshole can get lucky once. Second time’s the solo.
I’ve never paraded this video around, because I shied away from the negativity one incurs through soloing. Only reason I took the video at all is because I believe this was only the second (and third) time the route had ever been soloed. But the video is goofy, and it’s my record of a moment that just felt right. Any negativity can stuff it for all I care.