Climbing steep exposed ridges and rock faces is a counter-intuitive act. When I first began climbing over a year ago, I realized a few things about myself. I am afraid of heights. I am a cautious person. I enjoy calculated, precise risk. I am terrified of the unknown. And I have doubts about my own skills and ability. Stepping up and climbing something steep, exposed, and scary requires certain skills to overcome all of these mental barriers. This post is a bit of an overview of techniques I have discovered from self evaluation, talking with other climbers, and dealing with my own mental cruxes during climbs. They have helped me progress in climbing and will hopefully help others as well.
Study the Route
When I know that I am going to be climbing something that is pushing my grade, I find that it really helps to study the route. The more you know about the route finding, gear placements, route length and cruxes, the more confident you will feel stepping off the ground. There are usually plenty of great resources for studying a route and it details from MountainProject.com and various bloggers.
Sometimes it is more fun, however, to not know much about the route before you start it. If that is what you are in to, then your mental game is stronger than mine. I do enjoy climbing routes unknown, but it is usually below my normal leading grade. If I am pushing myself on gear, I want to know details of the route.
Warming Up on Gear
Something I have learned about myself more recently is that I begin to excel once I have climbed above 3 or 4 pieces on a route. I hit all my mental cruxes when I am am still 20 -30 feet off the ground. This may not be the case for other climbers, but it takes me a few minutes on the wall to remember what I am doing. It also takes a couple tricky moves above a piece of gear before I stopped thinking of all the “terrible things that might happen” and just climb.
Because of this realization, it is helpful for me to do an easy short route on gear to warm up my mind before I climb the more intense route I came to do. Sometimes it isn’t possible to climb anything else and you have to face the mental beast head on, but if you can warm up somehow, it really does help. Even just following up a pitch before leading the second one helps me a lot.
Positive Self Talk
For me, this is the most important mental technique to have and also the hardest one to develop. It is way too easy to just say to yourself, “What are you doing up here?” or “Why would you even consider doing this?” and walk away. Considering climbing a route starts days or even weeks before the actual climb. In your mind you imagine the route and you picture yourself succeeding or failing.
If you consistently tell yourself that you can do the route and you consistently picture yourself succeeding, it will drastically change the outcome of your climb when you are actually on the wall.
A friend and I were chatting about this topic and he explained that when you see yourself on the route in your mind and you are working through it, you might imagine yourself getting stuck and freezing up at the crux or because of the exposure. When this happens, it is crucial to imagine telling yourself all the positive things you need to hear to continue up the wall. You also imagine yourself closing your eyes, breathing calmly, and working things out in your mind. You then imagine beginning to climb again and leaving the fear behind. If you do this over and over in your mind before the actual climb, once you are actually on the wall and the mental crux or cruxes come, you will already know exactly what to do because you have done it several times in your mind already.
Once you get to the climb, say things out loud that are positive. Increase the overall positivity of the mood for you and your partner. You never know what your partner might be processing in their mind as well, so if you start saying things like “I don’t think I can do this” or “Why did we come up here today” then you are projecting your negativity onto your partner as well. It is OK to be nervous. It is OK to be afraid. It is not OK to bring yourself and others down because of it. Say things like, “We got this,” “We are capable of this,” “This is going to be awesome,” or “We can do it” and it will make a huge difference once you start climbing.
Relying on Yourself to Climb the Route
A very important technique that I didn’t even realize I lacked in was relying on ME to succeed. Often times when you begin doing something that is difficult or new, you have a friend that helps shows you the ropes. At some point, if you want to truly succeed you need to break away and be the “more experienced climber” in the group sometimes. If you don’t, you will always be, what I like to call, a “follower.”
Don’t get me wrong or take what I am saying the wrong way. Having a good climbing partner is crucial. It can be the difference between a successful climb and turning back. When you have a good partner and you work together, you can accomplish amazing things that you could never do by yourself.
What I am saying is that it is difficult to be a good partner or an asset to the team if you are a follower. You must learn to be a good leader. You have to know you can do things on your own. You will need to step up and take charge because what if your partner get hurt and you don’t know the route or bail options? What if your partner is having a bad mental day and cannot push as hard as you were expecting? What if you have certain physical skills that your partner lacks, but you are too afraid to utilize them? What if one of these things happens and you suddenly realize you can’t continue, you don’t know what to do in a rescue, you get off route and lost in the dark on a mountain where you have to cover unfamiliar and unexpected terrain and you don’t know what to do?
It is the risks like this that the “leader” undertakes. If you just follow someone up a mountain you are relying on them to take on all the risks. However, if you have done the research and know the route and bail options, and if you have taken the time to develop necessary skills on your own, then you can assume the risks of the leaders as well and create a true valued partnership. That way, if something happens to your partner, you can take the reins for a bit, choose an educated bail option on your won if you need, or discuss options as a team.
Not having or being a partner that is reliable can play into the mental game and add one more piece of resistance that holds you back from excelling or even continuing on a climb. If you know your partner has got your back it can make a huge difference about how hard you push it on a climb. You cannot do anything to improve your partner’s skill set or their willingness to improve, but you can work hard to make sure you are that partner. You can develop skill and experience to rely on yourself enough to make a conscious decision about whether to push harder or call it a day.
Closing Your Mind While You Climb
Once you have prepared properly and you are actually on the climb, all of the hypothetically situations are gone and you are in the moment. Here is when you utilize the positive talk from earlier. The things you imagined are being played out, and if everything is going smoothly, your mind will clear and an intense focus will occur in your mind.
Foot. Foot. Hand. Hand. Repeat. Gear. Clip. You are climbing and nothing else…
People talk about this moment in climbing when everything else fades and all that exists is the rock and you. I had heard it countless times in interviews of climbers and after sport climbing for a while, it wasn’t until I began climbing on gear that I understood what they were talking about. Realizing this understood experience of climbers didn’t happen until after I had lead a few routes on gear and got used to what it was like. I moved past the feeling of just pure terror into this clear mind. I would watch interviews and videos of climbers that I had previously watched where they mention this feeling and I hadn’t even picked up on it before. Once I had felt it I knew exactly what they were talking about. It is the reason people climb, the runners high of the rock climbing world, the purest form of meditation I have ever experienced.
Sometimes, the fear creeps in, the feeling disappears and is replaced with panic. This is the mental crux. You must close your eyes, tell yourself everything is fine, breathe deeply and slowly, control your heart rate, get yourself back to that place and move through the part of the climb that triggered the fear.
Deciding to Climb / Committing to the Climb
For me, the decision to successfully climb the route is the difference. It is a conscious decision that you make immediately before, or just after starting the climb. You can make it to the top of a route on gear without ever making this decision, however, you will probably sit on gear, take a fall, or feel like you “just didn’t do it right.”
When I do make the decision, something clicks in my mind, usually once I have reached a certain point on a climb. Like I said earlier, around 2 – 4 pieces of gear up the route. At this point, I have committed to the climb, so that is what I do. I climb. My mind enters that clear state and I just go. Before this moment there is always doubt. Should I go? Can I actually do this?
I find that the best way to move past this wall is to just climb one move at a time until it goes away. It happens to me every single climb. Sometimes this mental barrier is huge. There is just one move stopping me from committing and making that move is really all the difference between deciding to climb and backing down, but I can’t make the move. Other times the barrier is there, I see it, I climb past it without hesitation, and it’s gone. It depends on the day, but if you find a mental barrier exists when you start moving up a climb, just commit to every move one at a time and before you know it, the feeling of indecision will disappear.
Failures are Not Failures
Failures make me think and evaluate myself a lot. I learn so much about myself every time I “fail” at a climb. Failure can be interpreted by anyone in any way, so it really depends on what you think failing is in climbing. But whether it’s backing down from a climb or taking a fall instead of sending, there is always something to be learned. Even if it doesn’t feel like it, the failure always makes you a better climber. Learn from the “failure” and apply what you learned to your future climbs. It’s as simple as that.
Rest is incredibly important in climbing. Physical and mental rest are both crucial to progression in the sport. A day or two between climbs is great, but sometimes it is good to just take a week or two off. Give your mind a break. Go biking or take a vacation. Come back and you will kill it even harder than before.
All of these techniques are things that I have learned from self-evaluation, reading, talking to friends, and watching videos over the past year of climbing. Take them on a per person basis. My mental aspect of climbing requires more time and training than any other part, but it is different for everyone, and I find myself struggling with at least one of these mental cruxes every time I go out and climb. Some of these techniques may not apply to others because some people just don’t hit mental barriers in the same way or at all. If you do struggle like me, just remember that they require work and conscious effort to overcome. It is a slow process, but it is worth it to be able to climb hard and actually enjoy the routes when you do.
I would love to hear some techniques that other people use. I am relatively new to climbing on gear. It would be awesome to get some feedback! Comment below.